With college costs rapidly rising, it comes as no surprise that students are working increasing hours just to get by. My story was no different. During my junior year of college, I forced myself to come face to face with the reality of my situation: I would be graduating with over $60,000 in student loan debt. It was terrifying.
So, while I was still a student, I started working non-stop at internships and other jobs to help pay down my interest (and start on my principal!) on my biggest loans with the most aggressive interest rates. I reached a total of 40 hours a week on top of my full-time class schedule. I worked as everything from a lifeguard, to a media lab technician, to a high school fencing coach — I hustled non-stop. Here’s what I learned:
1. Not all jobs are created equal
Finding flexible side hustles that are able to give you enough hours of steady work isn’t easy. That’s why I was working anywhere from 3-5 jobs a semester, ranging from 10-20 hours a week each. In doing so, I quickly found that some jobs are indeed better than others. While not every job is going to have exactly what you want, learning to stack your roles to maximize hours that are convenient for you and competitive for your needs (whether that be extra pay or time to complete the work) is crucial.
I worked two on-campus jobs during my junior and senior year. This included taking on my first job since my first year of college, and while being an office assistant in my school’s facilities department did not pay competitively, it came with the major benefit of allowing me downtime to complete my homework. My department was flexible and allowed me to switch around hours if I needed to based on exam schedules. Best of all, during the summer, I could live on campus for free if I worked there.
My other major on-campus job was working as a technical support specialist in a digital media lab. It was relevant to my major, more promising on my resume given my career interests and paid more competitively. Our hours were decided at the start of the semester, leaving little room for flexibility for taking time off or picking up extra shifts. However, I was able to work weekends and nights in this role, allowing me to fill up on shifts where my time was otherwise unoccupied (I began to love the 8 PM to midnight shifts!).
Lastly, while the convenience of on-campus roles couldn’t be beat, I found side hustles off my school’s campus that paid more. Most notably, I worked as an assistant coach at a private school near me. It was rewarding, skill-building, and fulfilling in ways that made a 40-hour work week and a full schedule of classes worth it.
Of course, there are many jobs that pay no money at all — i.e. unpaid internships. I believe it is crucial to think about their costs and benefits. For some of us, the time spent working in roles without monetary compensation would be more limiting than helpful. I was fortunate enough to have the ability (physically, mentally) and the means (support from friends, a car) to pursue small unpaid internships in exchange for the experience gained. It still feels like one of the best decisions I made in college because it continues to remain a talking point in job interviews, and the connections I made have proven to be enriching and fruitful even years later.
2. Prioritize the tasks that need to be done most
When you’re committed to a full work schedule and a full course load, some things simply have to go. During tough weeks, it felt like my sleep, jobs, or classes would be on the line with no in-between. But most days, I just needed to recognize which tasks were urgent, and which were not. My busy schedule mandated that I develop a ruthless ability to prioritize. I learned that while you might want to cross that easy homework assignment off your list, sometimes you are forced to focus on the big picture and get started on that research paper.
3. Communicate your schedule with those close to you
Setting clear expectations with friends and family about my level of commitments was imperative to maintaining those relationships. Sometimes I had to choose between a night in with friends and an extra shift at the lab or a club event and a paper that needed to be done. Having amazing friends that were understanding of my situation, and supported me through a hectic schedule, made a huge difference. My best piece of advice for anyone with a tight schedule is to set clear expectations with friends and family about your commitments, and the reasoning behind your commitments, so you are not disappointing them when you inevitably have to say “no” to some events.
4. The value of a dollar
I made $8.00 an hour at my very first job. That didn’t always feel like it was adding up quickly. But with that money, I paid interest (and more, when I could) on my loans with the most aggressive interest rates so that I wouldn’t have any additional interest on top of my principal from my time in college. I also paid for my car in cash during my junior year of college. Beyond that, I paid for any medical costs, clothing needs, groceries, car insurance, and other living expenses.
That left little room to play with, making me quickly appreciate what I could spend more on and what I couldn’t. Ubers to and from a walkable location? No thank you — I’ll bring an extra jacket. Pancakes from an unbeatable local restaurant? I’ll swing it. It’s all about learning what you value and what feels right. It’s easy to see others spending lots of money on one category and feeling like you should too, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
5. How to let go of commitments that you can’t make
Just as you need to communicate your commitments with others, you have to be honest with yourself. For three years of college, I served on one of my school’s varsity athletic teams. Though I loved being able to compete at such a high level and make friends from all over, every time the season began, the intense practice and competition demands took a toll on my already-strained schedule. Though it was an incredibly difficult decision, during my senior year, I gave up my spot in favor of a paid coaching opportunity.
6. Comparison really is the thief of joy
Jealousy can start to rear its ugly head when you work hard alongside peers who have the privilege of not having to work at all. But at the end of the day, that kind of resentment can build up in a way that is not healthy. Learning to accept the circumstances I was in, and doing whatever I could to improve them, made a huge difference in my outlook and allowed me to embrace the good fortune I did have. In moments of difficulty, I still remind myself of advantages I am grateful for, like my family’s health insurance, an incredibly supportive group of friends, and the ability to work at all.
Anna Craven is a publicist and writer from Boston, MA. She loves finance, organization, and most of all, storytelling. You can follow her adventures with her rescue pup, Mickey, here.