It’s graduation day. Sitting in my cap and gown, I listen with split attention – 25% bored, 25% giddy, 25% tired, and 25% thinking that this is probably important and I should try harder to pay attention. I shift my weight to alleviate the pins and needles in my left butt cheek as my high school principal continues with words meant to inspire: “Seize the day, for today is the first day of the rest of your lives…” We cheer, pose for pictures, we toss our caps up into the air. Then, as suddenly as the grad march began, the music stops and we’re puked out into the real world somehow equipped with all the good advice and adult maturity needed to survive and thrive. I was 17 when I scurried, like a scared country mouse, to the big city of Calgary to start university. I’d never paid a bill, never gotten a job without knowing a friend of a friend, never taken a city bus, never lived on my own. Here are some things I wish I’d learned:
1. Taxes: The first time I did my taxes, I went to the post office, collected a stack of paperwork and commenced with the confusing, time consuming, frustrating process of completing my first tax return. I had midterms to write, I didn’t have time for this! I didn’t have money to go to H&R Block either. Luckily, after scrunching up the third set of forms, I learned that there was a free service at the University where a group of volunteers would take my paperwork and complete my tax forms for me. I lugged receipts and T4s and a big stack of paperwork to MacEwan Hall and deposited my mass of confusion to the tax angel who sat, smiling eagerly behind her official-looking desk. As I walked away, tax pain temporarily relieved, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit envious of her tax know-how, and also slightly scared of the day I’d have to do them on my own.
2. Every Day Finances: How much does a loan really cost? What is good debt vs. bad debt? How and when and how much should I put into RRSPs? What is an RRSP? Why will it take me 35 years to pay off my student loan when I make the minimum payment? Why are credit cards not considered free money? My husband is a walking encyclopedia of financial knowledge, but l confess that I take it for granted that he’s always ready and willing to educate me. Sadly, my current education regarding financial planning is directly correlated to the number and frequency of episodes I watch of ‘Til Debt Do Us Part.
3. Driving: I’ve been in two accidents since I’ve lived here. Both in good weather. Both my fault. Moving from a one stoplight town and spending my first few years in the city taking public transit, putting a set of car keys in my hand was like releasing a bull in a china shop: someone or something was bound to get hurt. Luckily neither accidents were serious and both scared me into attempting to reform my bad driving habits (like a smoker trying to quit, it takes daily willpower). I took a motorcycle safety course a couple years ago prior to getting my class 6 license. They taught how to drive defensively. They showed us what to do if we dropped it. They offered instruction on how to handle emergency situations. Prior to taking the course, I hadn’t been on a two wheels for years and had never been on something as heavy or as tricky to drive as a motorcycle. Though it’s ultimately my decision to drive safely, I felt the course offered insight into what could go wrong and empowered me make more informed driving decisions.
4. Nutrition: And not just pointing to the Canada Food Guide and saying “eat this”. I think that the general population is more conscious than ever about our food and that this consciousness could and should start before we, as young adults, start making our own choices about what we have for dinner. When I graduated from high school, I was thrilled that I could buy and consume whatever sugary cereals I wanted. I could eat chicken wings by the dozen with fried food and cheesecake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I could guzzle Big Gulps full of sugary cola-flavored syrup and chase it with handfuls of peanut M&Ms. I was young. My metabolism could handle it, right? There’s a reason they call it the “Freshman 15” – because that’s exactly what I gained my first year on my own. In an age of diabetes and obesity, gluten intolerance, peanut allergies, and lactose sensitivities, I’m trying to become a more educated consumer, but still find myself mired by the language of nutrition: omega 3, GMOs, organic, free range, complete proteins, dirty dozen, the clean 15 – WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN!?
5. Accountability: I had a chemistry teacher in high school who was widely despised by the majority of the student body. Her tests were really hard. The course content was really difficult. If I didn’t understand something she wouldn’t stop what she was doing to explain it: she’d continue writing equations across the blackboard and tell me to come speak with her after class. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help me succeed – instead, she forced me to take responsibility for my learning so that I could help myself. In the cushy halls of high school, her class was the closest it got to post-secondary. And though most students would blame her for their failures, calling her names and being absolutely horrible to her behind her back (and sometimes to her face), it took some time to recognize that if I didn’t attend class, if I didn’t study, if I didn’t seek out help, my failure would be no one’s fault but my own.