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How this college student's responsible money decision took a turn and forced her to drop out

Alexandria Montoya, student

"My College Dream" is a series of first-person essays by college students about their college and career aspirations, the serious money struggles they faced along the way and the real-world consequences that resulted from their circumstances — and their decisions.

Going to college at Arizona State University was a dream for Alexandria Montoya and, thanks to a $50,000 scholarship, a full-time job as a waitress (while going to school full-time) and help from her dad, she was doing it! Then, she fell behind on her tuition. So, after three semesters, she made what seemed like a responsible money decision at the time: She took a semester off to pay it back. She took on a second job, working seven days a week — determined to get back on track. She finally paid off her tuition and went back to school for her junior year, only to realize that because she failed to file a deferment, she lost her scholarship. She was forced to drop out – and still owes $15,000 to Arizona State for that semester.

Alex had no idea that one decision — one she thought was so responsible — could change the course of her life so dramatically. She is currently working as a server and bartender in downtown Phoenix. She hopes to pay off that $15,000 soon and return to school to finish her degree. And, she hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale for other students.

In the third installment of My College Dream, Alex shares her story, the hard money lessons she's learned — and her advice for other students.

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I have always wanted to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. When I was a senior in high school and first deciding where to go to college, I never thought it would be an option because of the cost of tuition at ASU. I'm from New Mexico and out-of-state tuition was way too much for my middle-class family to afford. It wasn't until the day that I got a letter in the mail stating that they were going to give me a $50,000 scholarship that I thought it was a possibility for me.

The decision wasn't made right away because money was always an issue for my family in some way. So, after a lot of reflection, we came to a solid conclusion: I would be able to use my scholarship and my dad would take out a loan to pay for the remaining balance of my first year. I would need to get a job right out of the gate to start saving for my last three years, which I would pay on my own.

Alexandria Montoya at her dream school: The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University
Source: Harper Speagle-Price

Within a month of moving into the dorms, I had found a job as a hostess at a restaurant in downtown Phoenix. I spent the rest of the year working and missing most of the events that all my friends went to. At times it was really hard, but I knew what I was working for. At the beginning of my second year in college, I was promoted to a server position at the same restaurant and was making significantly more money. I also moved into my own apartment, where I was paying rent, utilities, all my food costs, plus books and all the other stuff you need to survive as a college student, with no outside assistance. I was finally on my own working 40+ hours a week plus being a full-time student and it felt like I was thriving.

Then came my fourth semester, and I was informed that there was a hold on my ASU account because my tuition wasn't paid for the previous semester. I still had a $4,000 balance.

More from Invest in You and the My College Dream series:
Running out of money. Cancer. Divorce. Many college students are facing serious financial crises
This college student had to choose: Go to class, or go to work so she can afford to eat
Think college is hard? This student tackled cancer before he even moved into his dorm room

I couldn't pull the money together in time, so I decided to take a semester off to pay it back. I picked up a second job and was working 7 days a week to make as much money as possible. I finally paid it all off in May just in time to enroll back in school!

Almost a month into classes, I went to the financial aid office to find out why my scholarship hadn't been applied to my account. They informed me that I had lost the scholarship because I never filled out a deferment form. And, they said I owed ASU $15,000 for that semester and wouldn't be able to return until I paid it back.

So, I dropped out … again.

Now, I live in a studio apartment in downtown Phoenix, and I work as a bartender at a restaurant in my neighborhood. I love my job and the opportunities it has given me but what I make barely covers my rent and food expenses. There is no way I could even start paying off any loans on my own.

They informed me that I had lost the scholarship because I never filled out a deferment form. And, they said I owed ASU $15,000 for that semester and wouldn’t be able to return until I paid it back. So, I dropped out … again.
Alexandria Montoya
student

The number one thing in life that I am grateful for when it comes to money is my dad. He believed in me so much that he took out a loan for the first year of college for me. Without him helping me these last three years that I've been on my own, I don't know what I would've done. I think that's why this situation has affected me so much: It feels like I am letting my dad down.

The biggest money lesson I learned in college was how to budget my money. At the beginning of the month, I look at what bills I need to pay and every week I save enough money for those expenses. What I am normally left with is pretty small but at least I know that my bills are paid.

If I could start college all over again, I would definitely start looking into loans and scholarships earlier on. My biggest regret is not filling out the deferment form I should have completed before taking that semester off. If I had just filled out that form, I would have never lost my scholarship and be a "dropout" like I am now.

