Heading off to your freshman year of college is undeniably exciting. If you're going to a university yourself or you're parenting a college freshman through the early stages of budgeting money, monthly expenses, and maintaining a solid savings account, let the tips below make things simpler. College and living on your own are expensive, but there are plenty of smart ways to save money and keep a healthy bank account.
Determine Your Expenses
Before school starts, you should already know your basic expenses. Tuition is typically paid upfront, but you'll have living expenses. If you're renting an apartment, figure out your rent, expected utilities, parking, and other associated costs. If you're in a dorm room, you'll know the price per semester.
Beyond room and board, determine which classes have extra fees, check textbook prices, and lay out a weekly grocery budget. With all your basics accounted for, you can begin setting aside money for savings and entertainment. College is a time to learn and study, but it's also a time to meet people and have fun. Sometimes that involves spending money, but it shouldn't be money you don't have!
Start an Emergency Fund
Things happen, and your checking account isn't always prepared. You may get a flat tire, need to see a doctor, or have to handle any number of unexpected things. Most of them cost money. By setting aside at least a small amount every week (or month) toward an emergency fund, you'll be covered when you need it. Even if you only contribute $10 or $15 from every check, you'll be glad to have it!
Learn to Cook
A few specific thoughts typically come to mind when you think of broke college students. One of the running gags is that they live on cheap ramen noodles or other instant meals, but even college freshmen can eat better on a tight budget. Before the school year begins, learn to prepare a few basic dishes that can be altered to suit whatever ingredients you have on hand (or can afford to easily get at the store).
- Stir fry - Stir fry dishes can be made with just about anything. You can score a bag of frozen vegetables for around $1, a packet of pre-cooked salmon or tuna for around the same price, and a bottle of soy sauce for less than $2. You can make at least two meals for around $5, and substitutions and changes are easy. Swap out the fish for chicken or an egg. Skip the frozen veggies and add in something fresh when you catch it in-season and on sale. Toss in some rice or noodles to make it more filling. It's endlessly customizable, easy, and cheap.
- Basic Pasta - Learn to make a basic pasta dish and you'll have a whole week's worth of meals. Baked spaghetti can be made with as little as two ingredients (pasta and sauce) or filled with cheese, meat or meat substitute, vegetables, or whatever you'd like. It's easy for beginners and you can even find the basic ingredients at discount and dollar stores.
Get a Meal Plan
If cooking isn't an option, as some dorms have limited kitchen space, sign up for a meal plan. You'll be able to head to the dining hall for full meals and not worry about what you can afford on any given day. It likely costs more money overall than cooking yourself, but it's still more affordable than ordering from a restaurant or heading through the drive-thru every time you're hungry.
Avoid Student Loan Debt
The cost of a college education and the ensuing student loan debt is a hot-button issue in the United States. College is expensive, and many families can't afford it without taking out loans. However, minimizing student debt, or avoiding it altogether, is the best route in the long run. Current interest rates make it difficult to pay off, and high amounts of debt follow students for large portions of their life - not to mention taking up a sizable chunk of their future monthly budget.
If you're considering taking out student loans to cover living expenses (instead of just tuition), consider finding a part-time job on campus instead. Campus jobs tend to be a bit more relaxed, and many even offer the opportunity to get some homework done in the meantime. If nothing else, they'll at least cover the grocery bills and some basic living expenses. It may not be possible to avoid student loans entirely, but you should find ways to minimize the amount you need.
Apply for Financial Aid
You may not need to borrow money to afford college. There are hundreds of financial aid options out there, like scholarships and grants, that help you cover everything from tuition to room and board. You may even end up with overage and have a bit of extra money to cover food and other basics.
Start your financial aid search with the FAFSA. From there, search for other aid opportunities. Sometimes, you'll earn free money simply for winning a drawing! It's well worth spending a couple of hours (or at least a few minutes) filling out some applications.
Use Student Discounts
While you have a student idea or a student e-mail address, there's a whole world of student discounts out there. From low-cost Amazon Prime rates to cheap movie tickets and museum admissions, college life is better with student discounts. Check online for discounts and ask around locally to see if you can score any special deals.
Use Automatic Payments
College students already have dozens of deadlines to remember. There are assignments due, upcoming tests, work schedules, and so much more. Tossing in credit card or utility payments on top of that is sometimes a recipe for disaster and an invitation for late fees. Avoid them by setting up automatic payments. You'll know exactly what money is coming out and which day it's withdrawn, making it easier to budget around what you have.
Don't Overspend on Entertainment
Even if you're not the type to bounce from party to party, it's still easy to lose track of spending on things like eating out. Set aside a certain amount of money for your nights out - whether that's to buy movie tickets, purchase party supplies, or just go for a serious late-night snack run.
Start Building Credit
College is the perfect time to begin building credit, but it requires forethought and care. Just as it's important to start saving, it's important to begin boosting your credit score. By starting early, you'll have the credit you need to buy a car, get a mortgage, or whatever major purchases are ahead of you.
Apply for a credit card and make the payment in full each month. With proper budgeting, this should be easy. Pay for your groceries on the card and pay it off with the money you've already set aside for food!
When you start college, you're out on your own for perhaps the first time and the whole world stretches out before you. It's full of possibilities. It's also (unfortunately) full of expenses, and the suggestions above ensure that you'll be ready for many of them.
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