When I went off to college (a hundred or so years ago), my parents took me into the local bank, set me up with my first checking account and that was it. No sage advice. No spreadsheet. No CliffsNotes version of Personal Finance 101.
And to be honest, I struggled. I was always out of money. If there was money in my account, I felt compelled to spend it. I probably would have earned an “F” in a personal finance class.
When it’s time to send your child off to college, please sit with them and go over some basic financial lessons to help them succeed in their life outside the classroom. All this independent living stuff is brand new, so some explanation and sound advice from you is certainly needed and should be welcomed.
Here are seven important tips I wish my parents had shared with me:
1. Make a budget and stick to it! Write down your recurring expenses and monthly income and calculate how much money you have to spend each week. The envelope system — where you divide your disposable income into categories (food, gas, dining out, movies, etc.) — works well for many students. You can only spend what’s in the envelope!
2. Start saving now, even if it’s just $10 a month. Establishing a savings habit is crucial (and it’s NEVER too early to start saving for retirement!)
3. Get a part-time job if you can manage it along with your class schedule. Whether it’s work-study or a job off-campus, having a little extra money will come in very handy. Most employers around college campuses are very understanding of a student’s hectic life, so they will work with you to create a flexible schedule that accommodates both your needs.
4. Save money on books, one of the largest expenses you’ll have at school, by buying them used and online. Many institutions now offer digital versions to rent, and that can cut costs substantially. Ask instructors and other students to find out about any discounts they may know. Don’t shop at the student bookstore!
5. Use your meal plan as much as you can. Don’t go out to eat — it’s too expensive. And if you’re not using all the meals you’ve paid for on the plan, cut back to save money.
6. Don’t sign up for a credit card. It can get you into financial trouble very, very quickly. It’s far too easy to run up a big bill that you can’t pay. Use a debit card instead so the money comes directly from your checking account. If you absolutely have to have one, get a secured credit card, which is backed by a cash deposit, limiting how much you can charge. It will help you start a credit history (see #7 below!) without getting you into debt.
7. Learn about credit scores and what goes into your credit history. Your credit score will be very important (maybe even more than your GPA!) once you graduate and go to apply for an apartment, a car loan or even a job. It’s a number that will be with you for the rest of your life.
The biggest surprise for most students? How quickly things add up! Just a few late-night trips to the vending machine, a couple of Netflix movies and several outings to Starbucks can ruin your budget for the week.
The big life lesson? Learn how to separate your wants from your needs. If you only buy what you truly need and learn how to live within your budget, chances are you’ll have plenty of money.