Homemade “Meat”, “Cheese”, and Bread and how much do they cost

Artwork by The Child

I just finished eating a delicious “meat” and “cheese” sandwich on homemade bread and I thought I should share some amazingly easy recipes together with a comparison of the cost to make them at home verses buying equivalent products. Although the savings are significant, I mostly cook because I enjoy the magic of creating food (who knew you can make “meat” in your kitchen with just a few minutes of labor), and I like having control over the ingredients I use. Buying in bulk and cooking from scratch also reduces waste from packaging.

We are mostly vegan, hence the quotes above, but I am still pretty traditional and like a good “meat” and “cheese” sandwich once in a while. Bread is one of the easiest things to make and it is well worth making it at home to avoid all the preservatives added to store-bought breads. Plus it makes your house smell great.

I don’t remember where I got my bread recipe so I can’t give proper credit, sorry.

Bread

(This recipe is very forgiving. Even though I give exact measurements, I only measure the flour and the water and I am not very careful with those.)

Dry Ingredients
4 cups white flour
(can replace 1 cup with whole
wheat)
2.5 teaspoons yeast
1.5 teaspoons salt
Wet Ingredients
2 Tablespoons oil
1 3/4 cup warm water

In a big bowl mix together the dry ingredients. Then add the wet ingredients. Mix and knead for a couple of minutes. Add more flour if needed. Let the dough sit in the bowl covered with a damp towel for about 2 hours. It will double in size. I make two loaves out of it. After forming the loaves, give them another hour to raise and bake at 350 F until golden brown. Let cool before cutting.

Cost for two loaves using mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon:

4 cups organic white flour = 18 oz =$1.62
2.5 teaspoons yeast = 0.25 oz = $0.20
2 Tablespoons oil = 1 fl oz = $0.05
Salt, water, and electricity for baking = a few cents
TOTAL: Less than $1.00 per loaf

Comparable bread at the store is about $3.00-$4.00 per loaf. You can have added fun by putting rosemary, oregano, or suflower seeds in the dough. Unfortunately the child does not like anything added to her bread so we make it plain.

Cheese

This recipe is a mild modification of Lessarella cheez by GoDairyFree. The original recipe is probably better but it requires lemons and I often don’t have those around. Prices quoted for mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon.

2 cups water (free)
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar (1 fl oz, $0.18)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast (8 Tbsp or $1.50)
1/3 cup quick oats ground to a powder ($0.20)
1/4 cup cornstarch (optional, makes cheese extra solid) ($0.35)
1 Tbsp onion powder ($0.25)
1/4 cup tahini ($0.86)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt

TOTAL cost: $3.34

Put all ingredients in a food processor (or use a submersible blender), blend until smooth (less than a minute) and then cook until thick (about 10 min). While cooking you really must stir THE WHOLE TIME. Freezes well. Great on sandwiches, pizza, quesadillas, and as dipping sauce for vegetables.

This “cheese” doesn’t really have a store bought equivalent but it fulfills all of our family’s cheese-needs for the week which used to take 3-4 packages of Dayia at $4.50 a bag and it is much less processed.

“Meat”

I don’t know why but it took me years to discover how easy it is to make seitan at home. This recipe is a modification of Seitan with Chickpea Flour from One Green Planet. Again, the original recipe is probably better but this has fewer ingredients so it is faster and cheaper.

Dry Ingredients
2 cups vital wheat gluten
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon onion powder
Wet Ingredients
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 cups hot water

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl. Separately, mix all the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry, mix, and kneed for 3-4 min. Add extra wheat gluten if needed. Let rest for 15 min covered with a towel. I usually form two “loaves” and I like to make them kind of long and thin (helps with cutting later). Put in a pot mostly covered with water with some soy sauce and boil for 1.5 hours. They will at least double in size so make sure they have enough space to do that. You may have to top off the water occasionally and you might want to flip the loaves half way through but they will be fine if you forget. You can also boil them in vegetable broth but I never do.

