Budgeting can be difficult for anyone, and college students are no exception. With the countless opportunities and new experiences at most universities, it might be tempting to indulge yourself and rely on your parents as a financial safety net. But if you can learn to manage your money at this stage in life, your chances of living a more financially stable and free life in the future are pretty high.
Although you might not make a lot of money in college, you’ll likely want to experience everything it has to offer. But you don’t want to go broke doing it all, only to find yourself having to pay off a massive amount of student loan debt.
1. Use an App
As a college student, you’ve got a thousand things happening on a daily basis and, often, each day is different. A lack of structure can keep you from being on top of managing your spending and can spell disaster for your budget. Fortunately, there are a number of free budgeting apps to help. Try a money management app like Mint and find the best budgeting app for you. Chances are, after consistently using one of these helpful budgeting tools for just a month, you’ll find new ways to save.
2. Build In a Financial Cushion
Be prepared for unexpected expenses by building up a bit of savings that you can rely on. Once you have your budget, build in a 10% cushion, said Kendal Perez, a blogger for Hassle-Free Savings. “If a roommate unexpectedly moves out or your car requires an unexpected repair, this cushion can help reduce the stress and cost of these events,” she said.
3. Invest Your Spare Change
Saving your spare change has gone digital with investing apps like Acorns. You link your credit or debit card and when you make a purchase, Acorns rounds up the amount to the nearest dollar and makes the change available for you to invest. Not only will you be saving money, but you’ll also have the opportunity to grow it because your spare change is invested in stocks and bonds. It doesn’t take a math major to know that spare change and interest can really add up.
4. Start Paying Off Student Loans
Americans owe more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. If you are on track to accumulate debt, Perez suggested it’s a good idea to start paying down your debt immediately — not to wait until after graduation — and to start incorporating payments into your current budget, no matter how small. “Even if you’re just paying off interest, getting into the habit of making regular payments to your student loans will help you pay them off faster,” Perez said.
5. Use Cash for Fun
Perez suggested determining how much you can spend on discretionary expenses such as dining out and social events, then withdrawing that amount in cash, whether it’s for the week or month.
“Commit to only using cash on these discretionary expenses and cut yourself off once it’s gone,” Perez said. “This strategy should help you make more thoughtful spending decisions since you want to get the most out of your cash.”
6. Double or Triple Your Credit Card Payments
If you’ve run up credit card debt, one of the smartest money-saving moves you can make is paying that high-interest debt off, said Perez. She suggested including double or even triple payments in your budget. It might be tough, but you’ll thank yourself later. “You’re already (saddled) with student loan debt; don’t compound the issue with credit card debt,” said Perez.
7. Use Coupons
Coupons might not sound cool, but paying full retail prices is fiscally foolish. Coupons are available for just about everything if you search hard enough, said Kerry Sherin, SEO and PR manager at VirtualRealityRental.co. “Saving that extra 20% could mean the difference between a meal out with your friends or eating ramen alone in your dorm room,” she said.
8. Use Your Student ID or Student Email
Your student ID can get you some valuable student discounts on more than just movie tickets. For instance, with a valid student email address, you can sign up for Prime Student on Amazon and receive free shipping on millions of eligible items, exclusive college deals and promotions.
Other great deals can be found on everything from computer software and FedEx shipping to newspapers, food, clothing and much more, according to Sherin. The bottom line is you should always ask if a student discount is available, Sherin said.
9. Don’t Overbuy at the Grocery Store
The average person in the U.S. wastes about a pound of food per day, according to a study, the Washington Post reported. For a college student, wasting food is a budget bomb and a shame. To be part of the solution and save some money in the process, buy only the groceries you absolutely need.
“Buying too many groceries can hit your wallet hard,” Sherin said. “Try setting a weekly grocery budget or stick to food items that have longer shelf lives.”
10. Look For Free Events
Colleges and universities are known for having many free events, so save money by taking advantage of them, advised Sherin. “While hitting up the local bar or nightclub might sound more appealing than a free campus event, you will spend more money out on the town,” said Sherin. Campus events are also a great way to meet new friends, Sherin said.
11. Take Classes at a Community College
Whether you’re supplementing your four-year university education — and possibly shaving some time off your college career by graduating earlier than scheduled — or attending a local college as a substitute for a four-year university, you can save a substantial amount of money by taking courses at a community college.
