"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.
Noelle Schon, a student at Arizona State University majoring in journalism and mass communications with a minor in business, grew up in a family that was financially well off. Her parents set up a college fund so her education would be paid for. But Noelle's story just goes to show that no one is immune from money problems: Her parents split up when she was a teenager and she says her family spent the next seven years in a state of financial crisis while her parents sorted it out. They moved four times and her father lost his job. Noelle learned a lot watching her mother navigate those rocky years.
Now, Noelle lives with her mom while she's going to college and contributes some of her income from an internship to the household bills. And, another unexpected event occurred: Her grandmother, who is not in good health, and her dog, came to live with the family. Noelle learned much sooner than other students how important money and a good economy are for the future – and that you have to prepare for what happens if both of those things fall apart.
In the fourth installment of My College Dream, Noelle shares her story, the financial lessons she's learned and her advice for other students.
My family has been in a state of financial crisis for nearly seven years since my parents separated when I was 13 years old. The years that followed were full of court proceedings, four moves and a lot of lessons about life — and finances. It taught me how quickly money can go and how important it was to invest and save.
I also discovered just how much economics affected our lives at a personal level. When we sold the family home, we unfortunately sold it for the same price as we bought it due to a shaky economy from the 2008 crash. My father also lost his job, which affected child support.
More from Invest in You and the My College Dream series:
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
How this college student's responsible money decision took a turn and forced her to drop out
Luckily, we were able to put a down payment on another house that ended up turning a profit that my mother could use to rent another home and provide for us. Through these experiences, my mother, who had worked in the banking industry, would always make an effort to explain the mechanics behind every financial decision she made to put me and my siblings at ease. The world of finances can be confusing, but I am incredibly thankful that my mother taught me about it.
I'm very lucky that my parents opened a college fund for me early on. I cannot imagine what the situation would have been if we did not save, or if I did not have this college fund.
This goes toward tuition and other college-related purchases such as textbooks and parking permits. This allows me to use the money I make from jobs or internships to help support my family. I help pay for electricity and gas or whatever the immediate need is for my income.
That has been extremely helpful because this past summer, just as we felt like we were getting over the divorce debt, we had another unexpected event occur: My grandmother began living with us. She has macular degeneration and severe hearing loss, in addition to a broken shoulder, three fractured vertebrae and a damaged disc as a result of several falls. We also took in her dog. On top of mounting medical bills, we've all been splitting our time between her and giving up either studying or work time to take care of her. For my mother, who is a single parent and really the primary earner, this also means often giving up prime work hours to care for her, whether that's working on her physical therapy, taking her to get a back procedure done or spending hours on the phone per week figuring out her bills. Additionally, my mother's work solely relies on commission, which complicates the situation further. I feel extremely blessed to be working right now.
For me, financial issues have always been connected to other emotional issues. I feel guilty knowing that there may be a family out there who has an identical situation to me but does not have at least one large financial burden — college — taken off their plate. But it also feels hopeless sometimes for my family. We were not at all expecting what had happened to us to happen in terms of the divorce and other events that followed, and the past few years have just been us trying to catch up.
I have college paid for, which is amazing. Now, it's just a matter of working to help my family. Right now, the biggest choice I'm facing is changing my major to something purely online so I can continue to work 20 hours, help out at home and still graduate on time. Ultimately, I know that things will work out for the better.
I've learned that life is unpredictable, and unfortunately, unpredictable events may lead to unexpected expenditures. It's good to plan, and who knows: The plan you make may end up helping you in a completely different way than expected. It also really brought to light the concept that people trade one good for another, whether that's giving up a wage-earning opportunity to spend a few hours helping your grandmother every day, or getting lower grades so that you can earn an income.
I definitely learned that saving for the unexpected is crucial, and that the economy can change quickly. I don't currently have an emergency fund. Most of the money I make through my internship goes toward paying off bills. But I have full intentions of saving as soon as I possibly can.
