Money For College - Persistence Pays Off. Literally.

I work at Tiller Money, where last week, Ed, our marketing lead, asked me to write up just a couple of short paragraphs for "What is one thing (big or small) you wish you could teach your college-age self about money?" True to form, when I have something to say, nobody can get me to shut up, so I wrote up what was probably WAY more than he needed, and trimmed it down for that post. The result was a concise, honest, earnest bit that fit nicely into that larger piece.

The trimmed-down version lost a little of my tongue-in-cheek whiney vibe (which -- perhaps secondary to excessive verbosity -- is also my style). I don't think that style is the best fit for our company blog, but is ABSOLUTELY a good fit for my PERSONAL blog. So here you go; the long form, in all it's whiney, parenthetical, not-terribly-concise glory!

Ed asked -- what is one thing (big or small) you wish you could teach your college-age self about money?

Well, I was lucky; I happen to have an Aunt who was watching out for me; otherwise, my lack of patience and extreme aversion to matters of administrivia would have teamed up to really bite me in the butt. I paid for college through a combination of work, Montgomery GI Bill, and especially the Texas Army National Guard’s Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP). Without my aunt's help, I would have only accessed two of those three, and would probably still be paying off the loans to this day.

The work part was hard, but straightforward, and indeed fun. The biggest hassle there was missing out on the meal plan that the university required me to purchase; I was able to make it to the cafeteria for breakfast every day, but I worked in a one hour photo lab, and lunch was our busiest time there, so always had to rush straight from class to work. Every day I worked, I missed the cafeteria lunch hours, and also tended to work past the cafeteria closing time -- so missed dinner hours, too.

The university required me to purchase a meal plan since I lived in the dorm, so I was paying for three meals a day and getting to eat only one. Perhaps mostly out of spite (mmm.... delicious, delicious, spite...) I tried to make up for paying for three meals a day by eating a legendarily colossal breakfast in the cafeteria, occasionally consisting of a giant pecan waffle topped with 12 scoops of ice cream. The cafeteria workers sometimes asked me skeptically if I was "sure I was going to eat all that", and once even asked a supervisor to come out talk to me and ask me to stop, but I certainly don't ever remember "wasting" anything -- I wasn't about to throw even one morsel away. I supplemented my famous breakfast regimen with Taco Bell in the evening, and later when I worked at a pizza place I was certainly well fed on break. But I digress, and I’ll leave “What is one thing (big or small) you wish you could teach your college-age self about diet?” for another time.

In addition to working, I was also enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard throughout my college career. After a few months of initial entry training, drilling one weekend a month, and spending two weeks of active duty for training each summer, I was eligible for the GI Bill and SLRP. Here’s where the luck (and my aunt!) came in. The GI Bill gets a lot of hype, but it turns out that for National Guard soldiers and reservists at the time, it only amounted to about $100 a month -- WHICH, every darn semester, the financial aid office subtracted right off of a Pell Grant I was otherwise eligible for -- resulting in a big fat net zero. So much for the hype. I was a little disappointed at the financial return on investment from the metaphorical “blank check made payable to The United States of America for an amount of up to and including my life”. I’m exceptionally proud of my little sliver of service, and I certainly got a lot from the guard - just not in terms of GI Bill cash. I guess I did shift the federal tax dollar burden for my schooling from one budget line item bucket to another, so at least someone else with financial need could get a few of those Pell Grant dollars.

That was an eye-opening experience in terms of fairness and economic theory, but not terribly helpful in terms of paying for school -- but then I made a discovery, thanks in large part to my Aunt Agnes. It turns out that the REAL money (I had NO idea!) was in the SLRP - I don’t remember the maximum payout at the time, but today the same program pays up to $50,000. There’s a boatload of esoteric criteria to meet -- and paperwork. Loads and loads of paperwork. Paperwork for the soldier, paperwork for the soldier’s chain of command, and luckily for me -- paperwork for my aunt, who happened to work at Camp Mabry processing all this stuff, and therefore knew all about it! Given the complex eligibility criteria, the MASSIVE paperwork hassle, and all of the GI Bill hype and corresponding disappointment, I was initially inclined to ignore the SLRP. I’m so glad that I did not, after some encouragement from my aunt.

I was lucky, and am extremely grateful for my aunt’s insight into the SLRP. My lesson to myself is this: when looking for funding for college -- dig deep, do the detective work, do the homework, and don’t get discouraged or give up. There ARE lots of college funding sources out there, but unless you happen to have a relative who’s intimately familiar with a program, they’re sure not going to jump out at you.


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