Give Me Back My Five Bucks

An open letter to high school students

Dear high school students,

Congrats on graduating! :) Be proud of yourself and all that you have accomplished so far. It must feel good to be done with school, right? After all those final exams, essays, and assignments, you’re now enjoying the freedom of summer. But for those of you moving onto post-secondary school, there’s a lot to think about. Your parents have probably tried to talk to you about “your future,” but since it’s hard to listen to parents sometimes, maybe this letter from me might help instead.

Since I was the older sister, and one of the oldest cousins in my family, I didn’t have many people to get advice from. I made a lot of mistakes over the years, and I had to learn the hard way. But now that I’m closing in on 30 (or the first anniversary of my 29th birthday), hopefully I can offer you the words of wisdom I wish I had been given when I was your age.

Start saving

We all know that we should be putting some of the money we earn – whether it’s through a part-time job or gifted money – into a savings account. But it’s not just something adults do – it’s something we all need to be doing as soon as we start to buy things on our own.

You don’t need to make big bucks to open up a savings account – just start small. If you only think you can save $10 from each pay cheque, that’s okay. Putting that money into the bank is the smartest thing you can do for yourself. While it might not seem like much, you’re developing the habit of saving money, and that’s what’s really important.

Think ahead in life – past university

What will you do with your degree? How will you earn a living and pay back your student loans?

So many of my friends went to University for degrees in subjects that they were interested in – not degrees that they could cultivate into work after they graduated. It’s great to be passionate about what you’re studying, but you have to be realistic. Have a plan of attack.

Whatever it is you’re majoring in – understand what kind of jobs you can get from those degrees, and make sure it’s what you want to be doing when you graduate. If you’re a communication major, what are you going to do with that degree? Sure, it’s a fun topic to learn about every day, but how will you make money with that degree? What kind of job can you get, and will you be able to make the sort of money you will need to pay back your loans, and live the life you want for yourself?

I know it’s hard to think about right now, but you really need to be smart about an education that will likely put you tens of thousands of dollars into debt. Remember – education is only an investment if you can develop a career out of it.

Understand how student loans work

If you are applying for student loans, once you are approved, you might notice that the value of your loans will usually far exceed the cost of your tuition. Free money, right!? Wrong. Student loans are not free money. You will eventually have to pay it back (and yes, you will be charged interest on the loan), so be smart with how you spend that leftover money. I blew through my student loan money every semester, ended up having to take out a line of credit, maxed out my credit card, and then had to fix the mess I had created once I graduated. Don’t make the same mistakes as me.

Be careful with credit cards

Those free t-shirts and frisbees that credit card companies try to offer students sure are tempting, aren’t they? I fell for one when I was a student. I received a free t-shirt right away, and a few months later, I received a maxed out credit card bill in the mail. That card sat maxed out for years. YEARS. So that free t-shirt ended up being totally worth it, right?

A credit card can help you start to build a credit history – which you will need for many things later on in life. But it will only be a benefit if you use your credit card responsibly. Being reckless and keeping a balance on your card, missing payments, and getting into consumer debt will only make your life more difficult and stressful. Make a budget, and don’t buy things that you cannot afford to pay off immediately.

Work while you go to school

Having a part-time job while you go to school is a smart idea for most students. Not only will you have to take out less student loans, but you could potentially graduate with little to no student debt at all. If you’re worried about a part-time job being too hard while taking full-time classes, there is no law that says your post-secondary education must take 4 years. If taking a little longer means you won’t have to borrow any money, then do it.

The extra year or two it might take to finish your degree will be worth it when you graduate debt-free, and your peers are saddled with student loan debt for the next decade. Nothing feels better than landing your first “real world” job, and knowing all of that money belongs to you – and not the government.

Consider community colleges

Try not to dismiss community colleges. A lot of them offer great hands-on programs not offered at universities. After going to a university for 2 years, I ended up going to a community college instead. The program at college provided me with a much more hands-on education. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall, I gained real-world experience working and learning beside industry professionals, and I truly believe my community college education is what sets me apart from other people in my field.

Plus, not only is a community college much, much cheaper than a university, but many of the courses will transfer into a university degree program. Some colleges work in partnership with local universities, where you can do your first 2 years before transferring to do your last 2 years at the university.

I wish you the best of luck in your studies come September, or whenever you decide to go to post-secondary school. Study hard, don’t take anything for granted, and have fun. :)



P.S. yes, that really is a picture of me from my high school graduation celebration!

Related Posts:

What advice do you have for today’s high school students?


Author: Krystal Yee

I’m a personal finance blogger and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I’m a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I’m not working, you can usually find me running, climbing, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.


  1. SavingMentor says:

    Nice letter Krystal, I totally agree with everything you said.

  2. Love this post-lots of it great advice. Although I wish I had saved some of that grad money instead of just blowing it on clothes and things for my dorm room-so I’m glad you pointed that out.

    I’m happy I stumbled across your blog on twitter!

  3. Meghan says:

    I definitely agree with everything here, especially the point about community colleges. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and I’m finding it to be a much better education than at my previous university.

  4. Josie says:

    Love the pic! I agree totally with your advice to high school graduates. I just wish I knew this stuff back when I did graduate instead of having to learn the hard way. Oh well. Hopefully I can help someone else down the road with lessons learned.

  5. Eddie says:

    Cute pic.
    Funny how time flies, seems like yesterday, yet the dirty 30s are not far away.

    • Krystal Yee says:

      Whoa, whoa, whoa. Maybe the “dirty 30s” are closing in on you, but I plan on celebrating the anniversary of my 29th birthday for at least the next, oh… 10 years or so. :P

  6. Michelle says:

    This is definitely a great list! More kids need to do/know these things.

