My College Commencement Address to the Class of 2017

Last week, I delivered my graduation speech to the graduating high school class of 2017, in Why Millennials Have College All Wrong. If you are a parent of a Generation Z child (thank you David @ Young Adult Money) that will be attending college in the near future, you still have time to save money on college without maximizing your 529 plan or crossing your fingers for a scholarship.

This week is my college commencement address to the graduating class of 2017. As they prepare to “finally” enter adulthood and work for a living. These are some financial & professional tips I can provide being a somewhat recent graduate myself. Please excuse the sarcasm.

To the Graduating Class of 2017:

First of all, congratulations. You have just proven to your parents and all of us with “real” jobs that you can finally put on your resume the ability to accomplish long-term goals. This last statement might have a little stinging callousness to it because it's what a fellow co-worker told me during my first days at my first job. Two months after I walked I received my diploma. Just as you will do yourself in a few minutes.

I'm not here to tell you that life will be rosy because you have a degree or you will live in a cardboard box because you majored in the liberal arts like I did. (Crowds chuckles with laughter).

No, I'm here to tell you more than you might have learned about life in the past 4 or 5 years writing research papers and attending Saturday football games. In fact, I hope your alumni association sends you all a  transcript of this speech so you can read it again after your eyes are dazzled with receiving your first four-figure paycheck. And you will get two of those for the rest of your working career by the way.

Student Loan Debt for 2017

How many of you know that you just helped set a new record? You are the most indebted graduating college class ever with an average student loan debt of $38,000. For the 18th consecutive year, the average balance has increased and the total student loan debt for all existing student loans is $1.3 trillion.

You know what that means.

You will be the student loan providers best friend for the next 10 years. (More chuckles from the crowd…)

Let me give you a piece of advice. I graduated with $50,000 in student loans and paid it off in 3 years. Make extra loan payments as much as possible. My goal was to make an extra payment each month. For example, if your minimum monthly payment is $400, try to pay $800 a month. Or, as much as financially feasible. It's a steep sacrifice, but, the long-term rewards are worth it.

Especially if you can't wait to quit your job because you can afford to say “I quit!” since you have no debt! I did it & you can too.

Lifestyle Inflation

Since your school will be kind enough to distribute a copy of this speech online, read it after you get your first paycheck. You will have a better understanding of what I'm about to say.

You might earn as much in two weeks as you earned in an entire semester. You are going to think you can afford Ferrari, a mansion large enough to make Mark Zuckerburg jealous, and fly across the world first-class all at the same time. That's not true.

You are about to discover bills & taxes. And I'm not talking about the $5 you paid to get a burrito and Mountain Dew from the Taco Bell drive-thru. These are the taxes that got Al Capone locked up & bills that will shut off your electricity or tow away your car if you quit making payments.

It's okay to enjoy life, it's one reason we work to earn a disposable income. Just remember these tips:

  • Save for large purchases (don't borrow because interest payments are like vacuums…they suck)
  • Wait 24 or 48 hours to avoid expensive impulse purchases
  • Use your extra income to invest, repay student loans, or save for a house down payment. Anything can make you richer in the future.

Emergency Fund

Onto my second point. Most Americans can't even afford a $500 emergency. Instead of buying a flatscreen tv with your first paycheck, put that money into an emergency fund instead. Keep adding a small amount each month until you have 6 months of living expenses in a high-yield savings account. You'll be happy you did as the “bank of mom & dad” might not be open 24/7 like it is right now.

You will have good days & bad days ahead of you. It's okay to have some fun. Go see the world, run Ironman marathons, or whatever else floats your boat. Just make sure you plan ahead for these expeditions and make sure your regular bills are paid for.

Putting money in the bank might be boring, but it's a certain way to help make you financially successful if you save early and save often. Also, don't forget to invest your wealth as well. I like index funds & dividend paying blue chip stocks personally.


Finally, my third and final point. Don't underestimate the importance of networking.  Keep in touch with your classmates & make friends at work. Relationships might seem time-consuming but they are mutually rewarding. As you will find out, it's sometimes who you know instead of what you know to land that promotion, seal the deal with a prospective client, and even find a new job.

Find a mentor, be a team player, and don't be afraid to pursue your dreams. If you wait for opportunities to happen, they will pass you by more often than not.

I'm speaking here from personal experience. I didn't emphasize networking, even though many experienced people around me kept repeating that one word. Network, network, network.

Don't do it purely for self-gain. Each person you build a relationship with can make you a better person. And, you might just make a friend for life. You never knew what doors will open in the future, so don't close any now.

Closing Remarks

By the looks in your eyes, I can tell you are ready to close this chapter of life. I get it, I was there myself a few years ago. If you don't remember anything else about college, remember this.

These past four years might be the most influential years in ways you cannot imagine.

Your roommate might invent the next Facebook or Amazon one day and want you to join the team (networking). And having lived on Ramen Noodles & dollar store specials, you know what it's like to live on a budget. Keep your lifestyle inflation in check and plan for the future as if you are still on a college student's budget. You'll never have to live paycheck to paycheck again.

Thank you!

(Loud applause from the crowd and a standing ovation).






Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.