Cost for two loaves of seitan using mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon:

2 cups vital wheat gluten ($1.95)
1/2 cup chickpea flour ($0.72)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast ($1.50)
1 Tbsp dried basil ($0.25)
1 teaspoon cumin ($0.25)
1 Tbsp onion powder ($0.25)
1 Tbsp ketchup ($0.25)
1/3 cup soy sauce ($0.60)

TOTAL: $5.77

You can add seitan slices to any meal or salad. We also eat it just as a snack thinly sliced. Store-bought seitan in about $4.00 for an 8 oz package in my area. I don’t have a scale but I think the recipe above makes at least 2 lb so that is about $16 if you bought it pre-made. Plus, it is really fun to make!

No Netflix November

No Snacks September was a fun challenge which led our family to adopt new eating habits. I thought November offered an interesting opportunity to explore life without Netflix. Maybe this will be another change we will decide to permanently embrace…

Netlfix for me is a lot like junk food. I spend a lot of time on Netflix to relax – it is essentially junk screen time. Given that my job requires me to be on the screen for probably 10 hours per day, I really don’t need any additional screen time. There are also many other screen activities that are more productive and more fun like writing this blog.

The average Netflix subscriber spends 1hr and 11 min per day on Netflix but only 35 min bonding with their family. I am afraid my stats are even worse than the average. Maybe No Netflix November will help me be a better wife and mother…

The Child does not approve of No Netflix November. For this reason, she has declined my invitation to provide art for this post. I am glad she has clear opinions and refuses to participate in activities that go against her believes:0)

Three fallacies that will cost you money

Artwork by The Child

I am taking an MBA class, and I was reminded of a lesson that we should all keep in mind when making money decisions. Here are three ways in which our mind can play tricks on us that lead us astray.

Proportionate thinking:

Suppose you are shopping for a big-screen TV. You are a smart shopper, so you compare prices and discover that your local Best Buy has the exact TV you want for $3,999.99. Walmart, which is 15 min away, also has the same TV but for $3,989.99. Do you drive for 30 minutes round trip to save $10 on a $4,000 TV?

Now suppose that a Dairy Queen, which is also 15 min away, has free ice cream cones for the whole family, which you know normally costs $10 at your local Dairy Queen. Would you drive 30 min to get free ice cream for everyone?

Most people will not drive extra to save $10 when they are already planning to spend $4,000 because $3,999.99 is “almost the same” as $3,989.99. But these same people will drive the same distance to get free ice cream that is worth $10.

The fundamental question is, is it worth driving 30 min for $10 so the answer should always be the same, it is either worth it, or it is not. But the human mind gets focused on the proportion, not the absolute amount. So, when making a decision about money, try to step out of the specific situation and think about the principle.

This can get complicated very quickly, and there can be good reasons why the answer might be different in the two situations. Making a big purchase can be anxiety-provoking, and many people just want to get it done. On the other hand, going for free ice cream can be a fun family outing, and the drive can be part of the experience. Making a different choice in the two situations is not necessarily illogical, but it is still important to watch out for proportional thinking.

Ignoring implicit costs:

We recently considered buying a treadmill to use during the cold winter months. A basic treadmill is about $300. We could afford it. But then I started considering all the other “costs”:

-It will take up space the whole year while we will probably only use it during the two very cold months.

-We will have to maintain it and potentially service it if it stops working (which is likely if we are buying the cheapest model).

-If we move (which is likely), we will have to move it or get rid of it.

-We hope to move to a smaller house at some point, which will probably not have space for a treadmill.

-Eventually, this machine will end up in a landfill someplace where it will be for millions of years.

After considering all these other “costs,” we have decided to at least try some alternatives. Doing online exercise videos comes at no cost, no environmental impact, and can be done on demand. Of course, staying healthy is priceless, so if other options don’t work, we will reconsider the treadmill, but we will try the other options first.

Coloring money

We often make different decisions about money based on how we obtained it. Let’s take the treadmill example from above. Suppose I win $300 and decide that I can have the treadmill for “free,” so I buy it. This is an example of coloring money. I think of the $300 I won as somehow different than the rest of my money. But it is not. I could have afforded the treadmill before, but I decided it is not worth it. Just because I now have a different $300, this doesn’t change any of the reasons I decided it wasn’t worth it. You should use the same logic in spending these $300 as you use for any other $300. All money that you have is the same, no matter how you obtained it.

The decision parameters change if I actually win a treadmill. In this case, I can’t choose to spend the money on something else. My choice is to take the free treadmill if I think that the rest of the implicit costs after removing the treadmill’s actual cost are worth it or decline it and get nothing. If I were offered a free treadmill, I would probably take it.

