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When making the decision of “should I go to college or not?” there is one statistic that comes up more times than not: income.

Everyone has seen some iteration of the chart, where it shows the rising lines of income as the level of education rises. It’s also something that pops up in the “Sponsored Results” section if you Google different degrees. “Median Salary” is right up there with how long it takes to get a degree, the type of school that offers the degree and other basic information.

It’s safe to say that salary and income expectations have become a conscious choice of students when selecting a field of study.

But what Google won’t tell you, is that income is only a component of the equation. When it comes to making moves in your life, career or in the business world, the metric to measure is wealth.

Don’t get me wrong. Income is important, but it’s simply the measure of the amount of compensation one receives.

Wealth is the big picture: Income versus cost of living, retirement savings and the value of property and assets. There’s a checkers and chess analogy to be made here, but I think you get it.

Income is the simple game, with moving pieces and some nuances to understand. Wealth is the intellectual test of a ‘game’ that takes years to ‘master,’ and even then you still feel like there are moves and strategies you just can’t understand.

That’s where people like Sue Downing come in handy. Downing is a senior vice president at Inceptia, a company that helps students understand financial aid and financial literacy. And according to Downing, the underbelly of finance and student loans is far from a game.

“Students need to understand the serious implications student loans can have on the trajectory of their lives,” she said.

Starting Simple

Beyond the direct effects of student loans, Downing said students can also take more of an active role in finances from a young age. Even the college search process can be used as a tool to help students start to take money matters seriously.

“Just having an introduction to the cost of living and what it takes to keep a roof over your head can be tremendously eye-opening. Researching and creating a budget for college costs is also a “kill two birds with one stone” approach, in which they get exposure to big-ticket purchases and take a step toward making an informed college decision.”

Once they get to school, students are mostly focused on adjusting to classes and social life away from home. Sometimes the simple things slip through the cracks. That’s where Downing said having practice can come in handy.

So while students may not be paying the bills themselves before college, seeing the process, and thinking critically about the cost of living can help students prepare for life on their own.

“Students and young adults can educate themselves by being more involved in household finances, like paying all the bills for the month, or budgeting for and buying the groceries,” Downing said. “Partaking in these activities is a very hands-on way to instill the importance of understanding financial matters, and usually the light bulb comes on all by itself.”

Thinking Smart, Early and Often

Introducing students to financial decision making isn’t just about balancing your checking account, either. It’s a good first step, but in uncertain economic times there is an ever-increasing pressure on young adults to start saving and forecasting finances at a younger age. Especially considering the potential for student loan debt–it is never ‘too early’ to start thinking about creating wealth and putting money away for the future.

“It’s important for us to tell young people that no one will ever take better care of your money than you, and learning to live within your means will prepare you for whatever salary you earn,” Downing said.

Beyond the college years, Downing said creating positive financial habits at a young age can change the trajectory of one’s financial life. When you look at the traditional path of students who borrow for their education, there are a number of handoffs that start with leaving for college.

First the student is ‘on their own’ in terms of budgeting and purchasing. Next step is figuring out how to budget those “big-ticket” expenditures that Downing mentioned: Study abroad opportunities, spring break experiences or financing an unpaid internship or other work opportunities.

Then a student starts sizing up the job market, and that income factor comes into play. Once graduation hits, there’s a six-month grace period and then it’s time to start repaying loans. Before they realize it, the discussion has shifted to benefits packages, 401k plans and planning for kids, houses and retirement.

It starts slow, and with simple things like groceries and understanding utility payments, but then life comes at you fast. By simply understanding that fact, and having a plan for how to be fiscally responsible, Downing said students can get a leg up on developing wealth directly out of college.

“The whole phenomena behind “the millionaire next door” is the basic concept that what you earn is not nearly as important as how you spend and save,” she said. “We need to focus more on the latter in order to create financial security.”