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Maxed Out: How to have fun at university—broke or not

'Cue the cold sweat.'

I guess school’s about to start. It’s been so long now since it meant a change in my life I’ve nearly managed to forget that’s what happens this time of year. Not to say I don’t still have those dreams… the ones where there’s a final exam or paper due tomorrow in a class I could have sworn I dropped but somehow hadn’t and now I have to scramble madly to remember what the class was about, where the books for it are, or how in the world I’m going to knock out a paper that was supposed to take me most of the semester to do in the 10 hours I have left.

Cue the cold sweat.

What reminded me school was about to start was an article in the Globe and Mail titled, “How to have fun without going broke during university.”

Excuse me?

What nonsense. I know a lot has changed in the intervening decades since I was a student, but one thing remains constant. Absent very generous parents or scarce, high-paying jobs—think escort/gigolo—you will be broke during university. While not being the whole point of higher learning, being broke is fundamental to understanding why the heck you’re going to university in the first place. Being broke while you’re in university is one of the things you’re in university to avoid later in life.

This, of course, was not the primary reason I went to university. It was second behind not wanting to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. But I digress.

More importantly, and what should have been the point of the Globe story, is you can and probably will have fun in uni while you’re broke. There are a number of reasons for this.

Relativity, for example. You’ll probably learn something about relativity in university, but I don’t mean the Einsteinian kind of relativity. I mean the relativity of being broke among a whole bunch of other people who are broke. Don’t bother focusing on the outliers, the few who aren’t broke. Op. cit., generous parents, high-paying jobs. They’re not important.

Your friends are important. And they’re broke, just like you. Cultivate them. Being broke in a whole gaggle of friends who are also broke makes life easier.

I immediately knew the Globe story was bogus when the first piece of advice they gave was about budgeting. They talked—in percentages no less—about budgeting for necessities, for fun, and for savings. Savings?! Unless you’re majoring in economics, also called the dismal science, math, or home economics, assuming that’s still a subject, forget budgeting. You’re not going to have enough money to budget. Survival is your goal.

The rest of the article was just as useless: use a spending tracker; set a treat budget; set guidelines for what you will and won’t use your student loan for. This advice was obviously written by someone who either didn’t go to university, had a lot of dough, or was the most boring student on campus.

You’ve probably read a lot of scare stories about the mountains of student-loan debt you’ll rack up at uni. Forget ‘em. They’re the kind of if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism into which the Fourth Estate has descended.

As of 2021, the average debt Canadian students graduated with was $28,000. Sounds like a lot, eh? Especially after all those stories about witless students “graduating” from a beauty school owing $60,000 and discovering they weren’t ever going to earn enough to pay it off.

The truth isn’t so bad. While $28k seems like a lot if the only job you’ve ever had was putting burgers in bags at that Scottish restaurant, in Adult World, it’s pretty easy to chip away at it and make it disappear.

Fact is, fewer than half—like around 40 per cent—of graduates have any difficulty paying their student loans back. And many of the ones who struggle fell into the Follow Your Passion trap. Following your passion isn’t necessarily bad advice, but it isn’t necessarily good advice either. If your passion is something that doesn’t pay better than bagging burgers, it’s probably a passion you shouldn’t be borrowing to follow.

The other unspoken pitfall to following your passion is this: Something you have to do day-in and day-out to make a living often, and quickly, becomes something you are no longer passionate about. So maybe you should consider saving your passion for things you do outside of whatever it is you do to pay your way through life.

Skiing is a good example. Many of the people I’ve met who have either given up skiing or are lukewarm about it used to be passionate about it. They followed that passion and raced, worked their way up through the ranks until they either destroyed their bodies or finally realized the top of the podium was reserved for a fraction of one per cent of people who were passionate about skiing.

The passionate skiers I know had real jobs. Jobs that paid well enough for them to ski weekends, buy a place in Whistler, and now ski almost every day in their retirement because they worked at something they were less passionate about but that paid well.

A final word about student loans: If at all possible, borrow from the government. Should you find yourself challenged to pay your loans off, you have a lot better chances of surviving the ordeal if you owe the government, not a bank. Do some research; there’s lots of opportunities out there.

But if you want to have fun at uni, learn to cook. You and your friends are going to have a lot more fun over a trough of mediocre lasagna at one of your houses/rooms and a couple of bottles of the cheapest wine than you are at some watering hole charging $12 for a beer. You’ll make more friends and memories for life at one of those gatherings than you ever will in a bar or restaurant.

Learn to love thrift shops. Look around. Do you see a lot of people on campus who really care about what they wear? If so, ignore this advice, because you’re attending a very elite school and you’re probably not worried about cost.

Pledge frats and/or sororities. Don’t actually join one, just pledge a bunch. The parties are great; the actual membership sucks.

Perfect that little catch in your voice that suggests you’re about to cry but are trying hard not to. When you call home for money, it’ll come in handy.

And don’t read stories in the press about how to have fun at university. The writers obviously never did. I did. For 10 years. About the same amount of time it took to pay off my student debt.

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