A College Student’s Guide to Personal Finance: Five Useful Tips

I think nearly every college student in the US, aside from a select few who have incredibly rich parents or full scholarships, has to take out a loan to pay for the fees. Thus, the vast majority of us will leave college with both a degree and an IOU in hand. Unfortunately, many young adults who are off on their own for the first time find themselves not only with massive student loan payments but large credit card debts too. For some, it’s the only way to survive. For others, especially those who are receiving a modest living allowance from their parents, it’s pure irresponsibility that puts them in a dire financial situation. Even for the most careful of spenders, we can still find ourselves making bad choices or mistakenly overpaying for goods or services.

Is there any way to avoid the pitfalls most students find themselves falling into? Of course! It doesn’t even take a major in finance to come up with a plan of action for setting yourself on track to becoming a fiscally responsible member of society. Here are five tips to get you started:

  1. Cutting Back: Cutting back on things that are not absolutely necessary is a good start. Sure, we’d all like to own a Nintendo Wii and the latest games, but is it necessary? If you already have a friend who has one, go over to his or her place and get your gaming fix, along with a little social time. Or, if you still want some games to play on your own, revisit some of the classic systems of our childhood. Even a basic NES system will provide hours of entertainment. In fact, if you’re that into video games, chances are you’ve got a Playstation, Sega Genesis, or a Nintendo 64 lying around and a decent library of games. If you want a new game, check out a used game shop or eBay for titles you’ve never played.Video games are just one example of a way in which you can cut back. One thing that’s saved me hundreds of dollars was foregoing cable television. Yes, it’s nice to have a variety, but how many of those hundreds of channels will you actually watch? Plus, if you’re a full-time student, you’d be better off spending your time studying or going out with friends rather than spending it on a couch watching reruns of Mythbusters on the Discovery channel. If you live in or are close enough to a major city, you can get an antenna to pick up the basic network TV stations. You may even get some of those channels in HD with the right antenna! Another area where college students probably spend too much is on food. Many of us will grab some fast food in between classes or stop by a coffee shop in the morning for a USD 5 specialty coffee drink. Sure, these are great to have on occasions, but if you spend USD 10 everyday on food and drinks, that adds up to USD 300 a month. Even buying a bottle of soda everyday will cost you at least USD 30 a month or more. Pack a lunch, brew your own coffee, and buy twelve or twenty-four packs of pop instead of shelling out more at stores and vending machines.
  2. Budgeting: Coming up with a basic budget is simple enough. If you are working part-time and get around USD 400 a month, you can divide that into fourths and allow yourself USD 100 each for food, entertainment, miscellaneous expenses, and savings. It’s as easy as that. If you budget a certain amount for ‘ miscellaneous expenses’, such as unexpected bills or a contingency, but don’t use it all, you can either add it to your savings or use it to treat yourself to a new video game or a pair of jeans.
  3. Work-Study: No matter what school you go to, you can almost always find a campus job. Some schools require you to have work-study funds, but chances are if you’re having a hard time paying for school and living expenses, you probably do. If you can land a job like a security guard, a library or computer lab attendant, or a parking attendant, you’ll likely be able to study while on the job. Schools will provide these jobs to students to help them make enough money to live on while still allowing enough time to study.
  4. Bargain Shop: Sure, you might think that you already bargain shop at a clearance sale or buy drug store makeup rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars at a department store. While that can make a difference, you can always take it one step further. Instead of going to the mall and buying brand new clothes, check out your local thrift store or Ragstock. If you would rather not wear used clothes, another alternative is to shop at discount stores like TJ Maxx or Kohl’s. You can find incredible deals, and often you’ll find top-of-the-line products for less than what you’ll find anywhere else. For example, I once bought a pair of Converse All-Stars at TJ Maxx for USD 10. The price I would have paid at a regular shoe store would have been USD 50 at the least!
  5. Choose Loans Carefully: Not all student loans are created equal. One must be thorough when reading the fine print. I must admit that I’m no expert on loans and the specifics, so the best advice I can provide is to speak with your adviser or the financial aid office at your school to find out what loans you are eligible for and which ones are worth your while.

Getting a college degree can be challenging and expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Not only will you be more satisfied with your career, but you’ll also have enriched your life through the pursuit of knowledge. You would be proud of yourself for taking this path in life, but if you find yourself in tens of thousands of dollars in debt afterwards, you probably won’t be as satisfied with your accomplishment. Take these steps today to protect yourself from debt!