Hey, upcoming graduate, are you ready for adulting all on your own? Most of you have been living under the sheltering wings of your family or have had some supports in place while you’ve been in high school. That’s all about to change for many of you, so let’s look at 10 life skills you should know before you go — whether it’s off to college, joining the military, getting your first full-time job, or simply moving out.
I know when my first child left the house, I worried sick about how they’d figure things out — did I do a good enough job to prepare them, can they schedule their own appointments, do they know how to do their taxes?! Many skills are simply picked up by our kids through observation and they learn how to “adult” by watching us run through daily chores, errands, phone conversations, etc. However, it’s a great idea to have a list of priority items to be intentional about. If you’re a student reading the below list, ask yourself if you’re positive you can do these on your own and if not, ask the important adults in your life for help. If you’re a parent or caregiver reading these items, take time over the next several months to help your child master these life skills. This is not a comprehensive list, it’s just a place to start to be ready for all the places you’ll go.
The most important thing to know is how to live within your means. Simply put, don’t spend more than you have. You don’t need complicated worksheets, but it’s helpful to use a spreadsheet or budgeting app to track your non-negotiable expenses like rent, food, utilities, and your monthly income, and then keep it balanced. Waaaay back in 1748, Benjamin Franklin wrote Advice to a Young Tradesman, and it’s uncanny how true his words about money and budgets are still spot on!
Keep an exact Account for some Time of both your Expences and your Incomes. If you take the Pains at first to mention Particulars, it will have this good Effect; you will discover how wonderfully small trifling Expences mount up to large Sums, and will discern what might have been, and may for the future be saved, without occasioning any great Inconvenience. —Benjamin Franklin
As the saying goes, two things are certain in life, death and taxes, and we can thank Ben Franklin again for this wisdom.
Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes. —Benjamin Franklin
As a new high school graduate, you will soon have a job, if you haven’t already been working. And earning money means paying taxes. Read this quick article about five things college students should know about filing taxes, and just be prepared. Know the tax deadline, usually April 15, know what type of tax filing /which 1040 form fits your situation, and keep records of everything! This is a good time to get help from parents and older friends who’ve been doing the tax ritual for years — don’t be afraid to ask, and never miss a tax deadline.
3. Credit Cards
You will absolutely need to be savvy on this one! You will be bombarded with credit card offers as a young person, especially as a new college student. It’s important to begin building positive credit history so you’ll be prepared for major purchases like a home or car as an adult, or even signing a rental agreement.
However, many credit card companies have predatory practices and target financially unaware new high school graduates who can easily fall prey to enticing easy money with minimum monthly payments. The “buy now, pay later” mentality can be a dangerous path to unsustainable debt, so here are a few tips to avoid this trap:
Research what credit card you want — don’t simply choose the first offer because you want the free mug or t-shirt. Look for a card with no annual fee, low interest rate, and low credit limit.
Pay attention to interest rates. You may have received a 0% introductory rate that quickly changes to 24% or more. One late payment and interest and fees can add up and not only put you further in debt, but leave you with bad credit.
One credit card is all you need. Avoid the temptation to apply for multiple credit cards as this increases your exposure to debt and can actually lower your credit score.
Only charge what you can afford to pay. A credit card shouldn’t be used to buy things you can’t afford; it’s just a tool to build credit and sometimes get cashback rewards, and for certain things like car rentals that require a credit card.
Pay off your balance every month. You will be charged fees and interest for not paying your balance in full each month, so make this a strict habit.
Staying healthy while out on your own is another critical aspect of adulting! So far, you probably haven’t had to worry too much about how your health insurance works, how to schedule your own doctor appointments, or how to make decisions about personal health such as your daily nutrition and sleep habits. Health is a super broad category to cover, so here are a few bullet points to capture the essentials:
You can stay on your parents’ health insurance plan until age 26. Have your own copy of your health insurance card and be sure it’s current. If you don’t have health insurance through your parents or caregivers, all colleges have student health insurance plans, so look into that. In addition, the Oregon Health Plan is an option to consider. Don’t go without health insurance, that’s a risky option as an average emergency room visit is over $1,000 and an urgent care appointment without insurance is about $150 a visit.
