I saved $25,000 while I was in college by making 4 changes to my lifestyle

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  • Before I started college, I set a goal to save $20,000 before graduation. Now, as I near the end of my schooling, I've surpassed that goal by over $5,000.
  • I was privileged to have parents who saved for a college fund and supported me emotionally so that I could succeed in school and earn a scholarship. Still, being strategic allowed me to reach my savings goal.
  • I started by getting clear on why I wanted to save the money, then set up a budget that made sense for my irregular income.
  • I also spent money on experiences instead of things (so I wasn't always wanting more) and prioritized my mental health to curb by anxiety-related shopping.
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There is an old cliche that being a college student and being broke go together like peanut butter and jelly. This wasn't a reality I wanted for myself.

I've always believed that I should earn and put away money before the responsibilities and expenses of adulthood set in. College seemed like the time to do it. Plus, practicing budgeting and financial planning from a young age would be lessons I could carry with me for the rest of my life. 

Before starting college, I knew the industry I wanted to be in — digital media and publishing — was notoriously difficult to break into. For those lucky enough to secure employment, many of the entry-level jobs came with low salaries — around $40,000 even in expensive cities like NYC. I wanted to set myself up for success long before I threw my cap in the air. So, I made a promise to myself: I would graduate with $20,000 saved. 

Why I set the goal and how my parents' support helped me reach it

This seemed like a reasonable cushion to sustain my lifestyle for a few months of job searching with the rest available to supplement what I assumed would be a low starting income. With proper planning and hard work, it seemed possible to save $5,000 each year.  Now, with graduation weeks away, I've surpassed my original goal by over $5,000.

I want to be clear that much of this wouldn't be possible without inherent privilege. My parents saved money for a college fund long before I knew what a college fund was. And when I had an after-school job in high school, I was able to save nearly everything I earned without having to help support my family.

My parents also gave me the emotional support I needed so I could devote my time and energy to my grades, later earning me a substantial scholarship and the ability to graduate early. All of this and an initial $10,000 I contributed towards my education means I'm finishing my schooling debt-free. I don't take any of that lightly and understand how these circumstances contributed to my savings goals.  

Still, these conditions didn't guarantee success.

The steps I took to graduate college with over $25,000 in the bank

1. I was clear about why I wanted to save this money 

Having a qualitative "why" alongside my quantitative "$20,000" helped me ensure my mindset was in the right place. My "why" had everything to do with the future. 

I knew the work I wanted to do might not pay well, but believed my passions were worth pursuing. Keeping this at the front of my mind made it easier to stay focused and follow through with simple budgeting techniques. 

2. I used a budgeting system that works for part-time, irregular income 

Since I was 16, I've always had a part-time job. Because I'm paid hourly, the money I earn — more in the summer, less during the school year — can vary greatly. In addition to this part-time work, I also write on a freelance basis, providing extra, though not always consistent, income. 

Early in my college career, I tracked my monthly expenses and calculated how much spendable money I needed each month, about $400. This number is low because my room and board are covered through school.  

While my income has varied, the amount of money I need really hasn't. Whenever I get paid, I transfer everything into my savings that's over that base $400. There have been months I've only been able to set aside $100. Other times, I'm able to save much more. However, because I've set up this simple budgeting system, I know I'm saving as much as I possibly can at any given moment. 

3. Within my budget, I prioritized experiences over things

For the most part, I spend my money frugally and try to live below my means. I've found that taking advantage of all of the free things to do on a college campus has made it even easier to save during this time of my life. Still, that doesn't mean I never treat myself. 

When I spend my money outside of the necessities, I prioritize experiences over things. Because of what psychologists call the "paradox of possessions," the happiness we get from material items never lasts as long as the item itself. We get used to the item too quickly, then look to buy its replacement or the next big thing. By straying away from material items, I keep myself out of the vicious cycle of always wanting more. 

While, in general, I avoid eating out, I'd much rather spend $30 on a meal with friends over $30 on an item I won't care about in three months. When I do buy things, I look for sales or second-hand items.

4. I prioritized my mental health

I've struggled with depression and anxiety from a young age, and would often turn to shopping when looking for a distraction from my emotions. Without strong support for my mental health, it was easy to slip into these bad habits. 

I consider prioritizing my mental health to be the single greatest asset in my savings journey. I starting taking medication and implementing regular exercise at the advice of my doctor. Slowly, I no longer shopped as a coping mechanism. While mental health is often excluded from financial conversations, it's been infinitely easier to make smart financial decisions when I feel at peace in my mind and body.

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