Maybe you thought the money talk was over. After all, you’ve done the math on your student loans, applied for every scholarship you could find and worked out your financial aid package. Truth be told, those important tasks are just the beginning of your new financial reality as an almost-full-fledged adult.
Here’s why: Up to this point, you’ve been dealing with the big things: college tuition, room and board, and student fees. Now you have to think about the living expenses you’ll have that you probably haven’t had to handle up to this point in your life. (If your mom still buys your toothbrush, this column is for you.)
Managing your money in college can have a big impact on your quality of life after college. (You don’t want to miss out on a great job because your potential employer checks your credit and finds that you were delinquent paying your bills during college, for example.) So to help you plan, we asked financial planners and a few families with college kids what you should know about managing your money.
1. Talk to your parents about their expectations. Maybe they’re done paying your cell phone bill; maybe they’ll agree to send you some “spending money” every month. Who’s going to cover the cost of your car insurance, gas and travel expenses between school and home?
2. Figure out how you’ll pay for your part. “I took some money from my savings for my first semester, and then I got a job second semester, once I knew how much time I would have,” says one college sophomore. Remember that you don’t want to have such high expectations for your income that you’re spending all of your free time making sandwiches at the local deli.
3. Put it in a spread sheet. Here’s a tip from a financial advisor: On the top of your blank budget sheet, create a column for each month. Along the side, create a row for each expense-cell phone, gas, grocery, clothes, etc. You might want to leave a few rows between each expense, so you can enter multiple numbers (in case, for example, you buy groceries a few times in a month). “Tally the columns as you spend, so that you know exactly how much money you have left for the month,” the advisor recommends. “The key to budgeting is not being surprised-ever.”
4. Use credit cards smartly, if at all. You don’t necessarily need a credit card, though some parents say they want their kids to have them in case of an emergency. If you do have one, have just one and pay it off each month. “Don’t go to big banks and expect the best deals,” one financial advisor says. “When you get to campus, visit the local bank or the college credit union. They typically have the lowest rates and the best customer service.” The other option is to use a prepaid card (Visa, Mastercard and American Express all offer them), so you get the convenience of a credit card without the risk of overspending. Be sure to check out the fees, which can add up.
5. Learn the art of “living lean.” Now’s not the time for designer shoes and dinners out. “My roommate and I challenged each other not to spend more than five dollars [outside of our regular school bills] one month,” a college junior says. “It’s amazing how you can learn to enjoy what you have, rather than always wanting something else.”
The good news is that most colleges have decent food, no shortage of parties, more free entertainment than you could ever want and people who, like you, are on a budget. Now’s the time to learn as much as you can, meet as many people as you want and have a blast. Designer shoes and dinners out can wait until you’ve graduated.
Money Saving Tips
Pinch your pennies with these cost-saving strategies:
Borrow or buy used books. They’re cheaper than new ones, and they have the same information.
Get free checking and savings accounts. Local banks often cater to students. Be sure you can pay your bills online for free.
Use your meal plan. You’re paying for it, so you might as well eat up.
Buy a coffee pot. It’s much cheaper than paying for all of those lattes at Starbucks.
Don’t buy a printer. Save some cash and print your papers free in the computer lab.
Ask for a discount. Businesses in college towns often offer discounts for students. Ditto for public transit in big cities. Find out what’s available when you get to campus.
Entertain yourself on the cheap. Read the local paper (or better yet, the free alt-weekly) to see what’s happening around town for little or no cash.