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Tips to Manage Your Money During College, with Zina Kumok

Presented by EQ Bank

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

How did you handle money in your college years? The label, starving student, has become cliche, but it’s a title that many of us know all too well. No matter what stage of life you’re in, if you’re struggling to manage your spending, my guest this week has some timely advice.

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. She’s also a money coach who helps people pay off debt, build budgets and spend mindfully. In this week’s episode Zina and I talk about the money lessons she learned during college, and how she made the switch from carefree spender to balanced saver.

Zina explains how overspending in college limited her choices once she graduated. Like many students, she didn’t realize how much money she was spending on a daily basis. Eventually, she had what she calls an “awakening”, and although it wasn’t easy, she learned how to stick to a budget, while resisting various pressures to spend. She leaves us with helpful money tips we can follow at any age.

This week’s episode was brought to you by EQ Bank. Did you know? You can now transfer money overseas with TransferWise directly from your EQ Bank Savings Plus account. Not only will you benefit from earning 1.70% interest on your savings, but you’ll pay far less for international money transfers. While other banks have a habit of sneaking in markups and extra charges, that’s not something you’ll have to worry about with EQ Bank. Visit EQ Bank to start saving money today.

Episode Summary

  • Why Zina regrets paying off her student loans so quickly
  • Fighting the sense of entitlement with spending
  • The move from spender to non-spender
  • Making a budget is easy, sticking to it is hard
  • Getting pushback for making good financial choices
  • Zina’s advice for listeners
  • Having savings after college gives you options after you graduate
  • Don’t beat yourself up over your spending mistakes in college
  • Finding a balance between spending and saving
Read transcript

How did you handle money in your college years? The label “starving student” has become cliché but it’s the title many of us know all too well. No matter what stage of life you’re in, if you’re struggling to manage your spending, my guest this week has some timely advice. Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. She’s also a money coach who helps people pay off debt, build budgets and spend mindfully. In this week’s episode, Zina and I talk about the money lessons she learned during college and how she made the switch from carefree spender to balanced saver.

Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. This week’s episode is brought to you by EQ Bank. Did you know you can now transfer money overseas with TransferWise directly from your EQ Bank Savings Plus account? Not only will you benefit from earning two percent interest on your savings, you’ll pay far less for international money transfers. While other banks have a habit of sneaking in markups and extra charges, that’s not something you have to worry about with EQ Bank. Visit maplemoney.com/eqbank to start saving money today. Now, let’s chat with Zina.

Tom: Hi Zina, welcome to the Maple Money Show.

Zina Thanks for having me, Tom.

Tom: One of the things I found interesting about your story is you’re possibly regretting how quickly you paid off student loans. I’d like to find out where that lines up with me but first, let’s jump to the beginning of all this. How was spending for you during college?

Zina Let’s just say I had a reputation as the friend who needed the bigger closet when dividing up closet space in the dorms. My friends used to tease me about how many clothes I had. Sometimes drawers wouldn’t close. If I wanted it, I bought it. I was really lucky because my parents were helping me out a lot with the day-to-day expenses. They covered my food, gas. When I moved into an apartment, they paid the rent, utilities, and then gave me spending money for groceries. And sometimes that came with the six pack I bought during my grocery run. I did work too, so I also had my own spending money. It was just so easy. If I were having a bad day I’d go walk around, go shopping. I kind of had this idea of entitlement; I saw it, I want it and I deserve to buy it. It’s not like I ever went into credit card debt or anything. But there was definitely this lack of awareness on my part of how much things cost and how much I was really spending compared to other people. I didn’t know what the reason was behind it all. When I studied abroad, my parents would cover the tuition part and I would be responsible for groceries, Tube-pass and stuff like that. And I was studying abroad in London, which is very expensive, especially when you’re a college student living on a budget. Again, I carried those habits into that experience. I had a lot of meals out. I bought things I didn’t really need. And the worst part was I did run out of money and my parents had to float me $400. I told myself, “Well, I know I’m going to be able to do some freelance writing when I get back (for an editor I had) so I’ll be able to work it off.” But he didn’t have as many assignments as I thought he wanted. So my parents were just nice and I wrote it off. But it was so embarrassing. And the kicker was, when I was flying back home, you know how they weigh your luggage at the airport? Well, I was over. It’s one thing to be over on a domestic flight but it’s another thing to be over on an international flight. And that was an extra $150 just because I brough too much. That was really humiliating to have that experience.

