And that’s a wrap. Another year has come and gone and I am officially down to three semesters left of college. Where has the time gone?

When I reflect on the last two years, I think about how much I’ve learned since I was a junior in high school. If only I could have known then what I know now – and I know I’m not the only one who thinks that. So, to you high school juniors and seniors who may not have thought much about the higher education investment in your near future, take some tips from this fellow student who went into it all without an idea of what it would cost me on the flip side.

First, start saving now. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but trust me on this one. College isn’t just tuition and textbooks (and yes, it is true that most books are upwards of a couple hundred dollars…). It’s also living expenses, a wardrobe to rep your new team, and nights out with new friends. It will cost you to “worry about it later” because you still won’t be saving “later” if you have a spending habit now.

If you are already a spender, now is the time to break that habit because your expenses will only rise when you get to campus. If that’s not convincing enough, try this not-so-fun fact: I spent every single dollar of every paycheck that I earned during my first semester of college, and not a penny of that was spent on tuition or textbooks. Yikes, that was hard to admit… SAVE NOW. You’ll need it.

Keep filling out scholarship applications! I didn’t realize how important this was until I saw that none of my first-year scholarships returned my second year- surprise! Scholarships that you receive as a freshman may not necessarily be renewed year after year, at least not without reapplying.

You should continue to apply for new scholarships each year, and set aside time to research and write quality essays. It may require a big chunk of your time, but it’s worth it; remember, you don’t have to pay scholarships back. The more money you are gifted, the less you have to take out in student loans.

Take advantage of any financial education you can get your hands on. If you are lucky enough in high school to be offered a financial education class, take advantage of it! If not, take a look online at online programs, or try to enroll in a personal finance class your first semester of college. You will be amazed at how much you actually don’t know, and how much lifelong information you will learn. A financial education course will provide you with indispensable information for college that will be as close to real-life experiences as you can get without making those real world mistakes. This opportunity is priceless and the more knowledge you can obtain before you start taking out student loans, the better.

Get to know your student loan options. Student loans can be intimidating… if you’re not aware of how they work. Student loans are a reality for most students, and yet many just skip through their federal loan entrance counseling without paying it any mind. That lack of interest and state of being uninformed leads to student loans that can spiral into five and six-figure debt. Take the initiative to learn about what you’re doing before you borrow – after all, they’re your loans:

  • Discover the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
  • Master any unknown terms that you encounter during the financial aid process.
  • Calculate how much you will take out versus how much you will pay back.
  • Be sure you only borrow what you need (and no, spring break is NOT actually a necessity).
  • Realize the difference between federal loans and private loans.
  • If you’re using private student loans, compare lenders to see who will offer you the lowest interest rates.

There is a lot of information out there about different types of loans and how you “should” pay for school, but a good place to start is the Federal Student Aid website where you can learn about federal financial aid. Keep in mind that you know your financial circumstances better than any piece of paper or website, so what works for the mainstream may not be for you, and that’s okay. Your school’s financial aid office is there to help you figure it out.

While each student’s experience is unique, a lot of us share common financial flaws when we first leave the nest. It’s safe to say you’ll make mistakes as you learn how to borrow and invest in your future, but limit those by learning as much as you can before you make the transition, and lessen the burden on your future self. Your future self will thank you for it.