Parents expect that their children will head off to college with concerns about fitting in, finding friends, and not failing classes. What they may not think about, is the stress students may have from worrying about their own finances, probably for the first time.
Many studies show that money is top of mind for most students. A recent study showed that more than three-fourths of millennials and Gen Zers are stressed about tuition, living expenses, and finding a career that pays well.
Another survey found that almost 40% of current students with loans have thought about leaving school in order to avoid more student debt.
The stress makes sense. Undergraduates are away from home and have to figure out how to pay at least some of their own bills—maybe by working after class or by stretching loans, scholarships, and money from home.
If that’s your situation, or it’s about to be, what can you do to keep money from becoming a distraction? How can you lower your stress and anxiety so that you don’t decide that the bachelor’s or advanced degree you’ve been working so hard for just isn’t worth it?
One good place to start is to try to develop some healthy money management habits. Here are a few steps you can take to get on the right path.
Money Management Tips for College Students
1. Ins and Outs
To get started, you might want to catalog all the cash you have coming in from various sources: any financial aid, private loans, stipends, work-study programs, full- or part-time jobs, family contributions, even your tax refund. You can break it down by month, semester, academic year, or calendar year.
As you list each item, make sure you understand how you’ll get the money and when. Keep in mind that your income may vary from month to month, so plan accordingly.
For example, if you’re tracking by month, and you earn most of your money via summer and holiday-season jobs, you may want to estimate your yearly income (net, not gross) and divide it by 12.
Next, try to figure out what your ongoing expenses will be. Besides tuition and fees—unless those are covered by financial aid or family—think about other school-related costs, such as books and supplies.
Then you might move on to other costs that you expect to cover yourself, depending on your living situation: transportation, housing, clothing, medications, insurance, food, phone, entertainment, etc. You also may want to label those costs as fixed or variable, and prioritize them, so when money gets tight, you know what you’re willing to let go of first.
2. Sticking to a Plan
Congratulations, you have a budget! But, as many of us know, it can be difficult to follow a budget.
Consider setting yourself up with a spreadsheet or an app that will help you track your spending; seeing it all graphed out can be eye-opening, and may help keep you in line. You can limit late fees by paying your bills on time, and it’s also a good idea to avoid impulse buys.
Having a budget doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible, but you should be prepared to make some trade-offs from week to week and month to month. Want to buy concert tickets?
That shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you can let go of something else. Maybe you could start brewing your own coffee instead of buying it by the cup, or keep your old phone for a little while longer.
3. When to Use Credit Cards
Consider limiting your credit card use. If you get too accustomed to relying on credit, it could come back to haunt you. While government reform has greatly curtailed the number of credit cards being offered on college campuses, students are still tempted.
If you’re worried about paying off student loans someday, you might want to think twice about racking up credit card debt as well. Try sticking to cash or your debit card—you’ll be less tempted to indulge.
4. Saving for Surprises
Unexpected expenses are bound to come up while you’re at school, and you don’t need the distraction of figuring out how you’ll pay for them while you’re working to pass a calculus or chemistry class.
Try to start school with an emergency fund, at least enough to cover an extra month’s worth of expenses—and keep adding to that if you can.
5. Knowing Where to Go for Help
If you just can’t make ends meet, you may want to plan ahead and think about who you’ll talk to about your troubles. It would be a good idea not to wait until you can’t pay your tuition or another big bill.
Consider calling a parent or someone else you trust, or make an appointment with the financial aid office or your academic adviser. Stressing about money can affect your health, your mood, and your behavior, which could ultimately affect your grades—try not to let it get that far.
6. Never Giving Up on Finding More Money
If at first, you couldn’t find a scholarship, try, try again. Keep an eye out for any information posted around campus and search for offers online.
Talk to your favorite professors and your academic adviser about any possibilities—they might even be able to give you a leg up with a recommendation.
Know that you can appeal for more financial aid if your situation has changed or you think you should have been awarded more. The appeals process varies from school to school, so make sure you understand every step you need to take before you get started.
7. Getting a Job You Love
If you decide to work, or you have to work, try to get a job you enjoy. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you like what you’re doing and the people you’re working with, you’ll be more likely to stick with the job and it might not be as stressful as a job you dread.
If possible, try to find something that relates to your field of study so you can use it as a résumé builder—and determine if you’re on the right track with your choice. But that’s not the only way to go: If you like kids, you could be a nanny.
If you’re into fitness, try working at a gym or a park. Instead of letting your job add to your mental burden, try to find something that’s fun and interesting.
Using Healthy Money Habits to Stay on Track
It may take some time to develop good financial habits, but the benefits of learning how to manage your money as a student may be well worth the effort. When you have your finances under control, it can help you—and later, your family—as you move through life.
It could help your credit score, which means you may have a better shot at getting the financing you need for larger purchases like a car or a home. And, you can continue working toward all your financial goals.
One way to potentially make things easier on yourself is to open a cash management account, like SoFi Money®.
SoFi Money can make staying on track easier as you earn, save, and spend all in one account. Plus, there are no account fees (subject to change).
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