Working for the Office of Financial Aid, as a Student and as an Adult

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When I worked at the Office of Financial Aid as a college student, we joked that all the student employees were hired because we were the squeakiest wheels about needing more money. We had maxed out our grant eligibility and borrowed as much in loans as the government would allow, and we still didn’t have enough to pay the bills, so they gave us jobs.

We were trained on the extensive rules and regulations, as well as the customer service aspects of working to assist fellow students in navigating the complicated process of applying for and receiving financial aid.

Despite working in a money-related position, I don’t remember ever being offered much guidance with regard to my own personal finance, outside of the one time a fellow student employee told me: “Jenny, you have to get a credit card! If you don’t start building credit you’ll never be able to buy a car or a house!”

It was 2001, so I got a credit card that came with a free $5 Target gift card from a dude at the student center. In those days, you could do such a thing any day of the week, no matter what time it was or how old you were.

Although I arrived on campus with zero understanding of personal finance, I worked hard to put myself through college. I borrowed a lot of student loans, but I always had a job in addition to attending full-time. Most of the time, I was also volunteering at least a few hours a week.

So when my credit card came in the mail, I rationalized that I deserved to treat myself with something nice every now and then, and promptly took a trip to the Gap, where I picked up a jean jacket. I also told myself “Everyone does this in college. I’ll pay it back when I graduate and get a job.”

I used my credit card infrequently to buy things like groceries when I needed a little boost to get me to the next paycheck, but I also used it all the time when I wanted new clothes or shoes or to see EVERY CONCERT IN BOULDER BETWEEN 2001 AND 2004.

You can guess how that turned out.

After graduating and working full-time as a public school teacher for two years, my credit card debt reached its height at about $19,000. I finally came to the conclusion that it was unlikely I would ever start making significantly more money, since I was planning to retire as a teacher at the time. I cut up my credit cards and told myself I made enough money to live on, even if it meant cutting back my spending in some areas.

Then I started dating a guy who joked about wanting to name his firstborn Fiscal Responsibility, and his perspective on everything to do with money helped enlighten me. He taught me about spending every penny on paper first and helped me create my first successful budget. I got laid off from my teaching job just before our wedding in 2010 and, since I was the only one entering our marriage with debt, I did what I had to do to maintain full time employment and stay ahead of it.

Specifically, I went back to work as a grown-up employee at the Office of Financial Aid.

Armed with a newfound understanding of how to manage my own finances (and a fairly aggressive plan for saving/paying off my debt), I enthusiastically joined the newly formed Financial Literacy Committee, comprised of a handful of employees from the offices of financial aid and student billing.

I had such high hopes for the things we’d be able to do to help students. I remembered all too well what it had been like to be ill-equipped and subsequently (and also needlessly) graduate with more debt than I knew what to do with, and I was confident I could make a difference.

Unfortunately, however, none of the things we dreamed up and offered could be required, either for graduation or even for receiving financial aid funds. We did what we thought might work (free food?) to try convincing students to attend our workshops, though by the time I left to return to teaching a year later, we hadn’t reached nearly as many students as I’d hoped we would. On a campus with more than 30,000 students, we were lucky if our attendance numbers hit double digits, including the faculty and staff who occasionally dropped in.

I came up with what I thought was an incredibly clever title about “putting more money in your pocket” for one session I offered on budgeting, then agonized over the content of my presentation slides. A total of one undergraduate student showed up to that workshop, and he came with the impression I’d be offering hot stock tips. He was disappointed, to say the least, though he did politely stay until the end of the hour and offer honest feedback on the evaluation.

Perhaps the most disheartening thing I learned as I conducted my (informal, unsubstantiated) research about budgeting around the office was that a number of my colleagues seemed to be in the same position I had been only a short time before: in a lot of debt, without much of a plan for getting out. I wonder now how many of us started off as student employees, and how differently things might have been for us all if, at the time, we’d been required to pass a course in personal finance. Fourteen years later, I’m not sure much has changed.

 

This story is part of our College Month series. 

Jenny Stockton is a writer who lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and son (whose name is Abe). She loves talking about budgets with anyone who will listen.

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