My only dream for most of my life was to attend the Walter Cronkite School at ASU and that dream feels unreachable at this point in my life. I'm halfway there, and I only hope I can reach graduation. My plan is to enroll in some community college classes while I look for student loan options to pay back the $15,000 I owe ASU.

Alexandria Montoya at work at Gallo Blanco in downtown Phoenix
Source: Harper Speagle-Price

My end goal was always to be an investigative news reporter. I wanted to go where no one had been and tell the stories that had never been told. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless.

Now that I'm an adult and see the cost of things and how the real world works, I'm not sure if journalism is the best decision for me. I've also thought of a career in the service industry — not restaurant management but more the corporate level. My whole life all I wanted to do was journalism. Now I have other interests that could possibly be a career.

I want to finish school. I don't think I would ever give up on that dream so easily. But it doesn't have to be from a popular or higher college. I think I can just get a degree.

My advice to other students is to please be aware of your financial choices. Anything you are paying for or have to pay for, any time you take a semester or year off from school, any financial decision you make – all of that could affect school AND your future. Please just be aware and ask questions. Even if it may seem like a dumb question, ask it anyway. Reach out to anyone you can and — for the love of god — see a financial advisor. I had no idea taking a semester off would affect my entire life, so please just ask for help.

I just hope that other students can look at my story and maybe learn from it and make their lives as college students a little bit easier.

ADVICE FROM A FINANCIAL ADVISOR

Alex chatted with Cathy Curtis, a financial advisor and the founder of Curtis Financial Planning. Here is her advice for Alex.

1. Consider taking some classes at a community college. Curtis strongly encouraged Alex to go back to school – even a few classes. She suggested Alex consider taking a few classes at a community college, where tuition is much lower. "You don't have to take on a lot of debt to finish college but not finishing college may be something you regret later," Curtis said.

2. Consider getting a business degree. Curtis asked Alex if she was still married to the idea of a degree in journalism. Alex said yes and no. "Now that I'm an adult and see the cost of things and how the real world works, I'm not sure if journalism is the best decision for me. I've also thought about a career in the service industry. Not restaurant management but more the corporate level." Curtis suggested that Alex focus on getting a business degree — that is a flexible degree she could do a lot with, including a corporate job in the services industry.

3. Set up a budget and track it. Alex said she generally just makes sure she has the money she needs to pay the bills. "I joke that I grew up living paycheck to paycheck and I'm going to die living paycheck to paycheck," Alex said. Curtis replied – "You don't have to continue that family tradition! You can break it." She encouraged Alex to set up a budget and start tracking it. "Understand where your money is going," Curtis said.

4. Figure out where you can cut costs. "Do you have something you could cut back on?" Curtis asked. Alex said probably, yes – going out and getting drinks. (She just turned 21!) Curtis suggests identifying an area like that where you can cut back. So you go out three times a week now? Maybe go out two times a week. Consciously make a decision to save some money and what you saved from that third night of going out — put that in a savings account.

5. Start saving — even if it's only $20. Curtis acknowledged that Alex is working hard and doesn't make a lot but she encouraged her to start saving — even if it's only $20 a month at first. Then, once you see that's doable, see if you can make it $30 or $40. "Little tiny steps make a huge difference — especially as young as you are," Curtis said. If you can get into the habit of saving — just have it automatically deducted from you paycheck and into savings — it will grow. You won't even miss it! You never had it to begin with. It's right into your savings account — and growing. Automating it is key. Then, once you have some savings, you can invest it and watch it grow even more.

6. Write your own money script. "We all have these money scripts in our heads," Curtis said. You might call them money personalities — things you picked up from your family or who you were around growing up. "They usually start with your family — how was your family with money? You grow up with these. You don't realize they don't have to be your stories. Like I'm always going to live paycheck-to-paycheck. That is a self-limiting belief," Curtis said. Alex agreed — she moved to Phoenix to do her own thing. "But I got stuck in this loop," she said. Curtis understood but said in addition to defining yourself as an adult with your personality and your career — you also get to define yourself by how you handle money. How financially secure you are.

7. You can do it! Curtis said she admires Alex's ambition and how hard she is working. She believes Alex has the will and the drive to get back on track with school, build good money habits, have a successful life — and a secure financial future.

Cathy Curtis
Source: Cathy Curtis

The essays in CNBC's My College Dream series were originally published on the SABEW website as part of their College Connect series, sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education. They will publish on Mondays for the next four weeks on CNBC.

Next week: This student's family has been in a state of financial crisis for nearly seven years


Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.