Tom: I’ve said many times before on the podcast where I spent a lot during college on everything. Just massive amounts on CDs and a car stereo. I was even using my student loan for some of that. But the other thing I thought of that I haven’t really mentioned before is my parents would help me out a lot, too. I’m thinking maybe that was a bit of a crutch. They probably should have let me fail a little sooner because I’d do all this spending and not have enough money left for food so I’d need them to help out. And they would always help out. Parent always want to help out their babies. But, maybe failing just a bit sooner might have been a good idea.

Zina: Probably the most embarrassing story I have (as if paying $150 overage fee isn’t bad enough) was the summer after I got an internship in New York. Most internships are unpaid, low-paid or have a small stipend. I was actually making really good money. I can’t remember how much I was making. But even for New York, I was making good money for an intern who didn’t have health insurance expenses or paying off student loans. Again, I didn’t have those habits. I tried to create a budget. I wanted to be smarter than I was the summer before but I still had these spending habits. And when you’re walking around Manhattan, the stores are right there. It’s not like when you’re in a car and you see a store and you have to pull off. For me, the problem was I’d be walking. And walking makes it so easy to literally just walk into a store when something catches your eye. I also really relied on cabs a lot if I didn’t feel like taking the subway. Cabs are so expensive. I would eat out all the time even though I had a kitchen where I was staying. At one point I was eating out breakfast, lunch and dinner. People who know me now would be horrified. I was making so much money that even with those bad spending habits, I still ended up saving about $2,000. But how much more could I have saved if were smarter if I were really deliberate with sticking to a budget? I was still having fun in New York, going to concerts and other things. And the next summer, I had an unpaid internship where I had to live like a poor college student because I was completely on my own. My parents weren’t helping me. I was shopping and not going out at all. That summer might have been a lot easier if I hadn’t been such an idiot the previous summer.

Tom: You mentioned saving $2,000. I saved basically nothing during my spending spree in college. I thought about this, too, how easily I could have put $10,000 away. It probably would have set up most of my retirement. If I had done that at age 20, it would have been an amazing amount of money I’d have saved by retirement. But I spent it on CDs and video games and going out partying as well. When I think of the CDs and video games, I still have a lot of them sitting in boxes right now. I occasionally go on some sprees of selling some. It’s nice to recoup some of that money, but I’m seeing just how little that is. A few years back I sold a good chunk of video games for $2,000 which I though was pretty cool but I don’t want to add up what those cost me. That might be $10,000 right there. I’m just guessing, but say I spent $10,000 and only got $2,000 for it now compared to if I put $10,000 into investments. I wouldn’t have even known how to do that back then but think of how much that would be now.

Zina: I try not to think about it because shame is not helpful. I was a big clothes shopper for some reason. I think I just liked the freedom of buying whatever I wanted, wearing whatever I wanted. We had a dress code in high school so I’d buy whatever you weren’t allowed to buy. My parents never went out to eat and that’s probably what I did the most. It’s all just one big boomerang effect.

Tom: You mentioned not having any credit card debt but what were your student loans looking like?

Zina: Even though my parents were very generous in helping me, I still had to take out loans for some of my tuition. I graduated college with about $24,000. Totaled up with interest, I ended up repaying $28,000 total.

Tom: That’s not too bad. It’s not like some of these stories you hear where it’s $200,000. You had that going for you.

Zina: In the big scheme of things, it wasn’t too bad. When I graduated, I was working as a newspaper reporter earning about $28,000 a year so my loans were about 20 percent of my take home pay. Once you add in rent, which is about 35 percent of my take home pay, loans, utilities, gas, I realized I didn’t have a lot left over for having fun, saving, or investing for retirement. That’s when I realized those loans were actually a problem.

Tom: So was this the point where it clicked for you? For me, it took until I was about 30 where I just decided to be an adult—to stop all the spending and start saving. It sounds like this happened sooner for you. Was there a moment? Was it just looking at the numbers? What made you shut off that spending?

Zina: My parents had some credit card debt when I was growing up. They were very open in talking about finances, how they got into the debt and how they were trying to repay it. They used to listen to Dave Ramsey on the radio. I listened too. I started reading some of his books. I always knew what you should do; get out of debt, build an emergency fund, not rely on credit cards. When I got out of college, I decided I was going to institute those Dave Ramsey principles. But I realized was, it’s easy to read about it but it’s another thing to actually go and implement it, especially when you were coming with those habits I had about not really thinking before I bought something. That’s when I finally realized what I was saying, “Okay, when I’m an adult and have my first real post-grad job, then I’ll settle down, make a budget, and stick to it.” But again, it’s easy to make a budget. It took me all of 10 minutes maybe.

