Heading off to college? Congratulations. You’ll be surprised that much of the learning you’ll do over the next four years has less to do with the classroom than with life. If you’re like many young adults, college is the first time you’ll keep your own schedule, plan your own meals, manage your health and pay your own way. Hopefully, your parents have prepared you as best they can. But as with many things in life, some lessons have to be learned on your own. Here are 10 tips to help you along the way.
1. Determine who pays for what. Will you be supporting yourself, or will Mom and Dad help?
One of my first memories of my own time in college many years ago was overhearing this phone call between a neighbor and her mother four days after we moved into the dorm:
“Mom, I need you to send me more money.”
“What happened to the $2,000 we left you with on Sunday?”
“I bought some clothes and went out to some clubs.”
“Honey! That money was supposed to last you all semester!”
Now, my parents hadn’t left me with anywhere near that amount of money when they dropped me off at school. If they had, we probably would have had a long talk about budgeting that involved dividing the amount of money by the number of months over which it needed to last. Apparently, this family was different.
If you haven’t already talked to your parents about whether you can depend on any type of assistance from them over the course of the school year, now’s the time to initiate the conversation. Often, parents will help with big bills — tuition, dorm fees, meal plans — while you are expected to keep up with daily expenses like movie tickets and toothpaste. Each family is different. Find out what your parents are willing to shell out, and then figure out what you’ll need to earn (or whether you have enough savings) from there.
2. Set a budget. Then stick to it.
Budgeting isn’t as difficult as it’s made out to be. You take your income, subtract your expenses and then save or spend whatever is left over. Living on the Cheap has an easy guide to creating a budget on paper, but online programs like Mint will import all your electronic transactions and categorize them for you.
The problem most people have is actually sticking to said budget. Unless you like to beg your parents for more money — or worse, go hungry or (gasp!) have your cellphone shut off for nonpayment — you have to consider living within your budget non-negotiable. Just do it. After you figure out your monthly expenses and subtract them from your monthly income, divide what is remaining by the number of weeks in the month and spend no more than that each week. Period.
3. Get free checking at a bank with branches in your hometown and college’s city.
To pay your bills with minimum hassle, you’ll need a checking account. Look for a free checking account that doesn’t charge minimum-balance fees. Find a bank with locations — or, at minimum, free ATMs — in your hometown as well as the city in which you will be attending college. This way, you will have free access to your money no matter where you are.
If you can’t find a bank with locations in both cities, consider an online-only bank such as Ally, which allows you to withdraw money for free from a variety of ATMs.
If your parents are willing, give them a duplicate copy of your ATM card. In an emergency, they can put cash in your account and you won’t have to wait for it to come through the mail. You can also pay back borrowed money by allowing Mom or Dad to withdraw owed funds from your account.
4. Set up text alerts for your bank account and bills.
Having a checking account is only a start. Next, you must learn to use it properly. Use your checkbook register — or a web-based service such as Mint — to track every deposit, every ATM withdrawal, every debit card transaction and every check you write. Even though your friends may do so, do not depend on checking your account online to track your expenses. Some charges may not show up immediately — such as certain debits, checks and bank fees — so the account balance the bank shows may not be accurate. Write down every transaction and double-check your math so you will not be faced with overdraft fees.
Alternatively, do check your account online every couple days to make sure your debits and deposits match what you’ve written down. Just last month, my doctor charged me the same co-pay twice for one office visit. I noticed the duplication on my online statement the next day, called the doctor and received a refund.
The second part of using your checking account wisely is paying your bills on time. Set up account alerts with any service you use — cellphone, cable TV, Internet — and receive a text or email alert when your bill is due. To this day, I pay each bill the day I get that alert to ensure I don’t forget — and don’t get hit with late-payment fees. Set up alerts with your bank account that tell you when high-dollar purchases are made and when your balance falls below a certain amount so you can prevent fraud.
One more tip: Do not save your logon or password for your bank account on any computer or smartphone, and only access your account when you’re on secure Wi-Fi. Don’t leave yourself open to identity theft — or fraud by someone you think is your friend.
5. Set financial ground rules with your roommate.
A guy who lived across the hall from me in the dorm used to say, “What’s $5 between friends?” Well, that depends on the friends. For those on a tight budget, that $5 can be the difference between eating dinner or going hungry.
Now that you’ve set your budget and are paying your bills on time, don’t let another person get you off track. Have a frank talk with your roommate as soon as you move in about what you each expect when it comes to sharing. Who pays for the toilet paper? Is it OK to borrow a couple of Tylenol from your roommate’s stash? If you have leftover pizza and your roommate eats it, will you blow a gasket?