There is sometimes space to negotiate that should be explored. Imagine your child has just finished their undergrad degree, they are finding it difficult to get a job, and you want to help. You are sitting for dinner, and your kid starts talking about some certificate program that they read about that seems like the kind of thing employers are looking for. The program’s cost is $5,000, and you jump at the opportunity to help your kid and say that you will pay for the program.

This situation is kind of like winning a free treadmill. The parameters for the kid is that she can get this program for free or get nothing, so she will probably choose to do the program. But is this the optimal way for you to help your kid? Maybe there is a different and better certificate that she wants to do. Or maybe she would rather use the $5,000 to buy a car, which will allow her to look for jobs in a larger geographic area. Or maybe she needs the money to start a small business. Your money may be much more beneficial to your kid if, instead of promising to pay for the certificate, you decide how much money you want to give to your kid and then have a conversation with her to figure out the best way to help. Depending on the kid, you could be completely hands-off and give her the money and trust she will make a good decision. On the other extreme, you might want to discuss with the kid, and once a decision is made, use the money to pay directly for the item you agreed on. Either way, that will ensure that your money is spent in the most impactful way possible.

Remaining completely logical when making money decisions is hard, but it pays to think hard about your behavior and realize that emotions sometimes cloud our judgment.

A new gadget in the funky kitchen that is totally worth it

Artwork by The Child

I like my kitchen pretty empty. A few years ago, we donated most of our kitchen appliances and any extra pots and pans. We haven’t owned a mixer, a blender, or a food processor in awhile. These things occupied too much storage space, and they were too hard to clean, so we didn’t use them much. We also never got an instapot or an air fryer. We have a pot, several pans, a rice maker (when it breaks, I probably won’t replace it), and a toaster oven, and that seems to be all I need to make food. The toaster oven was a gift from my in-laws and is possibly the most used appliance in the house. I do most of my baking in it, and there are sweet potatoes roasting in it as I type. If you don’t have one of those, you probably need it!

The other appliance that I use a lot is a submersible blender. This was also a gift from my in-laws. It does most things a blender can do, but it is much smaller and doesn’t need counter space. I use it to cream soups, make vegan cheese, and even to make pancakes. About 6 months ago, it broke, and for a few months, I refused to replace it. I stopped making some things that required it, and I made my pancakes by hand (a little lumpy, but after baking, they tasted just fine). Finally, last month I decided that it is time to replace it and I found this wonderful gadget to replace it with

KOIOS 800W 4-in-1 Multifunctional Hand Immersion Blender

It turns out this is my dream gadget. The immersion blender works great. You can also use the motor to power a very basic food processor—just one blade, super easy to clean and store. I already made hummus and a salad dressing with it, and I love it. I am not so sure about the egg beater. I probably don’t really need that, but it might work as a mixer in a pinch.


If you already have a high-quality bender and a multifunctional food processor that shreds and grates and has a gazillion attachments, and you already have a mixer, then this gadget will be an inferior duplicate of what you already have. But if you don’t like cluttering your kitchen and you want one thing that will do most of the things you need relatively well, this is a gadget for you! $39.99 and no counter space needed.

Contemplating becoming a single income household

Artwork by The Child

Funky Wife is a special ed teacher. In normal times, she mostly works one-on-one with students, sitting right by them, sharing pencils, and exchanging pieces of paper. Many of her students also have behavior issues making them more likely to defy rules or engage in impulsive behavior. This trimester she is working online, but it looks like that might not be an option for the following trimester. We hope she can stay employed part-time and continue to work from home, but there is a chance she will have to take a leave without pay.


We briefly considered the possibility of her actually going back to the classroom. There haven’t been many cases at her school. On the other hand, the schools in my county have only been open for in-person learning for a few weeks, and cases both nationally and in our state are going up, so there is no reason to believe that cases at the schools won’t go up as well. So, I think we have decided that her going to work in-person is not a risk we want to take.
The question of whether schools should be open for in-person learning is a thorny one. I fully realize that many kids do not learn nearly as much during online learning as they do in an actual classroom. Most of the learning The Child is doing happens with a parent sitting by her. I know there are many parents who either don’t have the time or the knowledge necessary to educate their kids. I also know that kids growing up in poverty are at a huge disadvantage, which compounds all the other disadvantages they have. And I know that most kids would be fine even if they get the virus.