Medication management: Know how to renew your prescriptions. Keeping track of your medications, refilling medicines well before you run out, and consistently taking medications is going to be of critical importance. It’s easy to lose track of this when so far your medicine just magically appears for you! Know the names and proper dosages of your medications, understand the side effects, pay attention to refill dates, and get set up with a local pharmacy.
Finding a new doctor, dentist, or other health-care providers: If you haven’t yet, you’ll need to graduate from a pediatrician to a new primary care physician. Ask for referrals from your current doctor, friends, family, colleagues, or college staff. Do some research and visits before deciding, and make sure they accept your health insurance. Keep these important phone numbers handy: doctor, dentist, pharmacy, etc.
Understand your body: know your allergies, food triggers, or dietary restrictions and keep this at the top of your mind and let your roommates or those close to you know. Pay attention to how you’re feeling as your parents won’t be around to check your forehead and say, “honey, you have a fever!” Keep a thermometer handy and know what your normal temperature is (typically 98.6 but it varies per person). Stock those basic first aid supplies like bandaids, antibiotic ointment, tylenol, throat lozenges and elastic bandages for sprains. Read here for more tips on making your own first aid kit to take to college and out on your own.
Sleep hygiene: it’s easy to let your new-found freedom get the best of you! No one around to tell you it’s time to go to bed?! You may be up until 2 am on the regular and soon be suffering from all kinds of ailments. Say no to the all-night study sessions or the late parties, and follow some basic guidelines on sleep — no electronics in your sleep space, no caffeine or other stimulants six hours before bedtime, avoid daytime napping, keep the same daily sleep schedule even on the weekends, and don’t exercise right before bedtime.
5. Update your Driver’s License
Oregon requires you to update your address on your driver’s license within 30 days of moving, so this item needs quick attention. Read here how to change your address online with DMV, and other related information, such as getting a Real ID if you’d like one.
Some of you will take a car to college or when you move out, others will use public transportation, others will bike or be a pedestrian. Whatever your mode, know the rules of the road! I will never forget my shock that a “No Parking Tow Away Zone” sign is the actual truth. It was my first year of college and I wasn’t paying attention to parking signs, and returned from a social event and my car was gone. I thought it’d been stolen. Nope, turns out I was in one of those ubiquitous tow-away zones around many college towns and I finally found my car impounded in a car lot and had to pay some good money to get it back.
Play it safe and take to heart these transportation tips:
Parking: know where you can and can’t park, where to get parking permits, how to pay parking fines, and strategize the best times and places to drive for easy parking.
Be an insured motorist, for goodness sake! Never, ever let your car insurance lapse, this will end badly. Suspension of your license and revocation of your registration are automatic if you’re caught driving uninsured in Oregon.
Car accident checklist: If for any reason you get into a car accident, do you know what to do? I like Allstate’s 8 step guide for what to do after a car accident.
Bike safety: if you’ll be a bicyclist, e-biker, scooter or moped driver — be a responsible rider and check out this Oregon pocket bike guide. Who has the right of way? Do you have to wear a helmet? What side of the road do you ride your bike on? Did you know that cyclists riding on a sidewalk must yield the right of way to pedestrians and must give an audible signal before passing? Learn more here.
If using public transportation, be aware of your surroundings. Use bus/rail stops that are well lit or near open coffee shops or stores. Travel with friends when possible. Stay alert. Don’t share rides with strangers. Keep your purse or wallet close to your body and tuck away jewelry. Don’t give out personal information to people you don’t know.
Lock your car, lock your bike. Theft happens and is rampant around college campuses and in downtown city areas. If you’re used to your safe neighborhood where no one locks their door, you’ll have to shift your trusting nature to a more cynical outlook for the time being; 96% of college campus crime is property crime.
