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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Professors offer tips to develop financial literacy for college students

UC Davis professors discuss topics ranging from student loan debt, to car payments and insurance policies

Many students spend their time in and after college learning how to manage their income, loans and larger purchases. A lack of formal education on these topics, however, has caused many students to struggle with understanding financial literacy. As students continue to make independent financial decisions, UC Davis professors provide students with an introductory background for the future. 

Credit and Student Loans

Due to the pandemic, more Americans faced larger credit card balances and increased debt within the past year. Janine Wilson, an associate professor of teaching economics at UC Davis, said that large credit card balances and accumulating interest do not need to be sources of stress.  

She explained that each month, interest begins to compound, and the costs will increase unless one pays the principal—the amount borrowed originally. In order for the principal to decrease, Wilson recommended that students pay more than their minimum payments owed monthly. 

“What you should be doing, though, is setting aside not just the minimum,” Wilson said. “Try to do more than the minimum every month and put money in your savings account at the same time.”

Beyond contributing more than the minimum payments, she encouraged people to place money into a savings account in addition to paying off debt. 

“Be very careful not to put all your money on paying down debt,” Wilson said. “Share it between savings and debt. Otherwise, you’ll just take out another loan the next time you need to buy something and you’ll never get out from under your debt.”

As a protective measure, Wilson said to always be well informed prior to making financial decisions and to try to limit credit cards to only one. 

“Limit the amount of credit cards you are opening because if you find yourself with too many cards, your credit score goes down,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, it is important to make payments on time in order to qualify for loans and purchases in the future in addition to building a credit score. 

Similar to credit balances, student loans also have accumulating interest rates, which can increase the total amount that is owed overtime. Heather Rose, an associate professor at the UC Davis School of Education, discussed how loans can be managed after graduation. 

Though the large numbers may appear scary, Rose stated that a college education is one of the biggest investments for the future. If students graduate from UC Davis with $20,000 in student debt, she said the monthly payment for the federal direct loans is about $190 a month with an estimated 2.75% interest rate. With the past interest rate of approximately 5%, students would be expected to pay around $212 a month. 

Loan debt can be managed if it takes 10-20% of the yearly income, which Rose said would require a $24,000 salary after graduation. Even if that is not possible, Rose said that there are loan programs that provide students with aid when trying to navigate their loans after college. 

Wilson also recommended that if student loans are stressful for current students and graduates, people can always increase their payments beyond the minimum in order to reduce the principal. 

“Don’t feel like you have to write a check for the whole thing, but just add a little bit more,” Wilson said. “You add that $50 a month and then it will go down significantly faster because you’re paying interest on less money.”

When deciding whether to prioritize credit card or student loan payments, both professors mentioned that it is a choice that depends on multiple factors. Rose emphasized that missed payments on either option would negatively impact one’s credit score. Wilson and Rose both said that students should observe which option has a higher interest rate. Typically, credit card balances have higher interest rates, so the amount owed will compound faster, and students may want to prioritize them.

Housing and Car Payments

As students earn higher incomes, homes and cars may become more accessible assets that they can purchase. Wilson discussed the possibilities of buying cars and homes on credit and what financial decisions students can undertake.

“The only things you should be buying on credit are your college education, your car, maybe, and your house, definitely.” Wilson said.

To buy a home, Wilson stated that it was most common to take out a 30-year loan to finance the purchase of the house. She mentioned, however, that it is imperative to take out a loan with a fixed interest rate and not a variable interest rate.

Wilson referenced the 2008 housing crisis where buyers were loaning $100,000 using variable interest rates and paying a 3% interest rate for two years. After the two years, however, buyers must switch to paying their loan with the current interest rate set by the government. Consequently, mortgage payments could go up significantly and people could lose their homes if they are unable to make their payments. Thus, she advocated for a fixed interest rate so that people can take out mortgages with an unchanging expectation of how much they owe. 

Rose also said that people can make a lot of mistakes when they are paying for their homes. She stated that people often get distracted by minuscule details that they may neglect more important decisions. 

“Grown ups make a lot of mistakes too,” Rose said. “One of the books, I think it was a book by Elizabeth Warren actually, talks about one of the biggest mistakes people make is not refinancing their house often enough. So just keeping your eyes on the big ticket items is important.”

Wilson stated that another possible way to increase one’s credit is through car loans. Since cars are a depreciating asset—they lose their value yearly—she stated that the most advantageous method is to purchase a car with a three-to-four-year loan. She noted that it does not make sense to purchase a car with a seven-to-10-year loan when the car’s value depreciates and one may only drive the car for five years. Ultimately, she emphasized that one must be aware of these implications in order to reach a conclusion that aligns with one’s financial goals and boundaries. 

“When you walk in to buy a car, know exactly what you want to do,” Wilson said. “Do you want to pay cash for that car? Do you want a three-year loan for that car? Have an idea before you walk in there because it is their job to convince you to do what is most profitable for them and not most advantageous for you.” 


In order to save for retirement and important purchases, both professors recommended that students and graduates aim to allocate 10-20% of their income for their savings accounts. Wilson stated that people should aim for 10% toward their retirement account and another 10% toward their long-term savings account. This division of funds enables people to save for larger purchases without removing funds from their retirement accounts. 

Rose further emphasized the importance of starting to save early and generating more funds through compound interest. She also recommended that people record their monthly expenses in order to visualize and differentiate between their wants and needs.

Additionally, Wilson encouraged vigilant spending and always tracking one’s purchases. 

“As you start making money, add to your savings,” Wilson said. “Don’t just add to your consumption.”

She believes that regardless of how much one makes, wealth is determined by spending and saving habits. 

“Let me promise you, you will never have so much that you won’t have to worry about money,” Wilson said. “And you’re going to say ‘What, that’s not possible,’ but think of all the basketball stars that have gone bankrupt or multimillionaire business people that have gone bankrupt. How much you spend will determine how rich you feel. It’s not how much you make.”


Rose also noted the importance of preparing for catastrophic events and purchasing insurance plans to prepare for the future. She believes that strong liability insurance beyond the minimum state-required car insurance is important since it protects drivers and their future income if they were found liable for an accident in court. 

Protection of Inherited Assets

Finally, Wilson discussed policies that enable people to protect their funds and assets for their children. Though many people associate trust funds as a plan for the wealthy, trust funds are a protective tool that can easily transfer one’s inherited funds and assets. With a trust fund, Wilson stated that a home, car and other assets would be immediately passed to the children without requiring court review. Trust funds allow these assets to be protected from legal battles, and she said that they provide a sense of security if a loved one unexpectedly passes away. Wilson said that a trust fund would require a lawyer and a $2,500 fee and would be useful to anyone with a home and a savings account. 

Online Resources

Rose also noted that students can take advantage of UC Davis classes that teach about financial management. She currently teaches Personal Finance (ARE 142). Rose also recommended an online video series from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which provides students with further details on financial literacy. 

Written by: Farrah Ballou — features@theaggie.org


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