On the other hand, both the students’ families and the teachers and their families may not be fine if they get the virus. And here again, poor students are at a disadvantage. They are more likely to live in multigenerational homes or to be cared for by grandparents, and their families are more likely to have preexisting conditions. Overall, I think a student is better off falling behind in math because they did online school for a year than losing their caregiver to the virus.


Teachers also didn’t sign up to be front line workers. A doctor or a policeman knows that they are embarking on a career that could put them in high-risk situations. A teacher doesn’t expect that to be part of their job. The same is true of paraeducators who often get paid just above minimum wage. Of course, this is also true of many other jobs which have suddenly become high-risk without a proportionate increase in pay.


So, back to our family. I don’t know what kind of choices we would have made if we didn’t have The Child, but at this time, I feel that our primary obligation is to her, and she needs her parents. Therefore, Funky Wife will not be returning to in-person work, and we will almost certainly experience a drop in income. Luckily, we already live on significantly less than we make, so our day-to-day life won’t have to change much. Also, we have enough savings that even if we have unexpected expenses during our single-income period, we should be able to manage.


Funky Wife enjoys her job, and I think she will be a little bit sad if she can’t work. For both of us, our jobs are much more than a source of income. Funky Wife loves to help students, especially the students that most people have given up on. She likes her colleagues, and she thrives on human interaction. She also knows that if she is not working, many household chores will fall on her, and she doesn’t like housework nearly as much as I like housework. So her not working is really not ideal, but at this point, we are grateful that we have this option. I feel terrible for people who feel that they need to go to work even though they are scared so they can pay their bills.

Money can seem really complicated. There are lots of books and blogs about investing, tax optimization, appropriate leveraging, etc. But there is actually only one lesson I want The Child to learn about money – live on less than you make! When you do that, you never go into debt, and your savings are always growing. When you are debt-free and have savings, you have many more choices about how you live your life, and that is much more valuable than anything money can buy.

Should you buy a Costco membership

Costco – the great warehouse store where your $120 membership gives you access to the wonders of 5lb jars of peanut butter and 8lb bottles of ketchup. Buying in bulk is cheaper, you get a back 2% of your spending at the end of the year, which usually covers your membership fee, so it is a great deal, right?


Well, not necessarily.

We had a Costco membership for several years, and we used it quite a lot. And yes, ketchup is cheaper per ounce than it is at our regular grocery store, and we did make up our membership fee in cash back at the end of the year. However, our grocery bill went up. “How is that possible if everything is cheaper?” you ask. Many of the things we bought were actually things we were never bought before, so we were not just replacing items we normally buy with cheaper alternatives, we were buying more stuff.


We bought only a few things at Costco that were actually a better deal on our normal purchases –I like their flour and their frozen fruit and vegetables and their toilet paper. The rest of our purchases were mostly snacks and pre-prepared foods and fancy water.


Costco has great snacks — large bags of popcorn, various chips, crackers, and cookies. They also have great soups, guacamole in single-serving containers (perfect for packed lunches), hummus, salsa, and naan. Costco bagels are better than those at most bakeries. And then there are the water and juice options. You will find the best deal on Izzy (our all-time favorite drink) at Costco. If you are going to eat all of those things, Costco is your store. However, all of those things added both to our grocery bill and my ever-expanding waistline. Not to mention the pounds of trash we added to landfills from all of those single-serving packages.

After NoSnack September, we discovered that life is better is you stick to the basic food groups, which for our family means fruits, veggies, and dried goods. Fresh fruit and veggies are not particularly great or particularly cheap at Costco. Our local coop often has the same or cheaper prices for organic produce that Costco has for conventional. I sometimes miss the packages of frozen broccoli we used to get at Costco. They are a great deal but certainly not worth the price of membership and the drive to the store. I pay a dollar more per pound at the coop and save a trip.


Costco does have good prices of bulk dried foods like chickpeas, lentils, rice, and flour. But it turns out Amazon comes pretty close. These items are easy to ship, and many producers, some of them Costco suppliers, sell their products directly to customers online. I don’t have to leave the house, and I have more choices.

