The great and terrible part of my twenties were all the choices I was faced with. After graduation, I felt like I could be or do anything. However, as you learn in your twenties, it all comes at a cost. Having been born into an immigrant family, I’ve always been used to growing up with little money, and it became the norm in my life. I never went on vacations as a kid or had trendy clothes/toys, but I also never went hungry. I had enough and found comfort in it.
However, my limited exposure to the realities of money caught up with me in my twenties. Up until then, I had only a small awareness of the financial pressures that existed in the world. Sure, there were the kids that could afford the nice clothes and whose parents took them to Disneyland over summer break, but that was nothing compared to my twenties when people started enrolling in highly prestigious schools and living idyllic lifestyles separate from their parents.
And although I was comfortable making the life choices I did due to my limited finances, there was still a lot of pressure from society to have certain “typical experiences” in my twenties. And despite the social pressure, these were the 4 crossroad decisions I made that ultimately changed the course of my financial life (for better and for worse).
1. Not going to a fancy school
The first one is cheating a little because I made this decision right before I entered my twenties, but I knew the school I chose to attend would make a huge financial impact on me for the rest of my life. Choosing to go to a local university meant I graduated with no debt but it was really tempting to go to a more prestigious school or move to a new city. The first pressure I felt was to move away for university, but I decided right away that I couldn’t go to a school outside of Canada. Being from Vancouver, I knew a lot of people who had gone to school in Montreal and Toronto. While it was tempting to at least apply to go to a more prestigious university, I could not get over the living costs that moving across the country and away from my family would incur.
However, there were a lot of people in my graduating class that could afford it, and I’ll admit: I was jealous. Not only did some of my classmates move away to Toronto and Montreal, but some of them also moved abroad to attend school in Asia and Europe. I remember thinking how exciting that sounded in comparison to my plans. However, like most of high school, the envy faded and I just summed it up as one more thing I couldn’t afford because my family didn’t have the money.
While I had accepted this fact about my life, there was one moment in particular where I felt a lot of pressure to apply to a very expensive school. During my senior year of high school, a private university made a presentation at my school as a part of a post-secondary info session night. It sounded incredible (this was before I knew about the dangers of private post-secondary schools). After the presentation, I started hanging around the booth and ended up speaking to another student who was currently attending the school. He boasted about how great it was and, after learning more about me, what a great fit it would be for my career goals. However, when I looked into tuition, I saw that it was $26,000 CAD ($19,649 USD) for the first year, which is more than the entire cost of a degree at my local university (my degree was $24,000 CAD). I simply said, “I’m not applying because I can’t afford it,” and he was utterly insulted by my response. How could I put a price on my education like that?!
“What about all the opportunities and networking I would be missing out on? These opportunities ‘would change my life’”. His reaction shocked me a bit. At first, I felt bad for offending him, but saying “I can’t afford that university” was probably one of the best decisions I could have made at 18.
If I had decided to go to that school, I would have been $100,000 in debt by the time I graduated. I would have also had to apply for private loans with insane interest rates and not been eligible for the scholarships and bursaries that ended up paying for one-third of my local tuition.
Looking back, going to my local university made a huge difference in my life. However, what I didn’t really appreciate back then was that it was still a great school. It’s one of the top 3 universities in Canada, but because I lived in the area, it didn’t seem as shiny or impressive. It just seemed like the boring route to go. I now appreciate that boring route because I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted from life yet. At least I wasn’t paying $100,000 to figure it out.
2. Not living on campus or joining a sorority
We all know university/college is expensive, but the expense goes beyond tuition. Sure, tuition is usually the most expensive part, but it’s this whole “experience” that’s sold to students that is concerning. It’s not just enough to go to college or university, you have to live the lifestyle, which in many people’s cases is living with debt afterward.
As I entered university, almost every person I know told me I needed to live on campus to truly “experience” it. Unfortunately, when I looked into it, dorm rooms on campus cost more than tuition. My tuition was on average $5,000/year. Living on campus would cost almost and additional $7,000/year. So my degree would have been double the price if I chose to live on campus. Instead, I chose to live at home and transit every day 3 hours back and forth to and from school. It wasn’t fun, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
The other pressure I felt was to live a certain social life, and that included rushing for sorority. First off, sororities in Canada are not the same as sororities in the States as they are not as popular or common and after rushing, I realized it wasn’t for me. I probably would have been okay to join but what really deterred me was the $1,000 price tag.
These were the choices I made for myself because of my situation. However, I still have people try to convince me to this day that “I missed out on so much” because I never had the “full college experience,” (unsurprisingly it’s usually from people who had their parents pay for school).
I continue to be astounded by lengths people are willing to go in order to live out this “college experience.” While I don’t devalue my undergrad education, it would never have been worth 100k. University was a wonderful experience and I’m grateful for everything I got to do and learn, but there was a price limit on it.