Tom: It looks nice on paper. Yeah.

Zina: I realized how quickly everything adds up and how you have to make choices between getting take out or buying three days’ worth of groceries. Or, am I going to buy a new outfit or use that money to pay my Internet bill? I think finally paying all of my own bills was a huge awakening because I realized how much money I was spending on stupid stuff instead of gas, utilities or car insurance. I had never paid my own car insurance before. And gas back then was something like $4 a gallon. I was driving back and forth to see my boyfriend every weekend. It was just realizing how limited I was in what I wanted to do and how I really needed to stick to my budget if I actually wanted to pay off my debt, invest for retirement, travel and actually do things I wanted to do.

Tom: Do you think there’s a point where you have kind of hit rock bottom? If you start looking at all this debt. Even just in blogging in general in personal finances, it seems like the people that are most interested in this are often people that they’ve hit some massive debt. It’s very rare to hear someone say, “Oh, I never really had debt. I’ve always been good with money.” There’s a few people out but it seems like something with a lot of “our type” where we have to hit rock bottom. Was that the case with you?

Zina: Yes. You have that moment of clarity where you realize every choice you made was not made in a vacuum. It all led to this. Everything I bought—all that money I didn’t save, it all led to this. If I had graduated college with $5,000 in the bank, I wouldn’t have needed to save an emergency fund. I would have already had it. I knew when I had my first full time job that I should save 10 percent of my salary for retirement but I realized I couldn’t afford to do that. I think that was probably a big wakeup call for me because I wasn’t really doing anything. I really had to cut my spending down. Seeing my income wasn’t enough or my fixed expenses were too high really made me realize I had to change things. I had to live more frugally than I realized and try to find ways to make money on the side. I think that’s when it hit me—that I couldn’t travel and save and pay off debt. I did end up finding ways to travel for cheap. But I think it was really hard, realizing there were all these things I wanted to do and just couldn’t afford to do all of them.

Tom: Yes, maybe we all have to come to that realization at some point because it seems like we really have blinders on where we say, “This is how much I spend but I don’t have money for savings.” You said you were going out for take-out three times a day. That’s probably what I do in a month. So you’ve got to look at what you’re actually spending. A lot of people just assume what they’re spending is normal and they’re entitled to it but then they don’t have money for savings. I’ve seen people who make $100,000 in their career who can’t save so, obviously, it’s not just the salary. It’s the choices you make on how you spend. I think we both hit a point there where we caught on and flipped it around. What was that like for you then? What was it like with your with your family, your friends, coworkers, whatever you had when all of a sudden you went from a spender to a non-spender?

Zina: My parents were supportive because they’d been through their own debt-free journey. My friends were all basically in the same boat but it’s a lot easier to avoid thinking about it. We’d all make comments like, “Oh, I’m so broke,” or, “I have student loans.” It’s really hard to face your finances when you’ve been avoiding them for years. My coworkers was probably the one area where I felt some pushback because I was really not going out to eat at that point. I had kind of reversed it. I just never went out to eat. When you’re working a regular job, a lot of people go out to eat every day for lunch. That’s just because they don’t bring a lunch. They don’t consider it. But I was really strict about bringing the lunch and snacks. Sometimes I’d go to the grocery store on my lunch break and buy a grocery item I could eat at my desk. I used to keep hard-boiled eggs in the fridge at work which I’m sure no one really appreciated. I remember one time my boss asked me out for lunch but I told him, “No, that’s okay. I’m trying to save some money.” He just looked at me as if I never have fun. I got really ticked off at the time. Again, it’s my boss so I couldn’t say anything but I was thinking, going out with your coworkers is usually not fun anyway. And to me, spending $15 on a lunch, I’d rather go see a movie. I love going to the movies. I’d rather buy a DVD of a movie I love or save up for a concert. When I had so little income, $15 was a lot of money. If I could save up a few 15 dollars I could do something really fun. That was the one place I felt that push back because when you say “no” to something that someone else is doing, they start thinking you’re judging what they’re doing. That’s what it feels like. It becomes personal. Even though I was never saying eat out was stupid or people who eat out are dumb or it’s a waste of money. I was blogging at the time so everyone knew what I was trying to do but I think people were kind of seeing this as me saying, “Oh, you think my values are dumb.”

