College Student Guide to Personal Finance

College graduates are walking away from school with more debt than ever. The average 2013 graduate owed $63,000 in government, private, and state loans, and $13,000 in personal and family loans. These fresh new grads also had a whopping $3,000 in credit card debt. This may seem excessive, but consider the fact that a single year at a public in-state college averages $22,826 and you can see where these numbers come from.

Tuition is a major expense for college students, but it's far from the only one. Room, board, books, transportation, and other living expenses can add up, too. Whether you're getting ready to embark on your college journey as a freshman, or you're well into your education and up to your ears in debt, this guide can help you get a grip on your financial situation and approach graduation without the stress of debt looming over your head.

Tracking Your Expenses

You may think you know where all your money is going, but it's surprisingly easy for your finances to develop a few leaks. These insidious little extras can slowly but steadily drain away your balance, going unnoticed until major damage is done. If you've never combed through your bank and credit card accounts to analyze how you spend your money, this is an essential first step for improving and safeguarding your finances.

Getting a Grip With Technology

Fortunately, you don't have to resort to pen and paper to figure out where your money is going. Today's convenient technology gives you the tools to paint a detailed picture of your spending habits in minutes. Download a financial app like Mint and you can examine your spending with handy visuals like pie charts and bar graphs that drive the details home. Your bank and credit card companies may offer tracking services, as well.

Keep meticulous track of your spending for two or three months and use this information to thoroughly evaluate your habits. A single week won't offer a clear picture because many people spend in waves rather than at a steady pace every day. Always turn to the bigger picture for accurate averages.

Knowing Your Core and Variable Expenses

Most people have a solid base of core expenses that remain steady, such as rent and a car payment. As a college student, you may not have these on your plate yet, but tuition fees or early loan repayments could take their place. Layered on top are the expenses that are relatively steady but still variable. This might include utilities, a cell phone bill, and credit card payments.

How many cups of coffee do I drink per day?

0 5

$4.14

for 3 cups per day

$1,511.10

total cost per year

The top layer of expenses is the most difficult to control. These small but frequent purchases include things like food, gas, clothing, toiletries, and entertainment. Taken one at a time, they usually seem harmless. The average price for a cup of brewed coffee is $1.38, but coffee drinkers typically have three cups a day. While a dollar and some change may seem like nothing in the moment, this single purchase would add up to $4.14 a day. Over the course of a year, that's $1,511.10 for your java habit alone.

Cutting Back on Expenses

If you're looking sideways at your cup of coffee now, you're on the right track. Understanding your expenses is the first step to financial control. Once you have a clear picture of how you're spending your money, you can begin taking steps to plug those little holes and pad your bottom line.

Budgeting for Your Loan Costs

For a college student, education expenses are often one of the biggest budget offenders. If you're using student loans to pay for school, it's important that you include the cost of the loan in your budgeting. Though you don't have to pay these expenses now, they'll catch up with you in just a few years. There are several things you can do to limit the total amount that you have to borrow. Pay attention to what you're borrowing and you can see this sum shrink significantly when you put these practices in place.

Applying for Scholarships and Comparing Tuition Rates

One of the biggest things you can do to reduce your student loans is apply for scholarships. Scholarships award money that you don't have to pay back, whereas loans give you money for a short period of time, then require repayment plus interest. There are hundreds of thousands of scholarships available. All you have to do is find one you're eligible for and start applying.

cut your expenses before they start accumulating by comparing tuition rates.

If you're a prospective college student who hasn't chosen a school yet, you can cut your expenses before they start accumulating by comparing tuition rates. Online colleges are often less expensive than traditional college campuses. It's difficult to capture the best of both worlds, though, as individual online courses offered by a traditional institution are usually more expensive. Brick-and-mortar schools may tack on an extra 10 to 15 percent for web classes.

As an existing student, you should compare the prices of individual courses to determine the best route. Is the convenience of an online class worth the extra cost when a classroom option is available? If you're using the flexibility of the online class to take a part-time job, it may pay for itself and then some. You just have to do the math.