“Oftentimes, universities and colleges have agreements with other local community colleges to have classes that can transfer between each other,” Sherin said. “If it makes sense for your schedule and your wallet, see what’s available at the other school.”
12. Get a Cash-Back Credit Card
Use this tip with caution: Getting a cash-back credit card can be a good financial move — as long as you are responsible. Be sure you can manage debt responsibly before signing up for any credit card, said Sherin.
“If you know you can be responsible with a credit card, apply for one that offers cash-back incentives,” Sherin said. “This way, you can earn money on the purchases you make every day.” A number of rewards credit cards are available, and some offer extra cash-back rewards depending on what financial institution you bank with.
13. Shop at the Dollar Store
The dollar store might not be the coolest place to shop, but it’s often the cheapest — learn dollar-store strategies. You can save money on necessities that might cost you more if you purchase them on campus or even at a grocery store.
“If you know you are going to be shopping for things you are going to throw away — like trash bags, sandwich bags or paper towels — pick something inexpensive at your local dollar store,” Sherin said.
14. Borrow as Little as Possible
If you have to use student loans to pay for your education, try to borrow as little as possible, advised Steve Repak, a certified financial planner and author of “6 Week Money Challenge: For Your Personal Finances.”
“Unlike credit card debt, student loan debt can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy, so it is extremely important to put a plan together to get (student loans) paid off as soon as possible,” Repak said. The first move toward that is having a low balance to begin with.
15. Get Good Grades
Although there are many reasons to earn the best grades that you can, perhaps one of the biggest incentives is that good grades can also pay off financially, said Ed Gjertsen II, CFP, vice president of Mack Investment Securities Inc.
“Good to great grades can go a long way in schools offering merit-based scholarships,” Gjertsen said. “While athletic scholarships may attract most of the attention, getting good grades can open financial opportunities.” Aside from financial opportunities, earning good grades can score you other perks such as good-student discounts on auto insurance, which can be particularly high for young adults.
16. Live Below Your Means
Even though living the frugal life might not be the most fun in college, it will help you in the long run to financial freedom. To do this, CPA and columnist for Inc., Paul Sundin, recommends that you try to save 10% of your income.
Another popular budgeting method is the 50-30-20 rule — this rule, popularized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, breaks down your finances in a manageable way. According to the rule, you spend 50% of your income for needs, 30% for wants and 20% to go toward savings and debt.
Although many blogs have famously challenged the idea that cooking is cheaper than eating out, Perez said that if you do it right, you can cook delicious — and likely, healthier — meals compared with what you can get if you eat out.
In addition, cooking your own meals puts money back into your pocket. For instance, if you usually spend $10 on lunch every day, you can potentially save $1,200 per year if you cooked and brought food from home, according to CNBC’s Jonathan Blumberg.
Whether it’s a summer job or a part-time gig during the school year, working is a surefire way to help yourself stay within budget. “As much fun as it is laying by the pool, visiting local hotspots and touring the summer music scene, saving up your money during the summer can help you build your nest egg for the school year,” said Sherin. Working also does double duty: You can’t spend money while earning it.
19. Turn Off the Cable
The average spending per subscriber is about $85 per month for cable TV, according to Leichtman Research Group, USA Today reported. It might be tough to lose your favorite TV show, but cutting your cable could be one of your savviest financial moves. Plus, many shows are available for viewing on the TV networks’ websites after the episode airs.
20. Stop Smoking
If you can kick this addictive habit, you’ll have better health, better breath and better finances. The average price of a pack of cigarettes is $6.32 in the U.S. — with New York charging $10.48 a pack. Quitting smoking can mean the difference between a Friday night out with friends and a long night alone in your room, coughing.
21. Become a Resident Advisor
If you’re an upperclassman, consider becoming a resident adviser. An RA provides peer-to-peer advice for fellow, younger or newer students in dorms and residence halls. As an RA, you’ll help build a sense of community, answer students’ questions and more. Being an RA can pay off in a lot of ways: It looks good on your resume, it gives you real-world managing experience, and many universities compensate you with free room and board or other perks.
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Taylor Bell contributed to the reporting for this article.