This might be my all-time favorite topic. I realize that plans are often merely something to be deviated from, but I still think there is tremendous value in planning and goal-setting, not for the mere accomplishment of the goal, but also for the person you become in the pursuit of it. Applying that principle to my area of expertise, I tell prospective students all the time, “you need to pick a career, not a major.”

Being Realistic is a Life Skill

I feel like writing that heading was like channeling my mom – Mom, I hope you’re proud. It’s great that you like acting, think floral design is the best thing ever, or really want to get into the pro leagues – and I’m not saying don’t dream big. What I am saying is it’s just good sense to have a solid plan to fall back on. If you’re going to drop a lot of cash on a degree it’s pretty important to make sure you’ve thought through where that degree is likely to take you and the doors it opens. You’re certainly not 100% pigeonholed into an industry if you get a degree in ‘x,’ but it’s good to go into it like a healthy relationship – with your eyes wide open to the possibilities (or lack thereof). These are basic return on investment (ROI) concepts that are essential to financial health in every area of your life.

Identifying Your Goal

This is where things get tricky – it’s important to have a goal that is actually going to take you somewhere. There are a lot of statistics out there about how 50-70% of students change their major at least once (often adding on a semester or even multiple years of school) and how if you have a degree, whether it’s in psychology or math, at least  you’re more likely to get “a good job.” Can I be real with you? A lot of people within the university are still thinking about college like it’s 1989. Having a bachelors degree doesn’t guarantee you anything. I’m not going to say that it’s not worthwhile to get a degree (necessarily), but I think it’s more important than ever to be circumspect in thinking through where your degree is likely to take you. A bachelor’s used to be a preferred qualification for many jobs when the baby boomers and Generation X were entering the workforce. No more! If you don’t have a bachelor’s you are often recused from a host of job possibilities, including many entry level positions. But in many ways, a bachelor’s is the new high school diploma – it takes more than that to really stand out in a competitive market.

On that note, it’s important to shadow jobs before and during college to get a more realistic picture of what you want to do. If I could say that 10 more times and in all caps without sounding cheesy, I would. But go back and read it one more time anyway. Informational interviews are also useful tools for asking penetrating questions without the pressure of an employment interview setting. You need to really know what you are getting yourself into before you waste a year/years of your life and lots of money studying something that doesn’t actually align with your interests, talents, and life goals.

Taking the Big Picture View

Speaking of life goals, I remember my mom sitting me down in high school and making me figure out how much I needed to make to support “the lifestyle to which I’d grown accustomed” – in her words. It seemed a little silly at the time, until I realized how much owning a house, paying utility bills, having a car, and also eating actually cost. I already had plans to go to medical school, so I figured the return on that investment would probably cover it, but it was a good wake-up call. If you (or your child) haven’t already done this, Learnvest’s MASH calculator is a great place to start. I recommend getting even more granular so you have a good idea of how much your everyday life will cost you, but this is a good way to think about your overall plan and if what you’re currently imagining fits the reality you’d like to experience.

Along those same lines, it’s important to take a broad view of your setting as well.

  • What are the 10-year projections on the job market where you think you may want to end up?
  • Are they looking for software engineers? Air traffic controllers? Chefs?
  • What technological advancements are in the works and how might they affect your field?
  • What is the investment you’ll have to make – will it take you four years of school? Six? Eight?
  • Do you have to do additional training after your degree(s)?
  • How much can you expect to be making as a new graduate/apprentice/fellow?
  • What is the projected growth in your field?
  • Will there be a critical shortage as older workers age out?

Finding the answers to questions like the ones above will enable you to think about whether or not your goal is a worthy one.

Don’t Fall for the “No Pressure” line

While I don’t advocate being totally stressed out all the time and preoccupied with making your future everything you want it to be – things happen, things totally out of your control, that’s part of life – the effort you invest really is up to you. The time to decide what you want to do is before you spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on a degree and before you take a job that drains the life out of you (although, you may have one or two of those along the way, and that’s ok – they build character and healthy coping skills). There definitely is some pressure for you to do the hard work of thinking and planning before you jump into something that’s going to cost you. That’s what being a wise investor is all about.