If I could give advice to other students, it would definitely be save what you can. If you're not in a position to save right now and everything you're putting your money toward is important, then there is no shame in that. But finding small things to save on has been good for me and probably for other students too, since most of us probably aren't planning to make any big purchases on anything but college to begin with. I am really shocked how much money I can save by buying off-brand groceries, for example. A little goes a long way.
I would also like others who are in a similar situation to know they're not alone and the challenges we face, financial or not, are just temporary.
ADVICE FROM A FINANCIAL ADVISOR
Noelle chatted with Marguerita Cheng, a financial advisor and the CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. Here is her advice for Noelle.
1. Consider applying for financial aid. Cheng pointed out that Noelle's family's circumstance has changed and she may now qualify for financial aid – particularly because she has a brother who is also in college right now. (Her other brother is a junior in high school and will be going to college in a few years.) And, they've arguably added another dependent to the household – her grandmother. There are need-based grants, scholarships and subsidized student loans based on a family's financial situation. "There is something called estimated family contribution. Two kids enrolled in school at the same time. You may not have been eligible in the past but you could be in the present," Cheng explained. She suggested that Noelle fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible for herself but also her mother's financial situation.
2. Join a student group – and see if there are scholarships. Cheng asked Noelle if she was involved in any student groups – say accounting, given that Noelle has said she is considering changing her major to something that is more practical for her and her family's needs. Cheng pointed out that there are a lot of scholarships that aren't need-based that are associated with areas of interest. And, you don't have to commit that much time to the organization. The dollar amounts are small – maybe $500 to $1,000 a semester – but they can make a difference. Even $500 could pay for car repairs or text books.
3. Save on text books. Cheng suggested another area for saving would be to either sell text books you have laying around that you don't need. And, consider sharing text books with friends – I use it one semester, you use it the next, etc. Small savings like that could help you build a cushion that could pay for car repairs. Noelle mentioned that does need to have some work done on her car in the next year – some parts replaced that she hadn't planned for.
4. Look into resources for elder care. Noelle's grandmother needs more care than she did before she developed macular degeneration, severe hearing loss and multiple injuries that resulted from a couple of falls. Cheng suggested that she visit the National Council in Aging to check into resources, and links to local offices, to get her grandmother some additional care. She also sent Noelle some additional resources. "Depending on your grandmother's income level, she may be eligible to receive a couple hours a day of community-based care," Cheng explained.
5. Consider pet insurance. Noelle explained that several of their animals were seniors, which means monthly insurance would be very expensive and might not make sense. However, they did get it for a few of their animals. This is a great idea, especially when your family is in a tight financial spot – a pet illness or injury can top $5,000 or even $10,000. Insurance can help mitigate that and prevent you from taking a huge financial hit when trying to care for your furry little buddies.
6. Try to find ways to cut your expenses. Beyond looking at ways to cut down on indulgences like a $4 latte, Cheng suggested their family call the cellphone company. Say something like, "There are five of us and two of us are in school – any chance you can help us lower our bill?" Cheng said she's had clients save $25 that way. Likewise, if you call your car insurance company, ask if there are any discounts for students with a good driving record. Sometimes you can save money there. And, one of the biggest expenses for families is food. Consider bringing your own snacks to class instead of buying them out. Every little bit helps!
7. Consider part-time jobs you can do from your laptop — at home. Cheng said there are many things you can do without leaving home/leaving your grandmother alone – if you're good with kids, you could tutor. You could also help out a local business with things like their PR or social media.
8. Weigh your options – but don't discount key factors. Noelle said she's considering an online major, where she can stay home to help out more. Tuition costs a little more for online-only but you save on things like gas, which is a big expense. Cheng suggested she consider staying where she is – still going to school a few days a week. "It's important to be around your peers and not have that isolation," Cheng said. Plus, that networking is very helpful — especially when you're starting out in your career. You never know when one of those students, professors or staff members you see on-campus could help you get your first job after school.
Cheng said she was very impressed with Noelle's maturity, determination, grace and grit. She thinks taking even a few of these steps could help save some money. And, finding some community help in caring for grandmother would give Noelle and her family a little wiggle room – both financially and with their time. That way, Noelle can focus more of her passion and energy on her career and setting up a solid financial path.
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.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.