Going to university is a different experience for different people, and I think everyone who goes gets something out of it - even if they don’t ultimately graduate or whatever.

I was only 17 when I headed off to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and a pretty immature 17 year-old at that. In hindsight I was far too young to be going but I had finished my time at school and it seemed like the next step - I never really thought much about it or what I would do when I left, all my friends were going so I just followed suit.

And I hated practically every minute of it.

Although there were a couple of my friends from school at Heriot-Watt as well, I just felt terribly homesick the whole time I was there. I used to come home at weekends and dread Monday coming round again when I would have to head off once more. Fridays would seem to take an age to come round again, but they were the highlight of my week as it meant I could go home again.

I’m not sure why I was so homesick to be honest as the weekends didn’t normally contain very much exciting - I think it was basically just that I felt a lot more comfortable at home with people I knew and loved around me. I think the upheaval of going somewhere completely different with more or less a different group of people all around me was obviously far too much for me at that age.

The down side is that if you don’t head off at that age then you are unlikely to get the chance again. Once you have a house to pay for it becomes hard to find the money and opportunity to take up full time education - similarly if you leave school and get a job then losing that income to become a pennyless student loses it’s appeal slightly!

Going to university isn’t what I would change though, even though it wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me, but it does tie in with what I would actually change.

Feeling alone and unhappy is a terrible combination and you tend to look for something to take you away from that. The sensible route from the outside is to make new friends and go to the places everyone else is going to so that you in effect make a new home for yourself so you don’t miss the old one so much.

When you are actually in the situation though it can be hard to see the sensible route and you head off down a different path.

This can be a path which leads you to a much worse place, through drink or drugs or both. Thankfully this was a path I never even looked at the signpost for even though quite a few around me were dabbling in this and that. I just wasn’t interested which is something I’m still thankful for as it’s an easy path to stumble down but a hard path to come back from.

Instead of trying to make time pass quicker by getting out of my head either on drugs or alcohol, I would use more law-abiding and boring methods. A fiver spent at a cinema meant I could be transported to anywhere in the world (or even out of it sometimes) for a good couple of hours or so, which seemed like good value to me.

Similarly a video or DVD offered the same opportuniy for a slightly higher price, but with the benefit that I could watch them again and again unlike a film at the cinema.

Normally I would buy DVDs or videos that were going to make me laugh - either comedy films or stand-up concerts from the likes of Billy Connolly - anything that was going to make me feel a bit better. Of course a DVD was never going to make things better, it was only a way of masking over what was really wrong.

Music too was a source of relief, especially when the Our Price shop in the South Gyle shopping centre started offering CD singles at £1.99 on the week of their release instead of the usual £3.99. This seemed like bargain of the century to me and I could be found in there every Monday looking for something, anything, new to listen to that week.

I bought some rubbish music over the years I was there, and still have them all in my mum’s loft in several big boxes gathering dust - maybe they will be worth something some day!

Whether it was buying CDs or DVDs or whatever, buying things did seem to make me feel a bit better - in the short-term at least. I can’t really explain why - it may have been that the thing I bought genuinely was something I wanted so I was pleased to get it, but more often than not that wasn’t the case. I didn’t really care to analyse it at the time, I just kept on buying - nothing extravagent, just a few pounds here and there.

In these days of flat-screen TVs, mobile phones and expensive computers I dread to think what I would be like if I was only just going to university now!

The thing with buying something big and expensive is that you know it’s big and expensive. I was buying things which were small and inexpensive, but unfortunately was buying them in fairly large quantities which is quite a dangerous combination - you might think before spending £100 on something, but buying ten items at £10 each over the course of a week doesn’t seem so bad.

Being a student with no income other than grants and student loans made this doubly bad.

From time to time I would consider this, but very rarely to be honest, which would just make me feel worse and I would probably just have ended up buying something to cheer me up!

All these purchases combined with the cost of petrol driving up and down every weekend made my bank balance look pretty bleak. More often than not a trip to the cash machine ended with me leaving it carrying only a card and no money having been denied any more cash. Thank heavens for Safeway who would let you claim cashback on any debit card purchase over a fiver - the downside to this was that not only did I have to find something in the shop worth as close to £5 as possible any time I needed some cash, it also led to my account going overdrawn and therefore open to a multitude of extortionate charges.

My parents would probably have done anything they could to help out financially, but I was pretty much ashamed by the state my finances were in and kept it all hidden from them. There were times when I had some outlays which I simply couldn’t meet such as a new clutch which my car needed once, so I had to call on my dad for financial aid in that case. I can also remember him telling me that if I needed to come home from Edinburgh at any time, but couldn’t afford to then I was to let him know as he would help out with petrol money - although that was the case quite a few times, I couldn’t bring myself to ask as I’ll be forever in his debt for his help on a multitude of other occassions so I just pushed myself into more debt instead. Not very clever!

