For many students, attending college away from home is the first time they have been entrusted with adult responsibilities. For the most part, everyday money choices would have been handled or at least supported by parents who would have been around to guide students in the right direction while living at home. College ushers in independence and consequences.
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The big decisions, such as how to fund a college education, may have already been made. So rather than focusing on how to avoid student loan debt and other issues surrounding financing an education, let's look at specific actions students can take while on campus to save what limited money they might have.
1. Have the right bank accounts. A student's best bet is to have a checking account at a bank that offers convenient branches both in the parents' town and near campus. This allows parents to deposit checks easily if necessary while students can withdraw funds as needed without a hassle. With a job on campus, income can be automatically deposited. Most banks offer student accounts with no fees and no minimum balances. The banking set-up wouldn't be complete without a savings account offering interest to allow money to grow while in college.
2. Borrow textbooks from other students. Unless a course is being offered for the first time this semester, other students at the college have completed each of your classes. For each, find a student who no longer needs their textbook but hasn't sold it. Borrow it for the duration of the semester and save more money than a student who buys. Colleges want to encourage students to buy each year's new editions, but most professors have no problem with students using a prior version. Contact your instructor ahead of time to verify.
4. Have the right credit card. For the most part, students should avoid using a credit card while in college. All needs are generally covered, so the only use for a credit card would be to pay for things not covered by income or emergencies. For those emergencies, having a good student credit card can make the difference. Ignore the marketers with the free tee-shirts and frisbees; research the best student credit cards that don't charge an annual fee and do offer some rewards.
5. Use the dining plan. Students who live on campus often opt for and are in some cases required to buy a dining plan. This ensures students have access to three meals each day. This is a great opportunity to build a habit of healthy eating. While campus dining halls are often the butt of jokes, college food isn't always horrible. Get three good meals during dining hall operating hours so you don't have to pay extra to eat from restaurants.
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6. Consider living off campus. Some colleges may not allow this, but while attending those that do, you may find that it costs less to rent an apartment near campus than it costs to pay for on-campus housing. If rent can be shared among a number of roommates, students or their parents can save more money. Unlike a dorm room, students can have access to their own kitchens, saving money by buying groceries and cooking rather than dining out.
7. Ask for student discounts everywhere. While the days of discount movie tickets are numbered, shops and restaurants near campus likely offer student discounts, and these discounts may not be advertised. A student identification card is more powerful than students expect. I've seen student discounts for hair cuts, theater performances, concerts, and even car insurance. Students receive price breaks on computer equipment and software, too.
8. Get a job. Not every student is the same, and not every student is capable of a part-time job in addition to a full course load. Occasionally, holding down a job while trying to fit in classes and studying is a necessity, if it can be avoided it should. There will be many decades for working, but only a few years of college. I do encourage students to work during summer breaks and other vacations. Earning money early on will provide income for today as well as for retirement, but it shouldn't come at the expense of succeeding academically.
One goal for the four (or more) years of college is to survive financially. Many former students I know graduated with thousands of dollars of credit card debt, including me, thanks to inattention to money. College is the time for students to show they can begin to function as responsible adults in society, and while many adults also suffer from poor money management skills, there is an opportunity to set the bar higher. If nothing else, simply paying attention and understanding expenses will put a student at the head of the class.
Luke Landes writes for Consumerism Commentary, where he encourages discussions about money and consumer issues. Consumerism Commentary regularly tracks and reviews the best online savings accounts and other financial products.