How to Handle Financial Stress in College

College can be a very stressful time in a person’s life and financial burdens do nothing to help matters. Many adults will tell you that college students shouldn’t worry about money, but should focus on their studies instead. While I agree that making your education a top priority is important, telling students not to worry about their financial situation is just plain bad advice.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be an heir to a fortune or have a hefty college fund at your disposal, your finances are likely to be a major cause of stress during your college years. Even for those students managing to juggle their studies, social life and a full-time job, money can still be tight. Added to the pressure to succeed academically, the desire to be accepted by your peers and possible feelings of homesickness, it is not surprising that so many college students suffer from feelings of depression and anxiety brought on by too much stress.

However, while most students are always going to fit the profile of “impoverished college student”, there are several things that you can do to help minimize and deal with financial stress.

1. Take advantage of financial aid programs and scholarship opportunities. Some students fail to apply for financial aid or scholarships because they think that they won’t qualify. However, it’s definitely worth giving it a shot. The necessary forms don’t take long to fill out and if you are awarded aid it can significantly lessen your financial stress. Scholarships and grants are ideal since you don’t have to pay them back, but even student loans can be helpful and are typically better than racking up credit card debt.

2. Take advantage of your summer vacations. Unless you’re taking classes during the summer months, look at this time as a great opportunity to earn some much-needed cash rather than as a chance to work on your tan. With the stress of classes and homework temporarily at bay, summer is a great time to put in some extra hours at work. Seasonal work can pay very well and be very flexible, so that you still have time for a few de-stressing hours for fun in the sun. Keeping busy at work means less money spent on entertainment and you will appreciate your hard work come fall.

If you aren’t currently employed, the summer might be a good time to look for a well-paying internship, which will not only help your savings, but will be beneficial down the road as well. Doing odd jobs, such as house- or pet-sitting or tutoring can also help bring in a few extra bucks with little effort. Selling items that you have outgrown on Ebay can help plump up your savings while de-cluttering your dorm room.

3. Avoid credit cards. Credit cards may seem like every college student’s best friend at the time, but having more than one credit card for emergency situations is a bad idea. And remember that a new pair of shoes or a late night pizza craving does not constitute an emergency! Credit card companies love to pray on struggling college students and will try to lure you in with low interest rate offers. However, once the introductory rate is over, the APR is likely to sky-rocket, leaving any balances that you are carrying accumulating interest faster than you can pay it off.

If you’ve already gotten yourself into considerable credit card debt, do not lose hope. Go online to reputable money management sites to develop a debt reduction plan. Don’t fall for credit card consolidation scams as they nearly always have hidden costs and will end up costing you more money in the long run. Pay off your highest interest rate cards first, even if you are tempted to pay off your cards with lower balances. When paying your high interest cards, try to make more than the minimum payment, as this often goes solely towards interest and doesn’t put a dent in the principle. If possible, transfer balances to lower interest cards, but once again remember that interest rates can skyrocket after the introductory period, so do your research carefully.

4. Make a budget. Yes, I know its not how you want to spend your Friday night, but making a budget can be very beneficial and you will appreciate it in the long run. Start by writing down all of your monthly expenses, such as tuition, rent, books, utilities, cell phone, insurance, gas money, food and other necessities. Then list all of your income, including financial aid. Hopefully, this second figure will be larger than the first. After you have allocated how much you need to spend on necessary expenses each month, you can figure out how much extra you have to put in savings and spend on entertainment or other unnecessary purchases. While minimizing your spending is a key factor in avoiding financial stress, realize that you’re going to want to go out to eat or buy a new pair of jeans once in awhile and figure this into your monthly budget. Then, the most important and most difficult step is to actually stick to your budget. You may slip up once in awhile, but just jump back on the horse the next month and you should be able to minimize your financial stress.

5. Take advantage of resources. Your college counseling or career center may have valuable resources for managing your finances or dealing with financial stress. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of them.

6. Be resourceful. You may have laughed at your mom when she clipped coupons out of the Sunday paper, but now that you’re fending for yourself, you realize that she was being very financially savvy. Clip coupons and watch for sales on groceries and other essentials and save money by buying in bulk. If you don’t have room to store excess food, visit a discount warehouse with friends, split the bill and then divy up the goods when you get back to your dorm or apartment. Look for other ways to cut costs, such as buying your textbooks used on Amazon.com and buying store brand products rather than name brands whenever possible. Save money on gas by walking or biking to class (exercise is a great stress reliever), taking advantage of cheap public transportation or carpooling. Take advantage of your student health center, which often offers free or highly discounted exams and prescriptions if you don’t have good medical insurance. Your tuition dollars are already paying for this service, so you might as well take advantage of the opportunity while you can.

7. Lay off the booze. College has long been associated with binge drinking and while the occasional social drink isn’t going to break you, going to happy hour every night or drinking heavily every weekend can serious deplete your pocket book. The costs of drinking can add up quickly for college students, especially after a few drinks when you start to lose track of how much you are actually spending. Not only is drinking costly, but it can add to your stress in other ways, by negatively affecting your academic performance, mental and emotional heath, weight and physical well-being, as well as your interpersonal relationships. Stick to a two-drink minimum and find other cheaper and healthier ways to have fun with your friends.

Even if you do everything you can to help avoid financial stress, it is still more than likely going to affect you from time to time. There are many things you can do to help deal with stress in general, such as working out, which boosts confidence and releases endorphins and maintaining a regular sleep schedule, which is a very important goal that many college students ignore. Eating well, learning to manage your time effectively, listening to calming music, watching a funny movie or talking with your friends can all be effective ways of maintaining healthy stress levels as well.