At AccurateTax, we practically eat, sleep, and breathe sales tax. But you’d be surprised at the number of adults who don’t really understand sales tax. For that matter, most high school graduates haven’t been taught much at all in the way of personal finance. Given the time of year, and the fact that schools’ curricula focuses on common core math through calculus, rather than balancing a checkbook and understanding consumer credit, we’d like to help.
This month and next, millions of young people will graduate from high school and start preparations for the next step in their lives. As these new graduates prepare for college and the world at large, it’s important that they are as prepared as possible.
If you or someone in your family is embarking on this journey, we’ve gathered 10 personal finance tips every college student should know.
1. Choose a Checking Account that Matches Your Needs
If you have an existing checking account from high school, there’s a good chance that it won’t match your needs as well in college. You’ll want a bank that is flexible in location as well as your balances and how you access your money. ATM fee reimbursement, low daily minimum balances, and plenty of branches both on/near campus and back home are all important to ensure your checking account is as flexible as possible for the next four years.
2. Invest Time in Software to Manage Money Now
Don’t wait until your finances are a mess or worse, you have no idea what is happening with your money. Invest time in a simple, easy to use money management tool now and it will keep things simple moving forward. There are several powerful mobile apps like Mint and level that make money management both easy and mobile while in college.
3. Research Your First Credit Card Carefully
It is important for students to obtain and wisely use a credit card in order to start building credit as a young adult. The sooner you do this, the better your credit score can be, since the age of accounts is a critical factor in the score. This will help you have an established financial history, years ahead of when you may need it – for an auto loan or mortgage, for instance.
But be careful. Credit card companies are notorious for offering freebies and incentives for young people to get them on board. Instead of the t-shirt or frisbee, ask the credit card company to explain the fine print of a potential contract. What is the annual fee, what kind of rewards will you get, what is the effective APR, and what are the repayment terms?
4. Don’t Use Credit for Things You Cannot Afford
Credit cards are a useful tool to consolidate spending, protect your identity, and build credit for future large purchases. They are not a resource for buying things you cannot afford. While they can certainly be used as such, it can be extremely costly if you are not careful. High interest rates leveraged on students, overextension beyond your budget, and high balance percentages that can actually hurt your credit score are all dangers. Don’t use your credit irresponsibly.
5. Build a Budget Early and Follow It Carefully
For the first time, you’ll be fully responsible for a large number of expenses (possibly all of them). So you need a budget for how to manage those expenses. Track your monthly income from a part time job or financial aid disbursement, and have a clear list of all of your recurring expenses.
Make sure you know exactly how much money is needed each month for rent, groceries, gas, car and health insurance, utilities, and other household goods. It doesn’t need to be detailed to the last cent, but you should have a very close idea of what you need and whether you are making enough to cover it. Don’t forget recurring expenses like books either – these can sneak up on you since they only recur 2-3 times a year.
6. Use Student Discounts Wisely
When you arrive on campus, you’ll get your first student ID. That magic card will come with a bevy of discounts and ways to save money – and not just on campus. Many local businesses will offer discounts and perks to students. This could be as simple as a 10% discount on your next meal, all the way up to major discounts on new computers, greatly reduced transit costs for local trains or buses, and supplies for your classes. Use them wisely to save money on things you already have to buy.
7. Reduce Your Textbook Spending
It may only happen 2-3 times a year, but textbooks represent a huge expense for most college students. The first semester you have to drop upwards of $1,000 on books, you’ll be eager to find any way you can to reduce the expense.
Fortunately, there are ways to do so. To start, you can buy used textbooks. You can find students who recently took a course you are taking locally on campus or on sites like eBay or Craigslist. You can also find discounted textbooks on Amazon.com, or you can rent them from services like Amazon or Chegg. Some textbooks are even available for digital rental, which can reduce their cost by as much as 60% if you have a tablet or laptop.
For those books you do buy, make sure to sell them immediately after the semester is over to recuperate the cost. You can get upwards of 60% back on a new book and potentially all of your money back on used books you already bought.
8. Protect Your Identity
Students between the ages of 18-24 are among the highest in terms of risk of identity theft. Worse, most people in this age range don’t pay attention to their credit score, credit card statements and other data. The average time to notice a problem for this demographic is nearly 4 months. You can get a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com or you could pay extra for a service like Lifelock to protect your identity and alert you when something suspicious happens.
9. Manage Your Student Loan Debt
If you are like most college students, you’ll likely need to take out at least some loans. For most students, this means a combination of Federal and State subsidized loans that have low interest rates and friendly repayment terms, and private loans with much higher rates and less friendly terms.
To avoid taking on too much of the latter, to your research and make sure you only take out as much as you need. As much as you might like to enjoy your time in college, a part time job can cover a lot of expenses over the course of four years, while student loan debt can pile up rapidly and become a major burden when you graduate.
10. Be Smart and Become Better Prepared for the Future
Most of your financial decisions while in college won’t have ramifications for years to come, but they can affect you for decades. The debt you accrue, the credit score you carry with you, and the money in savings will all be huge factors when it comes time to move and get a job for the first time, buy your first car, rent an apartment, and more.
So be smart, be careful, and be frugal. Smart decisions now will pay dividends for the rest of your life.