  7. o_O


    Okay, Krystal. I feel that we are friends. And as friends, I feel I have every right to say the following:

    *ahem cough cough*

    bwAHAHAHAHAHA! That was YOU from HIGH SCHOOL!?!?! You look like you’re 12!! Look at those squeezeable cheeks!! SOO CUTE!!! :D :D :D

  8. av says:

    Just to nitpick, one might point out that turning 30 is the first anniversary of turning 29.

  9. I really have a hard time with this article. While it is practical advise I also think that it is flawed. There are a couple of reasons for my assessment. 1. You state to get a degree that you can get a job after. 2. You state that you want to graduate with the intent to launch into a career.(make money with your degree). However this is the kind of advise that has been crushing the entrepreneurial spirit in the US for decades. If you really follow what you love and you cultivate that into doing what you love, the money will follow. This does not mean you have to have a career. Much of the advise in this article is very valuable though. The credit card and student loan advise particularly.

    • Krystal Yee says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve written about this before, but I don’t believe in the idea of doing what you love, and the money will follow. I think that sets up unrealistic expectations.

      For example, someone wanting to teach elementary school might find its not the career for them when the lifestyle they want to lead is that of luxury. As much as they want it, they’re not going to get it. So they have to make a choice between the career they want, and the lifestyle they want.

      The same goes for someone who’s passion has always been to work in radio. But if they want to have a 9-5 work day, that’s never going to happen in that industry. So they will probably have to choose something else.

      There is no rule that says you have to love your job, or be passionate about. Your passion can lie outside of the 9-5, and the income you make from your job can fuel it.

      My passion is travel, but with extremely low salaries (even at the top positions) and long hours every day, the career that I thought I wanted wouldn’t have let me pursue that passion. So I made a choice, and went another direction.

      I really think all students should take some time to think about what they want in life, and in a career – because maybe what they’re studying isn’t going to give them what they want. And I don’t think that way of thinking is crushing the entrepreneurial spirit, it’s simply being realistic as to what’s ahead.

      • srisarts says:

        @Krystal Yee: I have to agree with Krystal here. My true passions don’t lie in my 9-5 job, but frankly, my passions offer no job security or consistent money, both of which are important to survive (physically and mentally). My 9-5 job funds what I love to do, and I am glad I have my career oriented education to fall back on. Being practical with choices for post secondary education doesn’t have anything to do with ‘pursuing what you love’. If you really love it, you will pursue it regardless.

  10. That rocks the high-school picture.

    That takes courage – great inspirational letter and for sharing your story.

    I hope some high school grads listen before they get involved in the struggle of finance!

  11. I think it’s good to encourage students to have a plan as to what kind of job they want to get with their degree, but let’s face it – most students don’t know what they want to do as a career when they are in college. I would encourage college students to pursue what interests them and explore jobs through internships and elective courses. Most of the most interesting and successful people I know do not use their specific degree in their jobs today.

  12. Architect says:

    My parents gave me much of the same advise you are sharing here when I graduated from high school. It was impossible for me to learn about debt when it was an abstract concept. Paying off $30 grand in debt and seeing the amount of interest paid even at historically low interest rates really drove the lesson home for me. There is something to be said for learning things the hard way.

    I definitely think people should question the love vs realism of their education and career choices on a regular basis. The ideal balance of passion vs lifestyle will be different for everyone and will change at different life stages. Getting the right balance is so critical for happiness.

  13. If only I had known then what I do now! Great tips, Krystal – especially the working during school one.

  14. Christina says:

    I enjoyed this post as a current university student.

    Myself, I did go to community college for the first 2 years and it was the best decision I could have made. I saved a lot of money (I was even able to live at home) and I had a chance to adjust. I constantly checked to make sure every course I took would transfer and had no problems when the time came.

    It depends upon your degree (how intense it is) but I don’t always think a part-time job is a good idea. I do have a job but the hours are so few and far between (10 hours/month, usually all in 2 days) that it has very little effect on my studies. This isn’t a type of job that most students could get so I would recommend, start university/college and see how you feel with your course load before deciding on a job.

  15. Christina says:

    Sorry to blab on here…

    I agree that it is important to look into the future of your degree and how it will translate to the real world but I think it is also equally important to follow your passions. You may not end up in the same field as your degree but it will make your undergrad experience so much better. One of my biggest regrets was that I majored in the hardest (in my opinion!) subject, just because I thought it would appear most impressive when I applied for grad schools. In the reality, it killed my gpa (I’ve recovered though!). I wish I had just done what I like and had fun with it!

    I also think people should never shy away from switching degrees/majors (which I did!).

    Thanks for the great post as always!

    • I agree with the never shying away with switching degrees. I started off in engineering and then switched to the sciences. But even now, my current job isn’t directly related to science. However, having the science degree helped me get the job. And its ok if you don’t get a job that’s directly related to your degree. Sometimes you don’t really know what you want to do until you’ve worked a few jobs.

  16. Joel Olson says:

    Super great stuff!

    My favorite stuff is on Student Loans. Those can be really tricky ones. I call them the “Ghost of Credit Past”. Working with mortgages, it seems the most common thing that causes people’s credit scores to dip below standards and put in jeopardy in those student loans that they thought they would be able to pay in high school, but low and behold after college was finished they didn’t quite get their learning capacity soon enough. I personally think, that if you can work like a MADMAN for a year and save up you will be way farther ahead with no student loans….

  17. Where’s the Email button on your blog to share this?

  18. Ryan says:

    My advice: Invest early and invest well. Take advantage of a lifetime of compounding interest ahead of you so that you can make the most of the potential for growth of your savings. Once you get the savings banked, don’t just let it sit there!

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