Cutting Costs with Books, Living Expenses, and Meal Plans

According to a CollegeBoard study, the average full-time undergraduate student spends $1,207 a year on books and supplies at a public school and $1,253 at a private one. Buying used or renting your books are the most obvious options for cutting back on this expense. Some savvy students can go a step further and score books free by snagging them from the campus library or borrowing them in digital form from Amazon's Kindle Lending Library.

Room and board also are major expenses, according to the CollegeBoard study, averaging anywhere from $7,466 to $10,823 a year, depending on the type of university you're attending. Put a major dent in this expense by working as a resident adviser for the year. You'll get a private room completely free along with the job. Campus meal plans are another easy way to save money. These are typically cheaper than dining à la carte, particularly if you grab food on the go a lot.

Finding Cost-Effective Entertainment Options

Do your big spending leaks fall under the entertainment category? If you're going to bars, restaurants, or movies every weekend, you're probably spending a big chunk of your budget on pure fun. Don't deprive yourself of the chance to unwind; just look for cheaper options. Many campus events are either extremely low-cost or completely free. Go to a concert or play on campus. Check out local festivals. Explore museums both on campus and in the surrounding area. Affordable fun is readily available for most college students when they're willing to look.

Making Cups of Coffee Every Day at Home
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0 5

$1,511.10

to buy coffee for a year

$175.20

to make coffee for a year

Still thinking about that pricey coffee habit? You don't have to give up caffeine to cut back on the cost. With an 11-ounce can of coffee grounds at about $5, you can brew your own cup for just 16 cents. Keep your three daily cups for just $175.20 a year. That's a savings of $1,335.90 a year in coffee alone.

Building Your Credit

Controlling your expenses allows you to manage your finances defensively. Once you have your budget under control, you can begin to play offense and actively build a better credit score. If you're drowning in debt, the first thing you need to do is pay it down. Pay off as much as you can each month until you've driven the balance back down to zero. Use those excess coffee funds and any other spare change you can dig up to achieve this important goal.

Working a Part Time Job

Holding down a job through college is an excellent way to keep your finances in top shape. Even a part-time gig is better than nothing. You'll build your job history, pad your bank account, and ensure that you have the necessary funds to keep on top of your financial commitments. While a job won't directly impact your credit score, it's something future lenders will look at.

Using Your Credit Wisely

Once you've banished major credit card debt, you can begin building a solid credit score by using your credit wisely. This doesn't mean cutting up your credit cards or freezing them in a block of ice. In fact, the best way to improve your score is to actively use various types of credit. The key is that you must also pay them off.

Use your credit cards for a few relatively stable expenses each month, such as gas. Set aside the same amount of money in your bank account and pay off the entire balance on your card each month. Stay on top of any other loans or bills that you have as well. Even unpaid doctor's bills can end up on your credit report if they're reported to a collection agency.

Finding Good Credit Building Opportunities

Taking out a loan isn't always a bad thing, particularly when it comes to your credit score. Your score will actually improve if you diversify the types of loans that you have. Student loans, car loans, credit cards, and mortgages all offer different opportunities for you to slowly build your credit. When you know what to look for, you can zero in on the best credit building opportunities.

Though taking out any kind of loan is a risky venture that likely will result in some interest and fees, there are benefits to using credit that go beyond instant gratification. A good credit score will help you qualify for a mortgage or car loan. The better your score, the lower your interest rates will be. Many employers even look at applicants' credit scores now for a snapshot of how responsible and reliable the potential employee will be.

What to Look For in Credit Cards
(Especially Student Cards)

College students are a prime target for credit card companies that are anxious to build a lifelong relationship with customers from their very first card. You may find your mailbox overflowing with offers for special "student cards." While these can be helpful for applicants who don't have a credit history yet, there are several important things you need to look at when you're considering a new card.

Checking the Interest Rate

Never apply for a credit card without first checking the interest rate. Many offers will draw you in with 0 percent interest for the first few months, but these deals aren't always as good as they seem. Look to see what the interest rate will be once your free period expires. It's often so high that it'll more than make up for what the lender overlooked in those early months when you were building up your debt.

