Applying to College: What my parents didn’t teach me about money

This is the first in a series of posts about saving money on higher education costs. Today we will focus on what you should consider before applying to college. Next week’s posts will talk about what you need to know before applying to graduate school.

Like most kids from my generation, my parents didn’t talk to me about money. Don’t ask me how much our mortgage was, how much we spent on groceries, or what electricity cost (all I knew was that constantly told not to touch the thermostat).

I attended an expensive preparatory high school. I knew that I was one of  two students in my class receiving financial aid, but I was kept in the dark about how much it cost.

College Selection

When I was applying to colleges, I was asked what I wanted to do for a career, where I wanted to live, and what type of classroom environment I wanted. Cost was never mentioned.

Since I was in 5th grade, I wanted was to be a broadcast journalist. I also grew to like the small classroom sizes of my prep school. And I was tired of the heat and wanted to see what it was like to live up north. So I applied to small, private colleges in New York that had good communication programs.

I remember touring colleges with my parents. At my top-choice school, I was present for every aspect of the tour . . . until the meeting with financial advisor. That was the one and only time that I was asked to wait in the car.

When I asked my mother if I had a college savings account, she laughed. We were doing our best just to get by! There was no college fund. Yet there was also no discussion about how college would be paid for.

As it Turned Out, I Didn’t Know What I Wanted

I ended up not attending that fancy pants college in New York. Instead, I  used a state-sponsored scholarship to live at home and attend my local university.

When I told my prep-school that I would be going to my local university, one of my teachers looked at me and said “I’m so sorry.” One of  my closest friends was going to Yale, another to Harvard. Students from my high school did not attend the local university.

But the joke was on them. I later learned that if I attended the small, private, out-of-state college, it would have cost $60,000 plus room and board. I was able to cash-flow most of my education using the 75% scholarship, living at home, and working part-time.

You may have noticed that I was going to attend that fancy pants school to become a broadcast journalist. (What did I know?  I ended up double majoring in philosophy and psychology and became a psychologist.) During my first semester, I realized that I did not want to be a journalist. If I had attended the small private school, that could have been a $60,000 mistake!

Thankfully, I went against what I wanted and attended a large University that happened to have a great psychology department, including a former president of the APA on faculty.

Making the Most of College

While in college, I made the most of the experience. I volunteered for multiple research labs, was accepted in the Psychology Honors Program where I completed an undergraduate thesis, presented posters, and had my thesis published.

The graduate students gave a presentation to those of us considering a career in psychology. Once of the best pieces of advice they gave was to not apply to any programs that didn’t offer both tuition waivers and stipends. Knowing how much more debt PsyD students have compared to PhD students, I didn’t even consider applying to PsyD programs (that decision saved me another $100,000).

I took out student loans during undergrad. But worked hard to repay my loans during the year I took off before grad school to work full-time as a lab manager and boost my CV. When I left for graduate school I had $0 saved, but it was better than starting out $60,000 in the negative!

Making an Informed Decision

My parents love me. I know they wanted what was best for me and for me to have an input in the decision about my future. 

As a psychologist, I now know that to make an informed decision, one must be able to:

1. Communicate a choice

2. Understand the relevant information (e.g., how much their education will cost, alternatives for obtaining a degree with less debt)

3. Appreciate the situation and its consequences (e.g. what the monthly payments will be, what their expected income and other costs of living will be)

4. Reason about options (e.g., even if they choose to take on massive amounts of debt, they do so after knowing their options and the consequences of their decisions, and are able to provide some rationale for their decision, even if it seems unreasonable)

The problem is, when I was applying for colleges I didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Sure I could communicate my choice, but didn’t understand the relevant information and could not appreciate the consequences of what I wanted. Without that information, I could not rationally compare my options.

Lesson Learned

Looking back, I wish my parents would have talked to me about how much college (and life) really costs. If I had attended that small private college, it could have been a decision that I would have been paying for the rest of my adult life.

The lesson I learned is to avoid student loan debt. Chances are, you are going to change your major. Consider a local university that offers opportunities for volunteering in labs and working with faculty members in various fields of study. And don’t compare your choices to those of your preppy friends.

When you do decide on a major, look up how much you can expect to earn. Most early-career psychologists earn less than they had expected. Don’t take out more in student loans that you can expect to earn in your first year.

For more from this series on saving money on higher education costs, see

How to Save Money in Grad School

How to Get a Doctorate in Psychology for Free

Budgeting for Post-doc and Early Career

Student Loan Repayment

Fewer than 1% Received Loan Forgiveness


2 thoughts on “Applying to College: What my parents didn’t teach me about money”

    1. Hi Victoria! Yes, a lot of the education about personal finance is left up to the parents. But many parents were never taught it themselves!

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