Heading off to college this fall? If you’re like many young adults, this is the first time you’ll have so much control over your spending decisions.
But if you’re not careful, you could make mistakes that could haunt you for years to come — like racking up credit card debt.
Don’t be surprised if you’re among the many young adults who struggle to leave the nest and manage financially on their own. Without your parents there to pick up costs for things like food or laundry, you might be uncertain about how to spend what you have and what to do when it looks like you’re running short.
When I was in college, I struggled to pay for laundry. Even 20 years later, I’m not a fan of doing laundry and I would wait until I had no other choice. That left me scrambling for quarters to feed into the machine, and I often had to run over and buy something at Walgreens, just to ask for my change in all quarters.
Here are eight suggestions to help you get off on the right financial foot in college:
1. Make a Budget
You probably already know how much your classes and room and board cost, but what about those other expenses?
You know — entertainment or supplies you may need from the local drug store or grocer. Don’t forget to include how much you’ll spend to do your laundry.
To create a basic budget, figure out how much money you can spend each week in these areas and stick with it. If you’re not sure how much you’re spending (which is not good!), keep your receipts and begin tracking your expenses. From there, you can put together a budget to manage your money.
2. Be Careful With Credit Cards
College is likely the first time you’ll have your own credit card — one that doesn’t go to mom and dad.
I remember seeing plenty of people hawking credit cards during my first week at the University of Wisconsin. Fill out an application and boom — you have your very own credit card. I’ll admit I succumbed to the sales pitch; I think I got a free Badger blanket.
Once the card is in hand, the tricky part starts. Don’t overuse it. Use it for purchases you know you can pay for once the bill comes. If you can’t pay the bill when it arrives, interest starts piling up and that $5 cup of coffee will soon cost a whole lot more.
3. Use Cash
This tip is tied into the one above — use cash whenever possible.
Buying coffee or going to the movies? Use cash instead of credit or even a debit card. This helps you visualize just how much money you have left to spend.
4. Watch Out for Extra Fees
Whether it’s your food plan or cell phone plan, know how much you’re allotted each month.
If you don’t have unlimited texting and go over the limit, you’ll be hit with extra fees. (By the way, even if your parents pay your cell phone bills, this is still good to know — they likely won’t take too kindly to a lot of extra fees.)
The same goes for some college meal plans. Before starting school, ask about the food plan options and think carefully about just how much you may or may not be eating in the school cafeterias. Then choose the plan that best fits your needs.
5. Look for Student Discounts
Make sure you always have your college ID handy — it could save you money at a number of businesses and on mass transit fees.
If you don’t see an advertised student special, go ahead and ask anyway. Many stores may have unadvertised deals in place for college students.
6. Enjoy Free Stuff
Many college campuses offer free or reduced-cost entertainment options. Check for flyers around campus advertising upcoming activities or look on the college’s website.
Not only do the activities give you something to do besides studying, they also won’t break your bank account.
7. Check Your ATM Network
Most students head to college with debit cards, but do the ATMs on your campus accept them without a fee?
I went to college with a debit card from a small community bank and soon discovered a $1 charge every time I used it. I switched over to a larger bank with ATMs at home and at college.
Check with your financial institution to see if there are fee-free ATMs on or near your college campus. If the options are few and far between, it may make sense to go with a different financial institution.
8. Get a Job
Yes, you’re there to learn, but students who work part-time jobs while in college learn better time management skills, which will pay off down the road.
As an added bonus, the part-time gig will bring in extra money for fun activities or to help pay your tuition. Colleges and businesses around campuses are usually interested in hiring students and offer flexible schedules.
Without proper planning, you can leave college with a lot more than a degree and student loans. You could wind up with poor spending and saving habits — along with credit card debt — that will make life challenging for years to come.
But by practicing good financial practices while in college, you’ll be set for life.
Your Turn: If you’re heading to college, what questions do you have? If you’re a grad, what advice could you share with incoming college students?
Freelance writer MaryBeth Matzek managed to leave college without any credit card debt.