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Smart money decisions have helped this college grad navigate the coronavirus-battered job market

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. As part of the series, each student chose a recent college graduate to profile to provide an up-close and personal look at who the class of 2020 is, what issues they're facing as they try to find a job in these extraordinary times – and how they're tackling them. Here is the story of Joe Hewitt, a Denver native and graduate of the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Joe Hewitt, a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver, completed his degree in three years – debt-free.
Source: Ashley Bauer

I met Joe Hewitt in Denver last year. I was immediately inspired by his incredible work ethic and the way he sacrificed the traditional "fun" college route that his friends pursued to ensure he graduated from college in three years and debt-free. You might think a student would need wealthy parents or a trust fund to get out of school without debt. But Hewitt worked hard — and made a lot of smart money decisions along the way.

Hewitt, a Denver native, was a senior in high school when his parents told him they wouldn't be able to pay for his college.

Hewitt had set his sights on the University of Colorado in Boulder, so he was hoping that he could get enough financial aid to make it happen. But, the numbers just didn't add up and Hewitt grew concerned about the potential student debt that would accumulate. 

"I was figuring out how to pay for it, and eventually my dad encouraged me to apply to Metropolitan State University in case I didn't get enough scholarships for CU Boulder," Hewitt said. His initial hope was to transfer after freshman year, but he would still need to apply for more financial aid and not all of his AP credits would transfer. "The more I thought about it the more I realized that I can get it done in three years and be debt-free if I took this route.

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Although it meant sacrificing the quintessential college experience that many of his peers were living, Hewitt is grateful that his parents encouraged him to make this difficult decision. "Going to Metro opened my eyes more to what I value out of the people around me. Not necessarily that you're smart and got into a good school but that you worked through it and you did it on your own. I was really appreciative of that experience." 

For his first year of college, Hewitt lived at home and continued making money at the moving company where he had worked summers during high school.

"It was full-time during the summer and during the school year I was able to work part-time on the weekends. By my third summer I was even a truck driver… I think I was actually the youngest truck driver in Denver at the time."

By his second year, Hewitt successfully moved out of his family home and lived with friends in the downtown Denver area, paying his own rent and expenses through his part-time job at Larraz Building Excellence, a Denver-based construction company.

Fortunately, during the pandemic he has been able to keep his construction job and has moved back home to save money while he waits for the job market to open up. 

"I feel lucky that I still have work and am making money," he said. "It's important to keep working for my resume and personally, good overall to keep things going." 

Recent college graduates struggle to find work in the wake of the pandemic

In May, Hewitt received his bachelor's degree in finance. He is considering a career in finance but his ultimate dream is to work in the sports industry, combining his passion for sports and mathematics as a sports analyst.

"I want to be part of the game and help make decisions for an organization," he said. This time and freedom as a recent graduate has allowed him to explore his interests and map out how to get there.

"I've learned the value of connecting and networking, always putting myself out there and bringing value to others." 

The pandemic has certainly been an opportunity for many to reflect on personal spending habits, but Hewitt was ahead of the curve.

"I'm a lot less concerned about impressing people with my possessions ... I'm able to take a step back and look at myself and be more content with who I am."

He admits that spending money on food has always been — and continues to be during the pandemic — the biggest allocation of his financial resources.

"Being able to order and pick up food has made it easier and I've continued to purchase and support local businesses," he said. "But I'm definitely spending less overall, since I've spent less time out and about."

Hewitt feels concerned about the financial impact that the pandemic will have on his generation, as well as the impact of the greater economic disparities across the country.

"Wealth inequality is growing — it's up to younger generations to be the catalyst of change," he explains. Paired with the social changes arising in response to recent events of civil unrest, Hewitt feels a sense of responsibility among younger generations to move the needle to end systemic racism. "As younger people grow and become adults, we will hopefully start to see changes that we've been fighting for for so long."

Hewitt credits his parents for helping him better understand his priorities and make difficult but wise financial decisions.

"I really appreciate what they did in terms of pushing me and I definitely wouldn't have gone down the path I did without their advice," Hewitt said. "It really worked out for me and it's the best thing I could ask for."

2020 has frequently been described as a difficult year to graduate college, but Hewitt's experience with financial planning and independence has better equipped him to endure the difficult economic circumstances.

"It's the idea of sacrificing in the present to reap rewards in the future," he explains. "Now I'm able to sit back and know that I didn't necessarily miss that much of my life by not going to an expensive university and I actually set myself up better for the future." 

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.