It was 15 years ago this month I began my college career. I attended Western Kentucky University. To this day, I can barely tell you 10 facts I learned in the classroom. That doesn’t matter. I learned my real lessons outside of the classroom.
One of the most important lessons is: the ATM is not a magic machine that gives you money on demand, and credit cards don’t absolve you of payments, they just delay them, and return bigger later.
While attending college, you have a nice buffer between adolescence and the real world. You’ve got some responsibility and freedom, but you’re still young and relatively carefree, especially at the beginning (what, you say, you’re grown up, ready to handle it all? Yeah, right!). You can still rely, somewhat, upon your parents, and that means you’re going to need their money.
Regardless of major, learning to manage your money is one of the most important skills learned in college. If you can’t control your expenditures, your income is irrelevant. It’s a basic fact of life, and the real world is going to have plenty of expenditures, some more vital than others.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume a few things. We’ll assume you’re attending a school you can afford, you’re living on campus, you have a student meal plan to cover much of your meal expenses, and finally, you have a part-time job. If you’re a student working in a college town, that means you’re probably working less than 20 hours a week, for a depressed hourly wage, i.e., minimum wage.
Let the good times roll!
Remember, semesters end, but your need for money is constant. And yes, you can seriously damage your credit rating as early as when you’re in college.
The key to surviving the tight years in college comes not from building an income, but controlling your expenses.
As in all financial matters, develop a detailed, written budget. At the beginning of each month, estimate your income, then estimate your expenses. Of course, you won’t get it right at first, but in time, you’ll develop a stronger strategy and appreciation for a plan.
Something else you’ll learn. College students are a wasteful lot of people.
For one thing, college students blow a tremendous amount of money on fast food. It’s no surprise why: the food is cheap, readily accessible, fast, and tasty, and college students are notoriously busy, on-the-go people with bizarre hours. (The pizza for breakfast thing is not a urban legend, though I never did such a thing.)
Entertainment is another money hole. Students watch a lot of movies, buy a lot of music, and get other sources of entertainment, such as going to concerts and clubs. This demographic is probably changing dramatically, due to the Internet, bootlegging, and other ways to get cheaper entertainment.
Students spend money on decorations for their dorm rooms. Often, the first few days of school will feature someone selling posters on campus, plus there’s trips to the mall, etc.
Finally, too many students indulge in the biggest money wasters of them all: alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs. Don’t believe me? Check out the trash bins behind a frat house over the weekend.
Controlling expenses doesn’t require an iron will, but it does require discipline. For starters, avoid the big money wasters. Take a small dent in your social life to avoid a dent in your wallet. Never get involved with drinking, smoking, or drugs. It’s not worth it.
Avoid the fast food and restaurant runs in favor of your cafeteria and eating in your room. When you’re shopping for food, purchase the store brands, which are usually at least 80 cents cheaper than the name brands. Also, start using coupons. The money you can save with them adds up quickly, especially when buying staples and hygiene products. Even better, grocers in college towns are usually competitive and accept double coupons. Each Sunday, poke around the mail room in the dorms, and look for discarded papers, with the coupon sections just out of the taking. They’ll laugh at you for cutting coupons like Grandma; you’ll laugh when they need to borrow money from Grandma.
For entertainment, rely on your public library to help you. Nowadays, the library offers a decent selection of both movies and books. So, they won’t have everything, but remember, you’re supposed to be studying, remember? Even more, you can get legal, free movies and music through the Internet with sites like Hulu, YouTube, and Joost, among others.
Finally, network with others, and barter and swap for things you may need or want. I was a dumpster diver in school and found interesting stuff. Now, it’s called freeganism, and they abound in college towns.
Never forget Ben Franklin’s wisdom. Penny saved, penny earned.