Remember, different families have different rules about sharing and money, and you and your new roommate may not have grown up with the same standards. For example, I only have a brother and was horrified when my female roommates used my makeup and toiletries without asking. It’s best to have the conversation up front. Just be clear about what’s OK with you and what’s not OK, and be fair about splitting the expenses. You buy the four-pack of TP this month and roomie can buy it next time. If you need to write out your plan so you’re both clear, do that.
6. Just because you can get a credit card doesn’t mean you should.
Back in my day, credit-card salesmen loved to set up shop in the breezeway outside of the college dining hall. They tempted us with free pens, free pizzas and even free T-shirts, and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of several high-interest-rate credit cards.
Thankfully, the Credit Card Act of 2009 made it more difficult for anyone under 21 to get a credit card without a job or without a parent co-signing the application, and it banned the practice of using giveaways to lure kids on campus into signing up for cards. It’s way too easy for an 18-year-old freshman to think of a credit card as instant cash rather than a simple convenience, and you can get into debt way over your head faster than you think. Trust me on this.
According to creditrepair.com, 71% of college seniors have credit cards. Of all college undergraduates with credit cards, 32% make at least the minimum payment each month but don’t pay off the entire amount. If you decide to use a credit card to start building your credit history, never charge an amount that you can’t pay off immediately. If you must carry a balance, be sure it’s due to a true emergency, and have a pay-off plan. Don’t carry a balance on fast food or clothes; you’ll be paying for them long after the food’s been eaten and the clothes have gone out of style.
7. Don’t buy books before classes begin. When you do, shop around.
As a public school kid, I remember being shocked when I found out that in college, you have to buy your own books. My shock turned into horror when I found out exactly how expensive college textbooks are. According to the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of college textbooks and supplies is now $1,226 a year.
College is nothing like high school, and textbooks were one of the first ways I found out that secret. Some professors use the books as an outline for the course; others include their content on exams; still others call them “recommended reading” and never mention the books or ask questions from them. You don’t know which kind of professor you’ll get until you start class. Most professors will spell this out in the first session, or in the class syllabus.
Another difference between high school and college: You are able to drop a class if you decide you don’t want to take it. Do not waste money on a textbook if you think you may drop the class.
If your coursework indicates that you will need the book, don’t automatically buy a new copy from the campus bookstore. First, read our Living on the Cheap article about 10 ways to save on college textbooks.
If you prefer a hard-copy, check off-campus booksellers, Amazon and other college websites for used copies of the book. The truth is that most college students aren’t that hard on their books — some never actually crack them open. Buying a used book can save you more than 50% off the cover price. Try the BookFinder website, which searches the inventories of several leading online booksellers to find the best prices.
You can rent some textbooks online for even less. Prices are between 33% and 55% of a new printed book’s cover price.
Note: Keep your receipts for hard-copy textbooks; you may be asked for them when you sell your books back to the bookstore at the end of the term.
8. If you’re paying for a meal plan, use it.
My freshman year in the dorms, I bought the school’s meal plan for three squares a day. Sometimes I had breakfast in the dining hall, but most of the time, I ate fast food or microwaveable dinners in my dorm room. It just wasn’t “cool” to eat in the dining hall.
Boy, was that dumb. Not only did I waste thousands of dollars spent on the meal plan, but I ate a lot of unhealthy crap that caused me to surpass the so-called Freshman 15 before Thanksgiving.
Eat in the dining hall. You’ll save money, eat healthier and thank me when you’re in your 30s.
9. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
Shakespeare’s Polonius (from the play “Hamlet“) was a really smart guy. Not only did he say, “To thine own self be true,” he also came up with this gem about money. And he was right. The quickest way to destroy a friendship is to borrow money or property — or lend it to someone then grow resentful when it isn’t returned. Just don’t do it. You’ll be happier and form more positive relationships.
10. If it costs more than $50, wait a week before you buy.
Not having your parents around to stop you from impulse-buying is very freeing. You can do what you want — until you realize that the designer handbag you bought is preventing you from putting gas in your car. Then you’re in trouble.
My rule of thumb, even now that I’m a full-fledged adult, is that if something costs more than $50, I write down the name of the item on the square of my calendar 7 days away. If I still want it then, I can buy it that day. Most times, though, the urge has passed and I’ve moved on to wanting something else.
Part of growing up is learning the difference between what you need and what you want. Retail therapy isn’t as therapeutic once you look at your bank or credit-card statement.