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My Best Financial Moves in College

When Patrick at Cash Money Life [3] tagged me for this meme, he said that I probably had a couple little “hustles” going on the side when I was in college. I have no idea how he knew, though I had hinted about them in the past (selling stuff [4] on ebay [5], online poker and blackjack [6]), I don’t think I ever really wrote them all out in their full glory. I had some pretty lucrative things going, in college student terms, and it certainly easily sustained my lifestyle. However, the number one best financial move in college made the rest pale in comparison.

The number one best financial move I did in college was to graduate a semester early. That one move alone saved the cost of one semester’s tuition at Carnegie Mellon University [7], located in Pittsburgh, PA; which amounted to somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 plus room, board, food, whatever. I was able to do that because I always loaded myself up with classes, with AP classes in high school and then regular classes in college, and always pushed myself to the limit for those three and a half years. I don’t think all my little side projects, in total, earned close to that.

Of course, that financial move isn’t at all interesting and is borderline boasting (“oh look how smart Jim is!” we won’t go into what my grades were, shhhh!), so let me tell you about the most interesting of the side jobs I had:

Selling on eBay: eBay [8] had started to get big and the whole “Buy Hot Deals from Fatwallet and resell on eBay” was still in its nascent stages. Whenever I see someone trying to make money, I try to figure out how that person is making money and then try to do it and then improve on it. So I saw these great deals on eBay for brand new products and so I investigated where they must be getting these great deals. Some were getting them wholesale (I didn’t want to get a tax ID and go through that process so I skipped it) but some were just buying stuff that was cheaper after rebate and then selling it on eBay. I did that a couple times before I realized the effort wasn’t worth it.

Eventually, I realized that what you needed to do was find products on sale where the eventual buyer wouldn’t be searching the Fatwallet forums or other deal sites. Computer and electronics shoppers are savvy enough to search the forums for a deal so eBay margins on those items is much lower. If you want DVDs, hats, and sports jerseys… those shoppers go to eBay first. Over the course of a year or so I sold maybe a eighty Michael Jordan Wizards jerseys, fifty John Deere hats (this was after Ashton Kutcher made them popular on Punk’d), and who knows how many DVD sets (my fiancee likes telling the story about how we ripped open a package from Canada of Band of Brother Gift Sets and then shoving them into packages for the post office because I was late on shipping them).

Eventually it got to the point where I was tired of looking at the eBay completed sale pages to try to figure out how much something could sell for and I put that Carnegie Mellon Computer Science education to good use. It took a few hours but I put together a Java application that went onto the eBay website and screen scraped the text off the completed auction pages. It collected the last two hundred auctions and then ran some simple statistic numbers. It told me percentage sold, average sale price, standard deviation, range, and who knows what else. I just wanted to know, in a few seconds, whether I could make money with a deal. It eventually started collecting the names of bidders, repeat bidders, losing bidders, and other information that would tell me how many people out there still want this stuff. So if someone was a losing bidder many times, I know at least one person is going to probably want this.

I actually sold the tool, after converting it from a Java app with a GUI to strictly command line, to a PhD candidate friend of a friend for $500, the first, and only, time I had sold a piece of software for money. It was pretty cool! Now eBay’s systems make the tool useless as they now require login, sanitize much of the bidder information, and otherwise make data collection difficult for people who don’t use their API. It was still a ton of fun though and I learned quite a bit from doing it.

So there you have it, both the smartest and the most interesting financial move I made in college. The smartest overall move, of course, was meeting my lovely wife! 🙂