4 Lessons She Learned by Paying Her Way Through College

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In a few months, I'll turn 30. I was recently asked to write a letter to my younger self reflecting on what has made my career successful thus far, and it got me thinking back to when my career started -– in college.

I financed my own way through college with the combination of student loans and a job. At the time, I didn't consider myself too lucky, but looking back, I'm thankful for the lessons learned and the opportunities gained by having to fund my own higher education:

1. Where there's a will, there's a way. It's funny how motivated you are to finish school in four years when you're fronting the payment. In my case, getting good grades translated into enrollment in my school's business honor's program. Translation? Priority registration baby! This put me at the front of the line versus my peers for getting my classes checked off in time. Do the research to forge your own path and create a plan of attack.

2. Kicking off your career early pays dividends down the road. My college jobs included a stint at the front desk in the dorms, a job as one of those cell phone people at the mall we all love to hate, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%and a job as a receptionist in a financial planning firm. When I got that last job at the end of my sophomore year, I quickly realized that I had found my career path. I switched my major, worked my way up in the firm and graduated from college with two years of industry experience under my belt. Starting early helped me to find my likes and dislikes at an earlier stage, command a higher income than my less-experienced peers and ultimately allowed me to launch my own business before I turned 30. Don't wait. Start early with a part-time job or internship in your field.

3. Budgets will always matter. When you find yourself in charge of managing the inflows and outflows of your life at an early age, you quickly learn to determine if Top Ramen makes a better meal choice because of your desire to go out with friends or how to pay your own cell phone bill on time. Your age doesn't matter. The first step in keeping your finances on track is understanding where your money is going. Use an Excel spreadsheet or website like Mint to get on track.

4. Professors make for more than great teachers. Many college students fail to realize that their professors are likely to have valuable connections and insights to offer beyond the classroom. Taking time to say thank you, ask questions and build a relationship with some professors can translate into mentorship and career assistance down the road.

Mary Beth Storjohann is a certified financial planner and the founder and CEO of Workable Wealth.

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11 Money Moves to Make Before You Turn 40
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4 Lessons She Learned by Paying Her Way Through College
Creating an emergency savings fund can prevent you from relying on a credit card and going into debt when unexpected costs strike, says "Today" show financial editor Jean Chatzky. "You've got to watch it with the debt," she warns, adding that half of Americans lack emergency funds. "Lack of savings and debt go hand in hand ... an emergency cushion is insurance against debt," she says.
"Insurance is always that thing that we don't think about that we should," Chatzky says. Rental insurance and disability insurance both tend to be "chronically under-bought," but taking out policies can end up saving you from financial catastrophe, she adds. She recommends looking into policies offered through work because they can be more affordable.
Automating your retirement savings -- having money taken out of your paycheck and put into a tax-advantaged retirement account -- makes it easier to save without thinking too much about it, Chatzky says. Since many companies' automatic opt-in programs start at 3 percent of income, you might need to scale it up yourself, and Chatzky says if you do it in 2 percent increments, you might not even notice the difference.
While some people prefer to manage their money on their own, others benefit from a professional's help. "It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the competing expenses," says Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial (AMP). "Sitting down with a financial adviser can help you understand where your expenses are and what is discretionary versus essential, and then you can create the right kind of budgeting and savings plan for you."
Kathleen Grace, a certified financial planner and author of "Prince Not So Charming," says maintaining excellent credit is important as you progress through your 30s, particularly because your credit report can play a big role when it comes to determining how much you will pay to borrow money for big expenses like a mortgage. She suggests reviewing your credit report once a year to check for errors and paying off your credit card balance in full each month.
Learning the ins and outs of income taxes, including any tax deductions and credits that might apply to you, can help you save a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars each year, says certified financial planner Nancy L. Anderson. Those amounts can add up over a lifetime, she adds.
This move isn't right for everyone, but it is a smart investment for many 30-somethings, says Bart Astor, author of "AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life." Despite the flux in the real estate market, "it's still a good idea for a young person or family. It brings stability," he says. And over time, the investment should grow.
Many companies provide an additional 30 percent of pay in terms of employee benefits, Anderson says. Those benefits include retirement, tuition reimbursement, pretax transportation benefits, health savings accounts, employee assistance programs, wellness programs, financial planning and more. Since your company is already paying for those benefits, you can take advantage of them to help boost your own wealth.
"The single most important financial move you can make in your 30s if you have minor children is to put the time, effort and money necessary into drafting solid estate planning documents," says Tim Maurer, director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance of independent advisers. They should be written by an attorney who specializes in estate planning and include advance directives, a durable power of attorney and most importantly, a will.
You don't need to become a financial professional, but knowing your way around the stock market will help you make the right decisions for your own long-term savings and investments. Money and retirement expert Kerry Hannon recommends smartaboutmoney.org, by the National Endowment for Financial Education, for free guides on stocks, bonds and mutual funds. She also suggests taking a personal finance course at a local community college.
This decade is also the time to make slow and steady progress toward paying off any remaining student loan debts, as well as unloading any expensive credit card and other types of debt. Hannon even opted to cash in her 401(k) plan at age 30 to help pay off her credit card debt, which isn't necessarily the right choice for everyone. Still, becoming debt-free by age 40 is definitely something to celebrate.
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