Heading on out into the working world, my situation didn’t get much better - in fact it wasn’t long before it worsened big style. At first I was earning a very low wage, and was living outwith my means which leads you into a debt spiral - until you realise you can’t continue living like that you just descend further and further which in the end just makes it all the harder to come back from.

At this point I knew other people who were leaving university with huge debts, much bigger than mine, so didn’t see it as a problem. The old car I had at the time was on it last legs so I was on the lookout for some new wheels. Obviously the newer the car the more reliable it was going to be so my dad was encouragingly pushing me towards a relatively new car which was really outwith my reach. He went with me to the bank to sort out a smallish loan which still wouldn’t cover the full cost but he gave me the balance himself - another bit of financial help I’ll be forever be in his debt for.

This would have been fine had I not already run up debts previously, and continued to do so - the loan repayments had been worked out in the belief that it would be practically my only outlay as all the other stuff was hidden from my parents. I should have owned up and said that I couldn’t afford this loan as well as everything else - if I couldn’t afford to live on what I earned while spending like I was, then having this extra payment every month was only going to make things worse. But doing that would mean not only admitting everything was a mess, it would also mean I wouldn’t get the new car so I kept quiet.

So far, that was my worst mistake and I really regret not just being open and honest at that point - if not sooner.

But we still haven’t got to the point which I regret most - it’s coming soon though!

Although I was back home and wasn’t spending as much week in, week out on CDs and DVDs, etc I was still spending more than I was earning overall. Debit cards and credit cards are brilliant inventions, but only if you use them properly and cleverly - at this point I was using them willy-nilly, apparently without realising that they had to all be paid off at some point.

Having had this new car for a couple of years I came to the conclusion that I was a bit bored with it and that although there was nothing actually wrong with it, I really wanted a change - people around me were getting new cars every few years so why shouldn’t I? Well, perhaps it was because they were earning a lot more than me and they had less financial worries as well!

I didn’t let that bother me though and I bought Auto Trader week after week in search some new wheels. I had decided on a Fiesta 1.25 Zetec to replace the Peugeot 106 1.1XN I currently had, but just had to find one in the colour I wanted at a price I could afford (or a price I thought I could afford anyway…).

What I didn’t want happening was for the car to appear in the magazine one week, but be sold before I could apply for a loan to pay for it - so I hit upon the genius idea of applying for the loan before a car was found. In theory this sounds like a good idea, but in practice this was the worst thing I could have done and is therefore the thing I would change if I could go back in time.

At that time I was happy spending money I didn’t have, so imagine what it was like when I had £5,000 burning a hole in my bank account.

Of course, a suitable Fiesta never appeared and even if one had the money would have been long gone by then. The really annoying thing is that I still had nothing of any worth to show for it - the whole lot seemed to have been frittered away on just general, but unnecessary, living expenses.

This should have been the wakeup call I needed, but I was too stupid to accept it as such. Instead I used the ostrich approach to financial management and stuck my head in the sand, ignored it and hoped it would just go away. Of course it was never going to and thankfully I realised it a couple of years ago.

Unfortunately by this time the level of debt had escalated, although because my salary had increased in the meantime I was no longer living outwith my means on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time neither was I in a position to clear off these outstanding debts any time soon - in fact at that point I couldn’t have even told you how much I owed in full.

The moment when I sat down and added up what was outstanding here, there and everywhere was probably one of the scariest times of my life.

Although in doing so I didn’t actually make any of the debts smaller, just by accepting them it made things not seem so bad - after I got over the initial shock anyway! Looking into ways of tackling the problem excited me as I realised then that I actually hated being in debt even though before that I hadn’t thought it bothered me.

I knew then that I had to turn things around myself, noone was going to do it for me and there wasn’t going to be a waving of a magic wand which was going to just make everything okay again. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was determined.

Some people who have been in this kind of trouble before manage to simply stop spending money and channel every penny they have into clearing their debts - this is incredibly hard to do and anyone who manages it has my total and absolute admiration. For the rest of us it just means cutting back, thinking any purchases through and trying to not buy things on impulse.

It also means a change of mindset - if something is making you unhappy you have to sort out the root of that upset and not try to mask the pain with retail therapy.

Once I got my head around this, which wasn’t very hard once I had accepted the situation I was in, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve given into temptation and bought something I later wished I hadn’t - and at no time was it anything too expensive.

There are other things that I could have given up in order to try and clear the decks quicker, such as selling my car and the like, but you still have to live while paying for past mistakes. The real pain of it all is that even after you have realised your mistake, it takes so long to rectify it - although I realised the error of my ways a couple of years ago, it will still take me years yet to fully correct it.

I’m not perfect and no doubt I’ll make mistakes again in the future - financial or otherwise. The build-up of debt was a pretty gradual thing rather than being one big mistake, and in a way I regret all of it, but the biggest mistake of all was taking out that loan for the car I never bought and it’s that I would change if I could go back in time and change anything.