For many recent high school graduates, the beginning of fall will bring more than just a change in the weather. Millions of American students are preparing for their new lives at college. If you’re one of these students, take note – being ready for college doesn’t simply mean being pre-registered for your courses and preparing for life in a dorm. It’s likely that, for the first time in your life, you will be completely on your own. This means freedom, but freedom has its downsides. If you’re not responsible with your personal finances, you may find your bank account drained by the end of the month.
Don’t worry, though. It’s not hard to save money or keep track of your spending; it just takes some discipline. Here are a few tips for the future college student who doesn’t want to have to scrounge lost quarters from between the common room’s couch cushions to afford a soda.
1) Watch what you eat.
You probably already know that when you start at college, your schedule is going to be dramatically changed. Up through high school, you attended school during the daytime and returned home before evening unless you regularly stayed after for sports or other extracurriculars. This routine lends itself to a regular dietary schedule – breakfast at home before school, lunch at school, and dinner after returning home. The regimented life of a high school student doesn’t necessarily prevent overeating or undereating, but it neither does it encourage bad dietary habits.
In college, however, your schedule is determined only by when your courses are held. You might have class all morning without a break on Mondays and all evening on Tuesdays. You might have days completely full of courses from morning to night and other days that are totally devoid of courses. As a college student, it’s vitally important to get used to this kind of erratic schedule and plan your diet around it. The easiest and quickest options – cafeteria food and fast food – are often both the least healthy and the most expensive. Therefore, you should try, as often as possible, to cook your own food. If your dorm room doesn’t contain a kitchen, your dorm’s common room almost definitely will. Make use of it. Home cooking is typically healthier and cheaper than restaurant or cafeteria food. If you’re on a meal plan, the cafeteria may be unavoidable, but see if you can spend your spend your university meal allowance on food from an on-campus grocery store. Many universities now provide this option to their students.
Cooking for yourself at college might take a bit more time and effort than simply getting all your food outside, but the benefits make the work more than worth it.
2) Watch what you spend.
Many college freshmen, inebriated by their newfound freedom, go nuts with their spending. If you’ve never had to keep track of your finances before leaving home, it can be very difficult to get used to the idea that money can run out. There are few experiences more sobering than sticking your debit card in an ATM and seeing the words “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS” flash back at you.
To avoid this conundrum, keep track of your spending. Almost all ATMs can tell you how much you have in your account free of charge, and some will provide short statements detailing your last ten purchases. It’s also a good idea to sign up for online banking. Most banks now allow customers to log into their websites and conduct their banking without having to visit a physical branch. By signing up for online banking, you should be able to access a detailed rundown of your purchases, withdrawals, and deposits at any time.
Once you have a good idea of how much you spend per day, week, and month, you should be able to identify where you can make some cuts. Even if you conclude that you can’t save any more money than you do already, it’s still a good policy to check your account statement on a regular basis. It’s vital to establish good spending habits in order to save money both while in college and after you’ve graduated and moved on to work or further education.
3) Avoid using credit cards.
When you arrive on campus, odds are you’ll be pummeled with credit card offers. Credit card companies target college students, specifically freshmen, with attractive-looking offers that sometimes promise a zero percent interest rate for 12 or 18 months.
Be wary of these kinds of deals. Credit card companies target incoming students like you because they know it’s likely that you don’t have very much knowledge about proper credit card use or responsibility with money. Even if you’re a disciplined saver, however, you should avoid these offers. Easy credit comes with all sorts of strings attached. You’ll have to understand and keep in mind the terms of repayment, the possible penalties attached to non-payment (for example, a sudden increase in the card’s interest rate), and annual fees. An inexperienced college freshman with a credit card can easily find himself or herself in a hole of debt by the end of the first year of school.
If you want a credit card, you should instead join a credit union and sign up for a low-limit card. Credit unions maintain financial services similar to those of banks, including checking and savings accounts, credit cards, and auto loans. Unlike banks, however, credit unions are member-owned and are far less likely to serve you a nasty surprise in the form of a hidden fee or penalty payment. The card’s low limit will ensure that you only use credit for absolute necessities. It is generally a good idea to only keep a credit card in case of emergencies.
These few tips can potentially help you save thousands of dollars during your stay at college. If you take them seriously and are disciplined enough to control your spending, you just might find yourself with lots of money saved up by the time you graduate.