Making Cents: An interview with Peter Van Flein
Mathew Carrick / Columnist
In order to provide provide more experienced, helpful advice, I reached out to Peter Van Flein. Van Flein, a UAF alumnus, has owned the financial advising firm Van Flein Financial for the past 10 years, helping clients from various backgrounds navigate the “financial crossroads in their lives.” I stepped into his office on Geist road (next to the Spirit of Alaska credit union and the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company) and asked him for some advice he could give to students.
Q: What’s the most important things for students to know about personal finance?
A: Take advantage of free money. There’s lots of free money out there, and you should try to get as much of it as you can. Every year, there are millions of dollars in scholarships that go unclaimed and don’t help anyone. A lot of students see scholarship applications and think “I’m not eligible for that, I shouldn’t try.” But you shouldn’t ever be the one to say that! Let the scholarship committee say whether you’re qualified, don’t make that decision yourself. A lot of times you’re a better candidate than you think.
Q: What about dealing with student loans?
A: One thing students need to remember is that there’s good debt and there’s bad debt. Student loans are, I think, an example of good debt – something that’s an investment in yourself. There are other kinds of good debt as well, that helps you buy things too big to save for in the near term like a car or a house. As long as it’s reasonable, this debt can help you. Then there’s bad debt that gets out of control. Don’t go into debt if you don’t have to, keep track of your finances and what you can afford.
Q: Should we be worrying about retirement and being financially secure?
A: No, you shouldn’t worry about your future. Worrying is just not a productive use of time. But you should be thinking about your future. One of the most important parts of this is keeping track of where your money is going. People forget how easy it is to spend money. I work across from a coffee shop, and I see people walk in there every day and come out with a $4 latte. Are you really getting something from that $4 coffee that you can’t get from drip coffee that costs pennies a cup? Keep track of all your expenses. When you buy something like coffee, write it down. At the end of the month, look back at what you’ve spent – you’ll be surprised.
Look, if you spend an extra $4 on coffee for one day, that’s not a lot. But if you do it every day, five days a week, you’re looking at well over $1,000 a year. Can you afford that? Try cutting back to once or twice a week, or make your own cups of coffee.
You should be asking yourself who you’re working for. Are you working for yourself, or are you working for the coffee shop?
Q: Should students get a job to pay for school?
A: It’s not a bad idea to work – I did – but you should remember that school is your job. You should be working on your grades. And you need to have a good pace for school: take 15 credits a semester. If you take less, you’ll take too long to graduate, and that will add a lot of extra costs onto your education. There’s also a grade management aspect to it. When I was in college, I had semesters where I took 24 credits. My grades started to drop off. I had semesters where I took 10 or 12 credits a semester. Again, my grades started to drop off. But when I had 15-16 credits, I had a good balance, and I did well with my grades.