So…Hi. I’m Jasmine, and I’m a first-year student at Scripps College. I’m far away from home, with a brand new debit card, and a not-completely-formed-yet brain, so I make dumb financial decisions. I’m a financial ignoramus, or at least I used to be. You won’t find me on Wall Street or working for Goldman Sachs anytime soon, but in my first half-semester of college, I’ve learned some things about dem Benjamins, and if you’re at all like me–even if you don’t want to admit it–I’ve got some basic tips and a few horror stories to share.
1. Budget. The basic point of this is to track your income and your expenses, so you know if you’re on the golden road or if you need to change up your path. Make sure to account for little things that you wouldn’t normally think of on a grand scale: small (or large) clothing purchases, if you like to shop, going out to eat with friends, toiletries, and the like. Textbooks are not the only thing you’ll be spending money on in college–trust me. Track it all, add it up, and see if you need to be looking for a part-time job or calling up your grandma for a bit more graduation money. You can make a budget with Microsoft Excel’s templates, smartphone apps like Mint and Spendee, or just by Googling “college student budget calculator” for other resources.
2. Get a banking account. Checking, debit, or whatever you wanna call it–if you don’t have one yet, get one. You’re about to (or already are) off on your own, and you can’t keep hiding all of your money under your mattress. Compare overdraft fees, and keep an eye out for student specials. Also, for those of you going across country, there are certain accounts you can open between you and your parents (or whomever) for easy money transfer. I have an account like this called “E-cash” through my credit union. Check it out. However, with a checking account comes financial responsibility and adulthood. Get ready for it.
3. Get a savings account. Save. Save. Save. Oh, and then save some more. Find a bank or a credit union you can trust, and open an account. Compare interest rates when choosing: the higher the rate, the more money you collect. Once you have a savings account, then get in the habit of putting anything at all into it every week. Even if you can really only afford $5, put it in. Skip the Starbucks one day (preferably not during finals week) and put it towards your future. Almost more importantly, declare your savings account untouchable. Get in the habit of not taking any money out except for emergencies: someone’s-dying emergencies or I’m-stranded-in-Mexico emergencies, not oh-my-god-I-need-this-new-purse-or-I’m-going-to-die emergencies. Learn to know the difference (I know it can be hard, but you can do it!).
4. Know your financial package. If you don’t know what all of those numbers or terms mean on your financial aid account, or even if you know most of them but not one, make an appointment with your financial aid office. Call ’em up. Contact someone. They should be able to explain the details to you. If they refuse, then… that sucks, and you should probably report them for not doing their primary job: tending to their students’ needs.
5. Pay less for textbooks. This seems kind of obvious; I know. But I can guarantee you I almost peed myself when I found out my French textbook cost almost $250 alone (not to mention the $100 accompanying workbook). Textbooks. Are. Not. Cheap. Make them cheap. Check out Ebay, Amazon, Half (through Ebay), or other sites. See if you can rent them or buy them used. Talk to older students who took your classes last semester. There are ways. I assure you.
6. Use your student ID. A few bucks off your ticket to the movies? A 10% discount for that ice cream downtown? It adds up, and you will most likely need every cent you can get. The $2 discount you just scored could two packs of ramen. That’s dinner, dude.
Think twice about…
1. Spending while inebriated–not that you’d actually think twice while drunk, so this is more of a “don’t.” If you come home on a Saturday night out with your friends, don’t buy a bunch of nail polish on Amazon just because you feel like it. Your credit union will think someone has stolen your credit card information because of all the random online purchases in the span of two hours, they will call you at 6am on a Sunday to ask you to verify that those purchases were made by you, and your roommates will get irritated because your phone ringing so early in the morning woke them up before they wanted to be woken up. True story. Just save yourself the trouble. If you’re anything but completely sober, don’t even open your laptop. Facebook doesn’t need your drunk wisdom, your wallet doesn’t need your silly purchases, and you definitely don’t need that nail polish as much as you thought you did.
2. Online shopping. On that point, watch out for online shopping in general. It’s really easy to come home after a long day and want to buy that cute sweater from Nasty Gal you’ve been eyeing all week. Don’t. At least don’t if you can’t afford it. If it’s in your budget, sure! But… beware. Online shopping is a silent, poisonous wallet killer. The more you do it, the more packages you receive in the mail, and that’s always a good feeling when you’re a lonely college student. But… no. Just no. It’s a vicious cycle, so don’t start it. The next think you know, you’ll even be buying your shampoo online just to get a package at the mail center in your name.
3. Bringing the car. Gas, oil changes, random problems… Cars are expensive. Save money and buy a bike, take public transportation, or walk everywhere. It’s much cheaper, much less hassle, and much less dangerous. It’ll give you some exercise in your busy schedule, and it will also keep you on campus more, which will help you feel like a part of the community. Pros across the board.
4. Eating out. Dining hall food really isn’t that bad, and sometimes the restaurants around campus aren’t that great. If you’re feeling like you need a change of pace, go to the nearest grocery store, buy some ingredients (or see if you can score some from the dining hall’s kitchen–make friendly with the kitchen staff), and cook your own meal. If cooking isn’t your thing, maybe one of your friends enjoys it. Either way, it’s a lot cheaper than an overpriced burger and fries. The only exception to this tip is if you find hair in your food at the dining hall. Then there’s no judgment; that’s just nasty.
5. Buying unneeded items. I bought a $21 piggy bank. It’s orange and it’s a goldfish. I fell in love, it was being sold by my favorite local small business, and I used the excuse that I was “helping the economy.” Ha. Ha. Ha. I ended up shipping it to my dorm at the end of summer, and I arrived to find that it had shattered into a million pieces during its voyage. I almost cried. Anyway, the point of this is to convince you that some items are most definitely not needed, especially when it comes to decoration. Decorating is fun, but I found myself buying overpriced things just because I thought I wanted to start over with my dorm. I wanted everything to be new and to be perfect. It obviously wasn’t. Instead, try recycling fine items you already have. For example, bring your normal bedspread to college instead of buying a new one. Ta da! $40 saved.
6. Getting a credit card. This is the big one, the macho papa. This can make or break your college finances quite literally. There are enough articles out there on the internet about how to upgrade from chexsystems and safe credit card usage, and I bet your family members or mentors or other important people have already lectured you about this, so I won’t go through the complexities that are credit cards. However, I will warn you once again about their dangers. Building your credit up in college is nice, but only if done responsibly. Assess yourself, if you’re ready for the responsibility, but I especially recommend waiting at least a semester into college to get one. By that time, you should probably already know better than to buy all 20 of your friends’ dinners because you think you’re so cool and have unlimited money on a tiny plastic card (true story). Just be careful.
During your college years, keep in mind that you’re not supposed to get everything you want. You’re supposed to grow during this time, and there’s a reason why the “poor college student” stereotype exists: tuition is ridiculously expensive and ramen is irresistible. So take some of these tips to heart, or just make friends with a generous wealthy person. Y’know, whatever’s easiest.
P.S. Sometimes I write TP articles so I can hold myself accountable to my own advice. If I’m telling other people what they should do, shouldn’t I do it as well? This is one of those articles. I hope you enjoyed it.