Costco has great prices, but it also has many temptations. For now, I am staying out. The few dollars I could save are not worth the drive, and the risk I will walk out of there with 5 lbs of kettle corn. Someday, after the pandemic is over, I might ask a friend to take me to Costco a few times a year. There are also prepaid cards that you don’t need to be a member to use. Instead of rewarding you for spending more as membership does, these cards limit your ability to spend.


So, before you commit to Costco for the sake of saving a few dollars on 8 lbs of peanut butter, consider if you can really walk out of there just with the items you normally buy, if those few dollars are worth the trip, and if you even can, or should, eat 8 lbs of peanut butter before it goes bad.

FIRE

For the novice, FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. Followers of this movement often save 50%-80% of their income to accumulate enough invested capital to be able to retire early (sometimes as early as in their 30s) and live entirely on passive income. If you hang out in the FIRE circles, you will hear about the 4% rule, which says that you can safely withdraw 4% per year of your investments and, assuming the market doesn’t do anything crazy, your money should last forever. If you don’t like percentages, this means that you need to have 25 times your annual spending in investment accounts to be able to quit your job and never need to earn money again.


There are, of course, variations on this theme. Some people go to great lengths to cut their budget to be able to retire as early as possible (lean Fire), some work longer in exchange for higher spending ability (fat FIRE), and some retire from stressful jobs but still work at some low-stress job they enjoy to supplement their investment income (barista FIRE).
I am totally not interested in the RE (retire early) part of FIRE. I love my job and expect to continue working for many years, regardless of our net worth. I am, however, very interested in the FI (financial independence) part of FIRE.


Sometimes I wonder why to me, FI is such an important goal. My wife thinks FI is a good idea, but she certainly doesn’t obsess about our FI number and how close we are to it. And people around me seem perfectly happy buying stuff they don’t need, so I am pretty sure they don’t even know there is such a thing as an FI number.


I am an immigrant from a relatively poor country. I came to the US for College with $500 and my tuition for the first semester covered. From there, I needed to figure it out on my own. Without even the ability to borrow money (foreigners can’t take out student loans), I was in a pretty tight spot.


At some point in College, maybe in my sophomore year, I got a terrible toothache. I didn’t have dental insurance, so I did the only thing I could – I took lots and lots of painkillers. It lasted for weeks. Much of the time, I was so drowsy from the pills I could barely function. I got a permanent case of an upset stomach. Eventually, I saved about $100 and went to the dentist. For me, at that time, $100 was a huge amount of money. The dentist looked at my tooth, took a couple of X-rays, gave me a proposed plan for how he can fix it, and charged me $100 for the consult and the X-rays. I still had a terrible toothache and no money.

Eventually, I learned about a free dental clinic. I found someone with a car who drove me there. They fixed that tooth and all the other teeth that were rotting in my mouth (I used to have a lot of tooth problems, probably due to very poor dental care in my home country), and I could get off the pain pills.


This is the sort of experience I never want to have again. And so when I have a choice between getting the newest iPhone or increasing our money stash, I opt to add to the stash. The stash is what keeps my family and me safe from at least some of the bad things that can happen in life. The iPhone can’t do that.


Take a minute and figure out your FI number. Imagine having that amount of money and the freedom that would give you. Now, look at the latest gadget you bought. What optimizes your happiness profits?

No-Snacks September

As we noticed in our annual budget analysis, our family spends way more money on food than most households. That got me thinking if we are optimizing our happiness profits within this part of our budget which lead to me going over all of our food receipts from the past two months. We have been quarantining so all of our shopping since March has been through deliveries and therefore all of our itemized receipts are online. In fact, for July and August we have only shopped at two stores and I know for sure we didn’t do a quick trip for milk I have forgotten about so the data is very accurate. In total, for the two months, we spent $1,793 at the grocery store of which $128 was non-food items (mostly detergents and toilet paper) so we spent $1,664 on actual food. This is $832 a month, way lower than our average for 2019 ($1,231 per month) which is great. What is not so great is that 22% of the money we spent on groceries was spent on snacks! And that is the part of our food budget that is bringing our happiness profits down.

I put everything that is prepackaged processed carbs in this category. For our family, that is mostly cookies, chips, popcorn, and ice-cream. There were some frozen pre-prepared foods (pizza and fries) but the bulk of it was stuff that doesn’t even resemble actual food. So, what is the problem with snacks?

