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Setting priorities 101

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Part of learning to live on your own is learning to prioritize. You have to weigh your options carefully. What's your major going to be? Do you want another beer? What follows are some common conundrums and potential solutions, taking into account the priorities in each situation.

1. Beer or food. This is a tough one. If the bar has free food, you had a big lunch, your refrigerator is fully stocked or your parents live close enough for you to mooch a meal, go for the beer. If you haven't eaten anything but beer nuts all weekend, or you're starting to seriously consider dumpster diving for a snack, go for the groceries.

2. Party or study. This is the classic student fork in the road. Of course, you can't study every minute of every day. On the other hand, you do have to study some time. If you are behind in anything or if you have an exam the next day, make the choice to study. If you are caught up in every subject, party on. You can also have it both ways. You can feel oh-so-virtuous if you study first, then party. I know, it sounds too good to be true, but it works.

3. Cool clothes or books. How cool are the clothes? OK, if you know someone in your class who is willing to share a book, you can use that money for other purposes. I worked a great deal once for a Psychology of Language class. My friend bought the book, but I read each chapter first and highlighted all the important parts, so she could just skim. Consider buying used books, which are cheaper. But the bottom line is, there's no point in taking the class if you don't have the required materials, so put the leather jacket on lay-away and buy the books.

4. To use or not to use the credit card. Most people emerge from college with a hefty but manageable load of debt. If you would like to make that a crushing, paycheck-defying load of debt, feel free to use your credit card all the time. If it's in your own name and you are paying your own bills, a good rule to follow is to never use it. If you don't have that much restraint, then don't charge anything that you can't pay off in full at the end of the month. Sure, you hear stories about people buying cars, homes or motorcycles with their credit cards, but it's just one of those urban legends that won't go away.

On a related note, if your parents have given you a credit card for emergencies, be clear on what constitutes an emergency. Rarely, if ever, do kegs of beer, dinners at nice restaurants, tattoos, mountain bikes, ski weekends or new Eminem CDs count as emergencies. You might get away with car repairs, occasional groceries, trips to the emergency room and posting bail.

5. Concert tickets or rent. Look at it this way, missing a concert won't ruin your credit rating or mean you have to sleep on a friend's sofa for the rest of the semester. You have to cover your basic needs first, which means you have to pay rent, utilities and phone bills every month. You have to have groceries. Once the fundamentals are taken care of, you can spend your money however you like and no one can complain.

6. What to study first. A great rule of thumb is to start with your least favorite subject and get that out of the way first. That way the odious task isn't hanging over your head all afternoon. Or you can rank things by what is due first. If the advanced calculus problems are due at 8 a.m. tomorrow, but the three chapters of the Kurt Vonnegut novel aren't due till the next day, slog through the calculus first.

7. Start the term paper or clean the bathroom. More housework gets done when papers are due, so by all means scrub the tub, disinfect the toilet, change the cat's litter box, arrange your sock drawer by colors, write a letter to Grandma and alphabetize your T-shirts first. Then clean the oven, mop the kitchen floor and take down all the light fixtures and clean out the dead bugs. By this time you'll be so bored with house cleaning, working on the paper will seem like a welcome relief.

The key to successful prioritizing is balance. Do the work and have some fun. Just remember, if you get in a tight spot and don't know what to do, you can always take out your emergency quarter and flip a coin.

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