Your class schedule is set, you've posed for your student ID, and you've pinned every coffee shop within a mile of campus (or your remote learning outpost of choice). Whether you're 18 or 28, the chance to pave your own way in college while meeting new people and taking on different responsibilities is right there before you — yet there's a learning curve to managing these new freedoms that extends beyond the books to your finances.
5 Financial Steps to Take When You Start College
Check out these five financial tips for college students to help you find your footing and start off in the right direction.
1. Create a Budget
A list-topper because it's that important, creating a budget is key to getting — and staying — in control of your finances. You can start by listing out sources of income, followed by your monthly expenses. Be sure to factor in money for an emergency fund. To keep things organized, learn how to create a simple budget spreadsheet or try a budgeting app to streamline everything so you'll be motivated to stick to your plan.
2. Approach Credit Card Use with Caution and Say No to Charging Nonessentials
When you're shuffling from class to work and back, it's tempting to charge everyday expenses using credit cards or student loan money. But this can escalate your debt — and interest — so be mindful. Yes, you have to live, but do your post-grad self a big favor and work to limit this type of spending. If you can't avoid using your credit card, pay your bill on time every time. Better yet, make the most of it and actually build your credit by paying off your credit balance in full each month.
3. Get a Part-Time Job
As a student, attending classes, studying, and completing assignments will be your priority, but if you can spare the time, a part-time job can give you a financial boost and maybe even kickstart your career.
4. Maximize Your Meal Plan
Feed your savings, not your cravings. If you live in a dorm and signed up for a meal plan, use it. Having a prepaid plan can help you save on groceries or dining out, which can add up quickly. If you don't live in the dorms or a meal plan wasn't in your plan, you can create a meal plan for yourself.
5. Nix New & Rock Your Student Discount
You can still get exactly what you need without paying full price for brand new. Buying used textbooks at the campus bookstore or online, or using your student discount for other costs may help you save a significant chunk of change.
How to Make Money in College
College life is a busy life. Having your own source of income can help give you more financial freedom when it comes to room and board. If living expenses are good to go, consider using your extra money to fund going out with friends, attending events, and running out for cold brew without charging it all to your credit card.
If you have student loans, you could even use part of your paycheck to start paying back your debt early, which may also help keep down interest.
Get a Part-time Job
You may be able to find a work-study program on campus, or you can look for an off-campus job. Here are some job ideas to consider:
- Driver for a rideshare app
- Tutor/music teacher
- Restaurant host/server
- Fitness trainer/instructor
In addition to making money, you might also be able to add your job experience to your résumé.
Add a Side Hustle
If you're the entrepreneurial type, get a side hustle going. This is a great plan for those who can tap into a creative talent or unique skill. But the beauty of a side hustle is that you can pretty much do anything you are good at. For example, you can sell handmade goods such as jewelry or clothing, create holiday/special-occasion-themed gifts, refurbish thrifted furniture, design websites, sell T-shirts, or even secure some freelance writing gigs to help bring in extra funds.
Think Ahead, Think Outside the Box
If you're able to work full time over the summer, consider stashing some of your cash for the coming school year.
While working your way through college is a great way to establish lifelong financial habits, it's also about the little things. Having enough funds for a night out with friends or an occasional coffee with your study group can simply help you feel better. And when you get the chance to let off a little steam or clear your head, you'll think more creatively and probably retain more of what you learn in class.
How to Save Money in College
Small actions can add up when it comes to saving. In addition to buying used textbooks and furniture, you can make the most of your student status by utilizing your student discount as much as possible. Many companies offer student discounts for clothing, transportation passes, and entertainment such as movies, plays, concerts, and sporting events. Certain restaurants and coffee shops tend to dish out student discounts as well. You can also cut costs by using your student discount for:
- Phone plans
- Gym memberships
- Fitness classes
- Travel-related expenses
Don't forget that local library branches can offer a wealth of resources besides books. You can check out movies, music, games, and much more for free. Access subscription-only newspaper archives, writing manuals, and image databases by logging in through your college's library database for free, even after you graduate (as long as your .edu is still valid).
And remember to take advantage of that dorm meal plan if you have one. Skeptical about the school cafeteria experience? Understandable, but meal plans have come a long way. If you have certain dietary needs, investigate what kind of accommodations your school's dining hall provides. If you're still scoping out schools, see which ones offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.
Buying food in bulk, planning, and prepping your meals ahead of time can also save you money and time throughout the week. All in all, knowing your choices can help you say so long to the starving-student stereotype.
If you have a little extra, it's also a good idea to add to your savings account. Even a small amount can add up. Ten dollars a week could become $520 a year, maybe more depending on how much your savings account earns.
How to Manage Money in College
Finding the right tools and systems can help you incorporate money management into your everyday thinking. Use a budgeting app and choose a credit card with a low limit to keep your charges to a minimum so you can make timely payments and pay off your balance in full every month. In turn, you may be able to build credit and avoid accumulating high-interest credit card debt.
If you already have a credit card or plan on opening an account, you may also want to consider cashback and rewards options. Using rewards programs may help you earn cash or points to put toward everyday purchases such as food and personal-care items or airline miles for travel. Consider reserving your points for a specific category of expense that might not otherwise fit into a college budget, like a birthday gift for a friend or loved one.
Studying up on different tools, resources, and methods can help you develop personal finance habits that fit your lifestyle. Not only will finding the right approach help you stay on track toward your goals while in school, but it can also help you lay the groundwork for a more financially secure future.