When I look back at my college life, I’m proud of how much I accomplished in those four years. I made friends early on, joined organizations on campus, participated in internships and experienced a lot of personal growth along the way. However, one practical skill I wish I’d picked up earlier in my college career was personal finance. I was fortunate (and extremely grateful!) to have my family’s support as an undergraduate, as well as scholarships that paid a significant chunk of my tuition, but I wish I had asked the right questions and developed an interest sooner.
Personal finance is something that a lot of students struggle with, whether that involves saving appropriately for their wants and needs, building their credit scores or even understanding the basics of a checking account. After graduation, I quickly learned the importance of budgeting and using money responsibly, as I acquired new bills I had never dealt with in student housing. Now working in a financial institution, I learn something new every day, and am excited to share my tips for managing your money as a college student! Whether you receive support from your family or are completely financially independent, hopefully some of these tips will help you to save money and stay out of trouble.
The Freshman 15: Managing Your Money in College
1. Take advantage of student discounts and free resources on campus.
Any time you plan to spend money, bring your student ID along for the ride. Local retailers, restaurants and other vendors may offer student discounts that will cut down your expenses, and it never hurts to ask. Some nearby museums and attractions may even offer free admission for college students, and it’s easy to find out which ones simply by googling “free and cheap things to do in ____.” On campus, you can save money as well. Use the university’s gym instead of purchasing a membership elsewhere, or join an intramural team. Instead of hitting the mall on a beautiful summer day, spend some time by the university’s pool. You already pay for these resources through your student activity fees, so why not make the most of them?
2. Attend workshops.
Chances are, at least one organization on campus offers free workshops on financial topics that are important to college students. Go to the ones that fit your schedule. Different institutions may offer slightly different advice, but the more you attend, the more you learn. Take good notes and ask questions. By familiarizing yourself with these concepts now, you’ll do a better job preparing for the future.
3. Don’t buy new textbooks from the university bookstore.
This is how you guarantee you’ll pay the most for your books. Instead, you have a few options. You can use sites like Amazon to get new books at a cheaper rate, especially if you do so through their private booksellers, or you can buy used through those sites. You can rent books, either through your university or through sites like Chegg. My honors college hosted book buyback as well, where students could advertise old textbooks of theirs at the prices they selected on their own, and others could purchase through that same program. If your university has a program like this, it’s a great way to save money on textbooks and get a little cash back. If not, consider starting one yourself!
4. Join a credit union.
As a credit union member and employee, I may be a little biased, but credit unions generally pay higher interest on your savings accounts and charge lower interest on your loans. They offer everything a bank would offer, but because they are not-for-profit, there are usually fewer fees associated with your account. Many universities have their own credit unions that students can join and receive special perks or student products, like accounts with no monthly fees. Even if you don’t join a credit union, make sure you know what types of fees your institution will charge so that you can avoid them!
5. Join something accessible.
Whether you are a credit union member or you prefer using a bank, make sure that you can access your money easily. Does your institution have branches nearby? Do you know where to find the nearest ATM? Do they offer mobile or online banking? Make sure you have the answers to these questions before you commit.
6. Avoid foreign ATM fees whenever possible.
The solution to this is simple: Unless you’re in a real emergency, use the ATMs for your financial institution only!
7. If you decide to live off campus, get a roommate!
Having a roommate will cut your bills in half and make everything a lot more manageable. Plus, living with someone will improve your quality of life and make things much less lonely off campus!
8. Become an extreme couponer.
Okay… maybe not an extreme couponer, but you get the idea. Check for discounts on items you use regularly, and use them to stock up on the things that won’t go bad – toothpaste, soap, paper towels and detergent, just to name a few. Meanwhile, avoid buying perishable foods in bulk; even if they are on sale, you may still spend more than you originally planned and wind up throwing some of it away by the expiration date.
9. Apply for scholarships.
Scholarships are a great way to save money on your education. Check out your school’s financial aid website, listen for announcements around campus and look for scholarships out on the web as well. It doesn’t hurt to apply, and many these scholarships don’t get enough applicants! Hint: If a scholarship deadline is extended, it often means that fewer people have applied for it, which increases your chances of receiving it.
10. Pay your bills on time, every time.
Keep a schedule of when your payments are due to ensure that you pay them on time. This will help you to build your credit score, which will in turn help you later on as you apply for major loans and even for jobs. If you have a credit card, try to pay the full balance every month to avoid damaging your credit and paying interest on what you owe.
11. Create a budget to stay on track.
A great way to remember to pay your bills is to create a monthly budget that includes your income and expenses, including gas, car payment, rent, utilities and other payments you must make throughout the month. If you’re spending more than you’re saving, adjust accordingly. Go online to find some helpful tools for creating your budget!
12. Save on gas money.
Carpool to campus, ride your bike or use the school’s shuttle service. If you already live on campus, walk to class! Gas money does add up, and by taking advantage of alternative modes of transportation, you can transfer some of that money into savings.
13. Transfer 10% of your earnings into a savings account.
The more you save now, the more interest you will earn in the future! If you use direct deposit, you can automatically transfer 10% (or another amount, depending on what you can afford) into a savings account. When paying bills, use the checking account, and try not to dip into your savings.
14. Be smart about your credit card.
If you do get a credit card as a student, look for a card with no annual fees and low interest. Read the fine print! As mentioned earlier, pay the card on time EVERY time to avoid late payments, interest or other fees. Your card does play a key role in your credit score, so make sure you aren’t using it to pay for things you can’t afford. If you have trouble applying discipline to your spending habits, use a debit card instead – that way, you can’t spend money you don’t have.
15. Get a job on campus.
Departments on campus often hire student workers and can be flexible with hours based on your class schedule. This helps you save money on gas (you’re already on campus, so you can stay in one place!) and allows you to build connections with people at your university. During my senior year, I worked in the Career Services center at my school, and not only did they allow me to work within a schedule that fit my needs, but I also met a lot of staff, students and faculty members that I still correspond with to this day.
What are some of your tips for managing your money in college? What other topics would you like to read about on The Freshman 15?