Never apply for a credit card without first checking the interest rate

Interest rates fluctuate frequently, even changing from one month to the next. During the first three months of 2014, average credit card interest rates soared to 21 percent. Online comparison sites can offer an up-to-date look at average rates. Use this information to determine whether you're getting a good deal on your card and always shop around for the lowest rate possible.

Understanding Annual Fees

Interest rates aren't the only thing that'll bulk up your monthly bills. Many credit cards also charge annual fees. Depending on the card, these may come around once a year or show up in smaller increments every month. Read the fine print carefully to see how much you'll pay for the privilege of having a credit card.

Taking Advantage of Rewards Programs

Rewards programs are another popular feature of many credit cards. These programs allow you to earn points or cash back on select purchases. These programs are great if you know how to use your credit wisely. Choose a program that rewards you for fuel purchases, pay off your balance in full every month, and you can essentially earn free money. Just remember that the cash back will rarely cover your interest fees if you're making major charges and paying only the minimum.

Finding out the Minimum Qualifying Score

Finally, you'll need to consider what the minimum qualifying credit score is for a new card. Those sleek platinum accounts aren't available to just anyone. This is where special student cards come in. If you've never had a credit card before, your score is low by default. Student credit cards offer to overlook this since you're new to the game.

Compare several student card offers before you choose one to make sure you're getting the best deal. Don't let flashy upfront offers distract you from the interest rates and fees. You may find a card that offers an instant $100 back after your first $500 in purchases, but you should consider the full implications of this. If you charge the full $500 but don't pay it off and the card has a high interest rate of 22 percent, you'll pay $110 in annual interest alone on that sum.

Saving for the Future

It's never too early to think about the future. College students often think of the future as the heady years after graduation, but if you take a longer look, you can start building for your golden days of retirement before you've even entered your lifelong career.

Understanding the Annual Percentage Yield on Your Savings Account

If you're barely making ends meet, savings may seem like an impossible goal. Whenever possible, divert your extra funds to a savings account. Look for a savings account that will help you build your savings over time. Read the fine print about your bank account and you should come across something called "APY." This is the annual percentage yield on your savings account.

Look for a savings account that will help you build your savings over time

Though a low APY and low savings fund may not amount to more than a few pennies over the course of a year, it's better to keep your money in an account that earns even this tiny bit of interest than to keep it in your checking account where it's readily accessible and may easily disappear.

Building Your Emergency Savings Fund

Financial guru Dave Ramsey recommends putting between $500 and $1,000 in your emergency savings fund. This money will protect you from major credit card charges if something unexpected comes up, like car repairs or medical bills. Even if you only put $100 in your fund, you'll have a little cushion to keep you from taking out another loan or maxing out your available credit.

Watch Your $1,000 Savings Grow on 2.9% Interest

$1,029.00

after one year

$1,771.37

after 20 years

Thinking Ahead for Investment Opportunities and Retirement

Once you have a savings fund set up, you can move on to bigger savings and investment opportunities. It's never too early to start putting money into an IRA for retirement. Depending on the state, children who are under the age of 18, 19, or 21 may need to set up a custodial or guardian IRA with the help of a parent or other adult. You must earn some type of income each year to continue making contributions to an IRA, but there's no minimum on what you have to make. Parents can contribute to these accounts along with their children.

If you're working through college, look for an employer that offers a 401(K). This type of retirement plan allows you to contribute a portion of your income before taxes. Some employers will match certain contributions to your 401(K). If your employer offers matching contributions, you should contribute the full amount that they will match whenever possible. You can have this deducted right from your paycheck so you never even see the money. Even a small contribution can have a major impact on your final retirement. Starting early gives this account decades to grow.

Being Prepared for a Rainy Day

If the idea of setting aside so much money is intimidating, keep in mind that you can withdraw funds early from both your 401(K) and your IRA. While this is not recommended because you'll have to pay fees and penalties, knowing that the money isn't completely inaccessible may give you the confidence you need to start setting it aside now.

With wise planning, you can graduate college with minimal debt, a healthy credit score, and even a retirement fund. There's no better time to start organizing your finances than these early years when your primary concern is simply providing for yourself. Start thinking about your future now, and you can build a solid financial base for lifelong success before you've earned your degree. Forming healthy money habits during your college years will help you continue these trends throughout your life.

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