7. Time Management
Okay, this is a big one. Managing your time and building your own structures for your life for the very first time for some of you — this can make or break your new independence. Checklists are your friend! This can be a useful tool in making visual representations of how much time you have and how many tasks to complete in that time. Whether your checklist is on your phone, in the form of a calendar, on a spreadsheet, in an artistic daily planner — it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you look at it every day and make revisions and edits as you go.
I personally have a daughter in college who keeps an artistic planner and this meets her need for creativity as well as time management. A black and white checklist would suffocate her. But no structure would also be devastating. So the funky combination of art and time is perfect for her style, and she has come to relish the new year and the new calendar journal to keep her on track with beauty to boot. On the other hand, I have a son in the military. As you might guess, his checklist for his daily and monthly tasks looks vastly different from his sister’s pretty planner. It’s a boring-looking line-by-line list with only the essentials. But he’d be lost without it, and it meets his needs. Find your groove and no matter what, be diligent about this, because it’s essential to be consistent with whatever time management tools you use.
Educators and parents everywhere, and all humans with a pulse, have noticed that the biggest time management crasher and productivity sucker is social media. If you can master this monster, you are mostly there as far as managing your time in a healthier way when you’re striking out on your own. There are some incredible apps out there to block social media from your own self, and it’s highly recommended that you check this out and take back your time. Freedom, StayFocusd, and RescueTime are three of the best ones to experiment with. We cannot stress enough the importance of understanding your relationship with time and tasks. It’s a mental health issue, it’s a productivity issue, it’s a life-long pursuit of giving the best of yourself to the world. Back to that famous founding father:
Dost thou love life? Then do not squander Time; for that’s the Stuff Life is made of. —Benjamin Franklin
8. Laundry and Dishes
Don’t we all wish we could do the cleaning once and be done with it?! But no, the loads and the dirt will always be there, and I hope you’ve already had practice with these menial tasks and have had daily chores surrounding them...but if not, let’s break it down.
For laundry in particular, there are some tricky parts. Case in point: I did a quick interview with my third child whom I’m about to launch into college life this coming fall. I sat down with her and her future roommate on a Facetime call and brought up the laundry issue. My daughter, Josie, said she thinks people need to know about separating their laundry when I asked her what I should tell other high school graduates about washing their clothes on their own. Her future roommate, Kaylee, says, “What is separating laundry?” Josie explains that she washes her loads of whites separate from the colors. Kaylee apparently has never heard of this. The topic of learning to live with and communicate with your new roommates is a whole other thing that we won’t cover in this session, but as far as the laundry goes, Josie says to read the tags on the clothes for details on how you’re supposed to wash and dry them. Kaylee also doesn’t know about reading the tags. We had some really good laughs, and now she understands why a wool shirt shrunk to the size of doll clothes after putting it in the dryer. The bottom line is that there are some laundry rules, you have to read the labels, and also it’s a fabulous idea to do a few trial runs to your local laundromat for some testing out of your laundry skills in a foreign environment prior to launch time. Yes, you may have to pay for your laundry loads if you’re living in a dorm or apartment, also your detergent and your dryer sheets or dryer balls, and you even need to fold your own clothes. I wish I was joking.
Washing your dishes is more straightforward. You finish eating and you immediately rinse your dishes and place them in the dishwasher, if there is one. It sounds simple, I know. But somehow I have seen many kitchen sinks cluttered with piles of plates and bowls that have food dried onto them like fossilized stone. Like most things in life, problems can be avoided or made less dramatic by taking care of issues as they arise, and dishes are a great example. Also, read the labels. “Dishwasher safe” is important to know. Today covers 21 things to never put in the dishwasher.