Tom: Yeah. I had the same thing at work too. You go out for lunch every day. There’s a happy hour on Friday after work. It was all too much. What I would do is purposely make extra food at dinner that would be the next day’s lunch. I would bring my lunch in. I wouldn’t even buy coffee there. We had a cafeteria at the office but I would bring a little thermos with my coffee premade. At one point I started doing tea because I was just it was just lot simpler to have some tea bags there ready to go. I cut all that out. And I got that a lot too, “Why don’t you ever come out for lunch or join us for happy hour?” Sometimes I’d go. I didn’t block them out completely. But there was always this pressure to spend money. And these were all the same people who were doing the watercooler talk at the office saying, “Oh, man, I’ve got no money,” or, “I wish I could go on this vacation or put more money away for savings.” And then an hour later, they’re asking me to come out for lunch. They just didn’t seem to put that together. I get it because I was there during college. There came a point where it seemed I had changed but other people were stuck in their ways. I almost think this is part of that corporate trap where some people maybe never change. They go through their entire life working just to funnel the spending they’re doing that week. They’ll never get ahead if that’s the case.

Zina: I think there’s definitely peer pressure, especially if your bosses or people you want to impress are going because there is social pressure and it is a way of bonding. It’s sort of feels like you’re furthering your career and you worry that maybe you’re missing out. Or maybe you tell yourself, “Well, I have to go because it’s like part of my job.”

Tom: That’s an interesting point, actually, because some of the same people that we’re going for happy hours and lunches probably did get further ahead. There is a point where it seemed like people were getting further head so maybe I looked like the anti-social guy the boss never got to know as well. I wouldn’t give that as advice—that it’s going to help your career. Looking back at it, maybe there’s another way that you can win over the boss that doesn’t involve going out spending. Just to give people an actionable item, how would you do this again if you were someone that was just going to college? What would you do differently that would set you up to do a little better?

Zina: What I would tell people is, it’s good to have fun. And college is such a brief window. I think everyone wants to maximize it. I know I had that. I didn’t really go out in high school so I really wanted to make the most of my college years. And I don’t regret going away to school when I could have stayed a little closer. You just kind of have to balance it and keep in mind what having money can do for you later. I really wanted to go teach English abroad somewhere after college but I just knew that wasn’t going to pay enough where I could also pay down my student loans. But if I’d had more savings, I probably could have done that. At the very least, it would have been one more option. I think that’s what college students maybe don’t realize; money gives you options later in life. If you have money, maybe you don’t accept the first job that you see. If something’s not working out, you can afford to quit and take some time off like I’ve had friends do. It really lets you make better decisions. But I would also say that if you make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up. I spent years beating myself up for the mistakes I made in college. When I was paying off my student loans, I spent years punishing and depriving myself. I wouldn’t go out with my friends. And when you start saying no to things, people just stop inviting you. That had some major impacts on my friendships. It’s really hard for people to figure out, “Okay, we’re going to $2 PBR night,” where you can’t really get one PBR—which, of course, I could have. I had really bad anxiety and really wanted to go back to therapy, but I just told myself that wasn’t in my budget when I probably could’ve made it work if I had really looked into it. I avoided getting a gym membership for years. I kind of overcorrected in a lot of ways. I think that’s what I would tell people. Just find a balance. Find a balance between spending on what will really make you happy and improve your life and then focus on paying off debt, investing. Just make sure you’re never really doing too much of one or the other.

Tom: I find with my spending in the past, if I cut out everything, then it’s almost like an earthquake ready to happen. It’s like these plates are grinding against each other and eventually you just end up spending. So let a little bit out. Like you said, go get one drink and enjoy time with your friends. That’s basically what I would do. I would attend some of those happy hours. I could have one drink while they’re having three or more. It can work out. Thanks for being on the show. Can you let people know where they can find you?

Zina: I have my site at consciouscoins.com. And you can see my freelance writing clips at zinakumok.com. Or follow me on Instagram and Twitter @zinakumok.

Tom: Okay, thanks for being on the show.

Zina: Thanks, Tom.

Thanks, Zina, for sharing your story and explaining why it’s so important to develop good savings habits during your college years. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/112. Are you new to the Maple Money Show? If so, I want to thank you for listening. In case you weren’t aware, you can watch videos from many of our past episodes over on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested, head over to maplemoney.com/youtube. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button. Thanks to everyone for listening. I look forward to seeing you back here next week.

It’s easy to make a budget, that took me all of 10 minutes maybe? And then realizing how quickly everything adds up, and how you have to make choices...I think finally paying all of my own bills was a huge awakening - Zina KumokClick to Tweet

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