I like snacks too much. It takes too much willpower for me not to eat them when they are lying around. I know processed food is bad for me in all kinds of ways but grabbing a handful of chips is so much easier than figuring out something better to eat. And a bag of kettle corn is an easy replacement for an actual dinner and I can eat it while working.  

Snacks are bad for our family happiness as well. As I am writing this post, the child is apparently raiding the goldfish crackers stash and my wife is having her umpteenth discussion about what “foods” can and can’t be eaten before supper. If the child over-indulges in goldfish, later she’ll say she’s not hungry for supper and I will feel guilty that my child has had nothing but processed carbs all day.

So, it is clear that the $370 wasn’t money well spent. And I don’t do moderation well so my family is going on a no-snack challenge for the month of September. I am sure the child will be excited to hear this plan :0)

To make sure nobody actually starves, we will have to pair this challenge with some sort of plan for what we are going to eat once all the goldfish are gone. My wife is just starting work again after having most of the summer off and the child will be going to online school which means we’ll all be busy and the child will need a lot of attention from us throughout the day. So, our time to cook will be severely limited. I have read many blogs about the value of meal planning and meal prepping. This is supposed to be the ultimate answer to lowering your grocery bill and decreasing your time in the kitchen. And as we would like to achieve both, I will attempt to follow the wise advice of others this month and meal plan and maybe even meal prep. Reports of this adventure to appear in future posts! Stay tuned.

Optimizing the ROI on a big state school education

So, you (or your child) are ready to go to college. Now the question is, where to go and how to go there for the least amount of money. Large public research universities (think UC system, University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, University of Illinois, etc.) are an excellent option for many students. Some benefits of a large research state university are:

  • A lot of options for choosing a major
  • A wide variety of courses
  • Access to top research faculty
  • Variety of student activities such as clubs, Greek life, etc.
  • Generally, easy to transfer in credit if you took classes somewhere else

There are also some negatives to be aware of. Most of these negatives can be largely avoided if you do some planning:

  • Large classes: Many of your classes, especially general education classes, will be large, often hundreds of students. You can mostly avoid this issue (and save money!) by taking many of your general education classes at a community college. Do make sure you understand the rules your university has about transferring credits, but most state schools have very generous policies.
  • TAs instead of professors: Graduate students will teach many of your discussion sections (small sections that go along with your large lecture classes). This is not necessarily a bad thing because, while inexperienced, graduate students usually put a lot of thought and effort into making their classes a good experience for the students.
  • Adjuncts: Some of your classes will be taught by adjuncts who teach at the university part-time and are often hard to reach if you need a recommendation a few years later. You can select your classes carefully to mostly avoid this issue.
  • Easy to get lost: Being self-motivated is very important when going to a large public university. Help is available, but you have to seek it. It is easy to fall behind, miss assignments, etc., and it is unlikely than anyone will notice. If you see you are falling behind, seek help right away!

State schools often give you the best ROI because they combine relatively cheap tuition with well-established credibility of your degree. Even with their lower tuition, though, an average public university will run about $80K with in-state tuition for four years. According to Zillow, that is 1/3 of the average price of a home in the US, so it is worth doing some planning to reduce your cost. Here are some ideas:

Start taking classes at a local community college while in high school. Make sure you take courses that will transfer. If you take one class per semester each of your junior and senior year and two classes each summer, you will be able to transfer eight classes–cutting your time in college by a whole year! That means not only saving $20K but also entering the job market a year early. If your starting salary is $60K, your hard work in high school will translate into $80K! That’s way better ROI than any high school job that you can get.

If you already missed your chance to take classes while in high school or if you want to super-charge your college experience, take summer classes while in college. You do not have to take summer classes at your university; you can still take courses at a community college, just make sure they transfer. Taking two classes every summer starting with the summer before your freshman year can also give you eight extra classes–cutting your time in college by a year. Some institutions also offer winter term classes for extra fun!

Take a minimum of 15 credits each semester and consider taking 18 credits. Even though 12 credits is deemed to be full-time, taking 12 credits per semester is not enough to graduate in four years. In fact, at most universities you will have to take five full years to graduate if you take 12 credits per semester and that is assuming that you don’t need to retake any classes, you don’t decide to change your major, you never have to drop a class, etc. An extra year in college will cost you not just $20K in tuition and living expenses but also a whole year in lost wages as you will enter the job market a year late.

