The months leading up to my college move-in were a stressful hodgepodge of searching for Twin XL sheets, scheduling intro class after intro class, and saying “Yes, Mom, I filled my prescription for Singulair” at least once a week. Add in the fact that I was clueless about budgeting on my own, and you could say that I was more than a bit flustered. I remember scrambling to figure out how to really use a debit card and cash checks in the last week left of summer, and I’d really like to save you guys from all that anxiety.
My first piece of advice regarding your foray into college money management is to learn the ins and outs of basic personal finance before heading off to school in the fall – preferably, months in advance of move-in day. For me – a girl who was completely clueless about how an ATM worked just days before leaving U.Va. – this involved opening a campus checking account and learning how to use a debit card. Make sure that you’re familiar with online banking if your bank features it; it’s a great way to track your spending like a hawk and transfer funds from your savings account to your checking account with ease – something you’ll definitely need to do when big purchases (like textbooks) come around.
Also: get the hang of using an ATM and memorize any PINs or passwords that you’ll need to do your online banking. Because when Girl Scouts inevitably show up in your college town hawking their delicious, sugary confections (and they tell you that they can only take cash) you’ll want to be prepared. If you can, find out beforehand where the ATMs on or near campus are, and which ones do and don’t have withdrawal fees. This is a tiny thing, but when you need cash in a pinch, you’ll be so happy you know where to go.
Once you’ve got the financial basics down – check writing, using your debit or credit card, online banking, and ATM use – you’ll want to start thinking about how you’re going to budget your savings. And I’m not going to lie: this is where it gets tricky. A lot of times, prospies start their college careers with a very limited knowledge of personal finance. Sure, you got an allowance when you were eight and spent it all on pink glitter nail polish and Tiger Beat magazine – don’t worry, I won’t tell – and you made bank by babysitting and waiting tables throughout high school; however, if you’re like me, your parents took that money and stashed it away into savings so that you could use it during college. And now that you’re in college… you’re not quite sure what to do.
I recommend (as the glorious Jillian Feinstein recommended to me when I began my college career) tracking your spending as closely as you can for your first semester in order to budget for your following semesters. Granted, new semesters might bring new expenses, such as club/team dues or monthly rent for an upperclassmen apartment, but it still helps to have a general idea of how much discretionary spending you’re doing on a regular basis.
Some of my friends swear by personal finance apps such as Mint, which serve as a spending log and budget-creator; however, I find it to be a bit too intense for my taste. One day, when my expenses include rent, gas, and some serious groceries, I might take the plunge, but for now, I don’t need color-coded pie charts to document my Starbucks addiction. Additionally, my bank (Navy Federal Credit Union) has a really fantastic online component already that I’m really comfortable using. It allows me to transfer funds and track my daily spending easily from my laptop wherever I am.
If your bank doesn’t provide these services, Mint is just too detailed for your needs, or if you just want a hard copy of your spending log that’s accessible offline, Microsoft Excel is going to be your best friend. Now, I’m pretty terrible at using any and all technology, and creating spreadsheets is no exception. I’m sure that I’m not taking advantage of all the different ways one can format an Excel document, but the system I have works for me and might work for you too.
I like to keep my entire spending log in one Excel spreadsheet so that I can find it quickly whenever I need to, which leads me to my first point: the more convenient it is for you to keep track of your spending, the more likely it is that you’ll actually do it and later, create a successful budget. So make sure that however you format your spending log, it’s easy for you to use.
I also like to have two distinct sections in my log: Main Spending and U.Va. Spending. The Main Spending column is for “real money” purchases – ones I make using cash, a gift card, or my debit card. U.Va. Spending makes up purchases I make using Plus Dollars (a form of U.Va. Dining currency) and Cavalier Advantage (another form of U.Va.- specific currency I usually only use for laundry and printing in the libraries). I’m sure it would work just as well to have one column for all spending; this is just what suits my spending habits best. I like to have a handful of sub columns as well: the date of a purchase, how much I spent, my spending method, and what I bought. This way, I can ensure that I don’t spend my entire monthly budget in a week, that I don’t get too swipe-happy with my debit card, and that I’m not getting Littlejohn’s every day. I also round up my purchases to the next dollar, because I find that if I get too caught up in transcribing every last cent, I’m less likely to transcribe it at all.
If you can get through one solid semester of tracking your spending and seeing how much you tend to spend on food, books, clothes, and entertainment, then you can begin creating a real budget. I can only suggest what’s worked for me in the past, but I recommend looking at your savings and deciding how much you (and/or your parents) feel comfortable spending over a period of four years – enough so that you can go out to eat with friends once in a while, but not so much that you accidentally reenact all six seasons of Sex and the City. Make sure you factor in your first semester spending log as well – is your savings estimate reasonable? If you study in an urban area with a lot of restaurants and shops, you might find that your savings estimate is too high, and if you study in the middle of nowhere, you might find that it’s too low.
Once you have a realistic number, divide that by the number of semesters you have left to study. If you like, divide it by the number of weeks per semester. This way, you’ll have solid number of dollars per week you feel comfortable spending that you can easily reference. Tweak your budget whenever any significant financial change comes about – you get a job at the university bookstore, quit your job at the local coffee shop, or have to pay for a history tutor – and remember to always, always be honest with yourself. Saying “I can get by on five dollars a week,” is much easier said in theory than done in practice, and lying to yourself abut your spending habits when crafting your budget won’t help you become financially savvy. Protip for gauging the realism of your budget: if you categorize it as “aspirational,” you might want to stake a second look at it.
A final word of advice: don’t be embarrassed if you’re not a financial god or goddess right when you start your college career. We all have to learn the ins and outs of personal finance sometime, and for a lot of people, that time doesn’t come until you’re finally on your own at college. If you screw up a check, forget your debit card PIN, or go over budget once in blue moon, relax. As long as you don’t bet your entire savings on U.Va.’s football team ever winning a game of significance, you’ll be perfectly fine.