Choosing not to participate in the “typical” college experience also meant that I had more time to work part-time and save up the money to pay off my student loans before I graduated. And while I didn’t end up in a 4-year university abroad, I was able to go on exchange for 6 months. The whole college experience comes with choices not only from our peers, but from the colleges themselves. During my twenties, I also worked for two universities and just like banks and other big institutions our society teaches us to trust these intuitions blindly, forgetting they also have an agenda and need to be looking at their profit margins.
I couldn’t tell you how my life would have been different if I did choose to live on campus and have the “true” college experience, but I can tell you I would have definitely graduated with debt. And so for 4 years of my life, I’m happy I passed on this experience.
3. Living at home/having roommates
Living at home/with roommates until I was 26 (even when I could afford to live on my own) came with a lot of judgment but it allowed me to travel a lot extensively and save up for a down payment. I understand that not everyone can live rent-free with their parents, but I could and I did for a long time. And it wasn’t always because I couldn’t afford to live on my own, it’s because I chose to save up or do something else.
Even when I did live abroad, in Italy and then in Ottawa, I lived with roommates. Especially when I was living in Ottawa, I was making a really good living, and it surprised people when I said I was living with roommates because salaries are public in the government. All of my friends knew how much I was making and that I could easily afford to rent an apartment on my own. A friend even told me, “This is the only time you are going to be able to afford to live on your own so you might as well experience it now.”
But I disagreed. To me, this was a temporary stage of my life and I wanted to save the money to build something for the future — and that was paying off my student loans before I graduated.
So instead of living in an apartment by myself, I chose to live with roommates. And while people say that living on your own develops independence skills, I would argue that living with roommates develops a much more important skill — tolerance for others. I lived with a wide range of roommates, from a bunch of Italian girls that didn’t speak English but were very good cooks and kept a tight cleaning schedule, to a house full of boys (some of which had not mastered the concept of personal hygiene).
Even after I moved back to Vancouver, I lived at home until I was 26 and there was a lot of judgment and pressure from co-workers, guys I dated, to literally random strangers telling me it was time to move out. Sometimes, I felt embarrassed to say that I still lived at home, but it helped me save a lot. It also allowed me to help take care of my dad while he was sick which helped my family finances.
I’ve learned to tune out the noise of society’s expectations of where I should be at any given age or stage of my life. I was told growing up that 18 was the age to move out and that’s what I always thought I would do. But the world has changed so much since those arbitrary timelines were created and I’ve learned how to make the most of my finances with the situation I’m currently in, and not the one I “should” be in.
4. Getting an Arts degree
I have heard every single joke about Art Majors out there.
I graduated high school and entered university in 2009, which was right after the housing crash and recession. Granted, living in Canada meant that the effects weren’t as severe as the United States, but it was still a tumultuous time for the economy as a whole.
Choosing to pursue a liberal arts degree has changed the course of my financial situation for the worse. However, what I didn’t tell people was that I got accepted into both Arts and Business school. Choosing Arts meant that my earning potential, right after graduation, and over the course of my entire life, would be drastically lower (and it’s something I had to come to terms with in my lifestyle).
I knew that entering into liberal arts meant that I would not make as much money. But I also knew that the work that would make me happy. I aspired to work in public service, with NGOs, nonprofits — industries that would never make me rich, but would fulfill me.
With my Arts degree, I kind of found a happy medium between helping people and making a comfortable living by working in public service. However, that came at a cost. I floundered between different jobs and sectors for a while until I could find what was right for me. And in between that time, it meant being paid an average salary in temporary contracts and administration.
I’m not going to say it was easy to make this decision in comparison to the others. It came at the expense of a lot of hurtful comments from strangers, media, and family members. And for once I wasn’t making the better “financial decision.” I was making a decision based on my emotions which is something I was able to steer away from before. But I don’t regret it, even now when the repercussions of my decision are becoming more apparent. I now see how my opportunities are more limited with my degree and as I’m deterred from getting a Masters. If I majored in Business, I’d probably be more inclined to pursue an MBA which would allow me to have a higher earning potential, but that’s not in the cards for me anymore.
I know this choice was probably one of the worst financial decisions I have ever made, but I can also confidently say that I’m not someone who resents my 9-5 life or work.
While it all worked out in the end, I will admit: I didn’t really have a definitive plan for my twenties. Growing up, there was a lot of pressure to live a certain life and spend a certain amount of money.
However, the biggest reason I’m happy with these financial decisions is because I choose to be happy. I came to terms a long time ago with myself that the lifestyle that society presents as necessary or successful don’t always apply to me.
I don’t think less of people who have the money to spend on these things, but I realized very early that I do not and I am not willing to spend it live up to the imaginary ideals. Ultimately, my ability to say “I can’t afford that and am not willing to go into debt for it” has pushed all the wrong things for me out of my life and left me with the pieces to create a life I am happy living.
Kimberly is the writer behind www.millenniallifeadmin.com. MLA is a career and personal finance blog helping millennials to develop the personal growth habits to successfully make and manage their money. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching re-runs of Gilmore Girls or on Instagram @millenniallifeadmin.
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