On the other hand, taking 18 credits each semester will shorten your time in College by nearly a year. Keep in mind that 18 credits is a large workload. Be sure you can handle it before committing to such a plan. Taking summer classes may be an easier route to take to shorten your time in school.

Consider alternative living arrangements. Room and board run around $12K per year, but you do have options. If living at home is a possibility, seriously consider it. Maybe you feel ready to be out of the house, but if you stick it out for four years, you will start your post-college life $50K richer! And your chances of being academically successful are probably better if you are away from the college party scene.

If living at home is not an option, consider getting a job as a live-in nanny. It is usually easy to build your schedule around the hours the family will need you, and you can get all the benefits of living at home without actually living at home.

College is expensive, but that doesn’t mean that you should approach it with the mentality that you will “spend whatever it takes.” Making smart decisions about this huge investment will have a significant effect on your financial health for many years after you get your degree.

Is College worth it?

My wife and I both have PhDs, and we both work in education, so it is safe to say we deeply value education. I have also been a faculty member at a large state university for the last 15 years, and I have seen many students come in, take some classes, and then drop-out for various reasons. Hopefully, the experience was valuable to them, but without a degree, the rate of return on investment (ROI) is likely to be poor. Many of them ended up with $20K-$30K in student loan debt, which will affect their financial health for years to come without getting the boost to their earning potential that a degree provides. There are also students who did finish but have not worked at a position that requires that degree. The ROI here is a little bit less clear as a degree is probably helpful even if it is not related to the person’s job.

Different students also “invest” very different amounts of money into their education. For me, this is most jarring when the education they receive is basically identical, but they choose to pay very different amounts of money for it. Going to an out-of-state public university can cost many times more than going to a similarly ranked in-state institution.

Let’s look at an example. Mary and Beth are both graduating from high school in Wisconsin, and each of their families is able to pay $10K per year towards their college education. Mary decides to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (currently ranked #46 in National Universities by US News). She pays $10,725 for tuition and $11,558 in room and board (based on 2019-2020 costs). Assuming costs stay fixed for four years, she will graduate with roughly $50K in debt. Beth decides she wants a warmer climate and goes to the University of California-Davis (currently ranked #39 in National Universities by US News). She pays out-of-state tuition at $43,484 and $15,863 to live in the dorms. After her parent’s contribution of $40K over the four years, she will graduate with almost $200K in debt! And this doesn’t even account for the extra money she will be spending to travel to visit her family.

The value of the degrees that Mary and Beth will start their careers with is roughly the same. They both graduated from well-known large public institutions. They also had approximately the same experiences living on campus and had very similar opportunities to build their social network. However, Mary paid a total of roughly $90K for her degree, and Beth spent a total of about $240K. If you view a college education as an investment, you are essentially choosing if you want to pay $90K or $240K for the same investment. Of course, how your ROI looks depends on how much you decide to spend in the first place.

Mary, the student going to an in-state school, may be able to avoid debt altogether if she lives at home and spends her summers working to make the roughly $2K a year–that is the difference between what her family can afford and the cost of tuition. Or she can live at home and take summer classes to graduate in 3 years. In this case, she will be ready to enter the job market a year early with no debt at all. Her ROI, in this case, would be totally different than Beth’s.

The ROI computations becomes more complicated if a student is choosing between two different types of schools. If instead of going to UC Davis, a large public university, Beth decides to go to Augustana College – a small private liberal arts college where she will get a lot more attention from faculty. While Mary will likely take her math requirement in a class of 400, Beth will be in a class of 15. Beth will be paying about as much in tuition as she would have at Davis (assuming she doesn’t get financial aid), but the investment she will be buying is actually different than what Mary is purchasing. Is it worth it? That depends. Beth will receive a lot of personal attention. If she doesn’t show up to class, her professor will likely contact her to make sure she continues to be successful. That is unlikely to happen in Mary’s school. On the other hand, Mary will have access to a much larger variety of opportunities and will have much broader choices for building her social network. The ROI, in this case, depends on the type of people Mary and Beth are and on their future goals.

In the next several posts, we will explore how to choose the best environment for each student and how to minimize the cost of your investment in every case. We will bring in our experiences both as former students and as current educators. Please put your questions or tips in the comments below.