What it Takes for Students to Become Financially Independent


Best and Worst Undergrad College Degrees by Major - Are we asking the right question?When does a student become financially independent?  This is a question that most students and parents struggle with.

This independence question gains importance as you turn 18 and intensifies as you move to full independence. For college students (those college bound please heed this), the watch-out is to not get on a financial “high” in your sophomore year of college because you saved and were frugal your freshman year. And don’t go into apathy as you see your student loan debt growing in your junior year. For all students regardless of post-secondary direction, the 18 – 21 age range is when you are practicing your independent role. You are now an adult which means you are supposed to be independent. Right? Well, it just isn’t that simple any more.

In the late ’70s, I faced the challenge of putting myself through college without much help. I used government-sponsored grants and low-interest loans sparingly. I worked at least one job during school at all times and summers and spring break and christmas holidays. I came out after four and a half years with a relatively small amount of debt. I remember driving out of my college town for the final time with no cash. My last amount of cash was used to fill the gas tank. I didn’t have a job. I lived with my parents for 3 months after finishing college. The 3 months living at home and looking for my first career job seemed like forever. As it turns out I was lucky it took only 3 months. Once my “professional” paycheck started coming in my financial independence and my self-esteem were no longer an issue.

Today, it is more difficult for students to obtain financial independence quickly. It depends on the situation but here are some of the issues students face:

  • The Need for a High GPA – GPA’s of 3.5 or higher is a must have for many companies so students have to study harder and longer to obtain this. Many schools programs are extremely rigorous and a full-time load is really full-time.  This means less time for working.
  • Helicopter Parents – Parents are making many decisions for children way past the age of 18. Instead of helping them work towards independence, they are making decisions perhaps the student should be making. Many parents tend to pay for most everything for the student without a thought.  This hinders the students ability to grow and learn life lessons.
  • College Involvement – Many students are heavily involved in programs or athletics in school.  It is difficult to work and be committed to studies and a full-time extra-curricular activities.
  • College Costs – College costs have become astronomical. In many cases, it is impossible for a student to be completely financially independent particularly if they are attending an expensive college. Parents are having to assist more today than ever before. One rule, you should never have to pay full sticker price for college regardless of college choice. There seems to be a significant gap between “advertised price” and “actual price”. Actual will be less.

Here are some ideas to help students reach financial independence by the time they graduate or shortly thereafter:

  • Budget – Students should sit down with their parents before they turn 18 and obtain a list of all the expenses the parents pay for.  Both parties should discuss items that the student can begin to start paying for.  Over a period of time, the student should begin to take on more responsibility for expenses. Many times, the parent agrees to pay for things until the student graduates from college. After starting that first job upon graduation, the first pay check is celebrated with a transfer of obligations for those things the parents have been paying (gas card, cell phone and data plan, insurance, etc.).
  • College Costs – Both parents and students should be involved in filling out financial information for FAFSA, deciding on a school, obtaining scholarships, loans, grants,etc…it seems complicated but as you get into it, you’ll find it isn’t too much. It’s just tedious. Don’t let your parents take the lead here. This is an opportunity for students to practice their self-starting, decision-making and personal accountability skills which are critical to becoming independent.
  • Developing Credit – Credit is something that a student needs to start developing. Start with a very low credit limit ($100), charging small items and paying them off the same month. The earlier you are able to establish some credit, the better off you will be.  If your parents are involved in paying for your education, let them know you are doing this but don’t rely on them to bail you out if you get in trouble. I don’t recommend parents co-signing for the credit card or giving the student a credit card.
  • Planning for the Future – Stay aware of the need for some savings for an apartment rental for when you graduate.  The student should look through the local newspaper or search ‘Google apartment expenses’ to get an idea of today’s rent, down payment, utilities, etc…
  • Work with Your Parents and Surprise Them – Both parents and students should work together as a team and discuss how to gain financial independence and set realistic goals.  Demonstrating to your parents that you make good decisions will reap big rewards and help to change the relationship from parent-child to parent-adult. they’ll always be your parents but you are probably ready to change the relationship so here is your chance to break the parent habit in a good way.
  • Do Research – There is plenty of information on finance geared to the college student. Student Resource Central™ has practically everything you need, but if not, there are books that will go deeper. You can find our recommendations on our Amazon e-store.
  • Choosing a college that is best for youTHINK Like an Entrepreneur – Whether you work at the local grocery store, provide babysitting services or start your own lawn care company, always give your best and be disciplined in your approach to work. If you are working for a company (such as the local grocery store or retail store or restaurant) look at yourself from the manager’s eyes. What do they want from you? They want you to be on time, be prepared and be responsive to the needs of customers and to them.
  • There are No Mistakes – Learn from your lessons as difficult as they may be. Everyone was a teenager at one time. Everyone goes through a learning process. Avoid feeling bad about any mistakes you make. Always use mistakes or failures as learning opportunities – keep going. Don’t rely on your parents to bail you out when something doesn’t go the way you planned. Learning life lessons early on in life prepares us to be stronger, more independent adults.

Carl Nielson is Chief Discovery Officer of Success Discoveries and Managing Principal of The Nielson Group, an organizational development consulting firm that provides executive development coaching, team development and assessments for hiring. As creator of the Career Coaching for Students program for high school students and Career and Success Skills Mastery for College Students and Recent Grads, Carl has helped thousands of students find a better way through the career exploration process that works.  Assessment and coaching packages start at $399. Local public workshops, distance-coaching and in-school programs available. Call for more information at 972.346.2892.

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