“Don’t do what I did” and two other powerful tips for college-bound kids

08/31/2016 03:14 pm ET

It’s that time of year again. The smell of freshly purchased notebooks, pizza grease and the only kind of sweat you get from hauling 27 plastic totes up four flights of un-air-conditioned stairs is in the air. (Are dorm elevators always broken?!) 

This year, millions of parents across the country are filled with hope, sadness and pride as they send their teenagers off to college. During what usually ends up being some of the hottest weeks of summer, college campuses are littered with U-Haul trucks, futon frames and vehicles with mattresses haphazardly “secured” to the top. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed many times, but this year is different. This year, I get to experience it as a parent, as my wife and I send Abbey, our oldest child, off to school. 

Abbey's first day at the University of Iowa
Jerry Patterson
Abbey's first day at the University of Iowa

I’ve spent the last 18 years searching for, and attempting to provide, the best advice and counsel I could drum up. But as August inched closer, I suddenly felt pressured to give her some epic, life-changing advice before she broke free from our protective grasp and headed east on I-80 to Iowa City. (Saying “Go Hawks!” is going to be a little difficult for this University of Wisconsin Badger fan.)  

I spent the weeks leading up to her escape thinking of exactly what to say. And the thought that crossed my mind multiple times was “don’t do what I did.” But I don’t think she’s ready for those memories yet. (Or maybe I’m just not ready for her to hear them. I am “Dad” after all!) 

I kept going down the path of my college experience and then it dawned on me. I’d send her off with two pieces of advice I received at different stages of my life. One from when I was young and the other from later in life, but something I wished I heard earlier. 

Drumroll please …

1. Your academics and social life need to remain mutually exclusive during your college years. Seems obvious, but it’s a very hard tip for young people to put into practice. Just go back and watch the movie “Animal House.” Despite the over-the-top partying, there is a fair amount of truth in what college life can be like – especially as it relates to the fun parts over-shadowing the studying parts. College and the feeling of freedom go hand-in-hand, and it can be hard at first to find balance. But better to learn sooner rather than later how to balance your academic and social performance. Or else your transcripts will do the talking for you.

2. Save more earlier. The “time value” of money is real. In fact, our research shows that saving more money earlier can significantly impact your financial future better than specific investments*. For those who think it’ll get easier later, you’re playing with fire. It’s never too early (or late) to start saving or start saving more. We completed some research with Jason Dorsey and found that only 15% of baby boomers are confident that they know how to prepare for retirement versus 12% of millennials. According to that research, we don’t get remarkably more comfortable or more confident about managing our money as we age. It doesn’t get easier – your demands will continue to grow and you won’t magically become an expert over time. 

I’m pleased to say that before she left, Abbey could recite both pieces of advice – complete with an eye roll. Regardless, she heard me. I hope these two pieces of advice will stick and influence her thinking as she moves on. Of course, I’ll do my dad duty and remind her of them every so often via text and/or Snapchat. (Is there a filter for that?) 

Save more earlier. Have fun, but keep your eyes on the grades. And when I’m ready to share, don’t do what I did … Stay tuned! Did someone say “toga party?” 

*Source: ”Pursuing ‘Retirement Plan Success’ During Participants’ Accumulation Years,” Principal, 2010

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