Benjamin Franklin said two things are certain in life, but he failed to mention a third: we have to eat. Like death and taxes, eating is not negotiable, but it can certainly be more enjoyable. My guess is that so far in life, you have not been 100% responsible for your meal planning. If you’re heading to college where there are meal plans to choose from, you still won’t be 100% responsible for your eating, but you will have a higher level of accountability for your eating habits. And if you’re moving out on your own, or living off-campus, you will absolutely have a next-level experience with figuring out how to plan your breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There’s a stereotype about the college student living on ramen noodles and cold pizza. This is supposed to be a result of the poverty of college students, but it’s often the result of poor meal planning and lack of cooking knowledge. Learn at least 10 simple and nutritious recipes before you leave home, and this will be a great starting point for expanding your culinary knowledge. Have a few cooking tools on hand that fit into a small space, like a $20 mini smoothie blender that easily fits into a tiny kitchen. You can throw in a banana, yogurt, frozen blueberries, a handful of spinach, some almond milk, and voila, you created a nutritious green smoothie you can have for breakfast every day for a fraction of the cost you’d pay at a café or store.
10. Safe Physical, Social, and Mental Behavior
Keeping yourself safe from physical, social, and mental harm is a final topic to address. Awareness and preparation are key factors in keeping young people out of danger as they leave the nest and start an independent life at college, work, travel, and beyond.
As far as your physical safety is concerned, many of the previous points apply such as not traveling alone in poorly lit or isolated places, staying alert, keeping your belongings locked up, and avoiding strangers. In addition, college campuses have particular hazards, such as high levels of sexual assault related to alcohol and drug use, parties, and peer pressure. Take steps now to guard yourself — you may sign up for a self-defense class, carry pepper spray or a siren alarm, and use your phone for tracking your location. Review these nine ways to stay safe. Finally, set your personal boundaries and know what a healthy relationship looks like for yourself.
Social wellbeing is also an aspect of safety to consider. We all know someone who goes off to college and either fails out, drops out, or elects to leave because they feel like they don’t fit in. Know that you may feel lost without your old social circle and you may not instantly make new friends, but stick with it and you will find your tribe. If you sense you don’t belong, you are at risk of failing either academically, socially, or emotionally.
What can you do to prevent a failure to thrive in a new environment? Develop meaningful connections and find your community. Greek life is a good option for some people in college, however, it can come with some downsides. Find activities in your interest area such as outdoor clubs, intramural sports, art or music clubs, groups associated with your major, or faith-based activities. If you’re on a college campus, check out the student union that runs the campus organizations. If you’re simply in a new town or moved out on your own, you can try using online tools such as Meetup to make friends, find support, and explore your interests. As with everything, proceed with caution and stay alert, focusing on established groups in your local community.
Use discretion, though, in your desire to find connection and community. Moving out for the first time from under the watchful eye of parents and caregivers can result in some poor decision-making. It can be harder to resist peer pressure when you're living away from home on your own. Practice a "thanks, but no thanks" response to use when confronted with the social pull to engage in alcohol or drug use, unwanted sexual situations, or the pressure to do anything against your values and beliefs. The quality of your peer relationships is the strongest link to your social behavior, for good or for bad — so choose your friends wisely.
In the same way that you work to protect yourself physically and socially, pay attention to your mental health. Especially right now in the midst of a global pandemic, young people are feeling very isolated and struggling with depression and anxiety and other mental health crises at alarming levels. Please reach out to people you love and trust and share your challenges. All college campuses have counseling centers; don’t hesitate to take advantage of the resources available. In addition, there are many local organizations with mental health expertise, and most insurance plans cover mental health and substance abuse services. Thankfully, the stigma of seeking mental health support is decreasing, but it’s still an issue.
Know that mental health is health.
That’s a lot to take in, right? Don’t be overwhelmed, though. You got this! One step at a time, start now in slowly taking over some of these adult responsibilities that perhaps you haven’t yet owned. I didn’t even mention how to clean a toilet, so yep, there’s much more to this list than can be covered!