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5 personal finance tips to enjoy college at its fullest

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personal finance tips

As living costs increase and more employers seek degree-holders, we all want to develop our skills, expand our knowledge, explore our passions, and eventually secure stable futures for ourselves. Considering the fact that the cost of higher ed extends far beyond tuition, dormitory and living expenses, textbooks, and specialized materials can sure add up. Here are some of our best personal finance tips for students like you to manage all of these expenses.

1. Set your budget

Budgets don’t have to be complicated labyrinths of numbers—they’re simply meant to help you keep better track of where your money is going. The most important personal finance tips start with categorizing your expenses into recurring or fixed costs, and non-essential or discretionary spending. 

An effective trick for when you’re actively trying to save, is taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach, meaning immediately setting aside a portion of your monthly budget toward your fixed costs, like rent, savings, and debt payments, and then working with what’s left for day-to-day expenses (ex. $100 allowance – $15 for debts – $25 for rent – $10 for savings = $50 for food, fun, etc.).

If you start the month/semester by setting aside a certain amount toward essentials, emergencies, or larger goals (like eventually paying off student debts) every month, then you develop the habit of regularly investing in your future. This can help you nudge yourself toward smarter money choices by prioritizing the essentials instead of unnecessary costs.

2. Determine your spending priorities

Being semi-independent and in charge of your own finances may feel like you can do whatever you want. But if what you want is to be able to save more (and actually have food to eat) later on, then we’d advise that you take some time to properly plan out your expenses, and determine which ones are wants and which are needs.

We’re not suggesting that you cut all corners and start living on an instant ramen-based diet, but do try to prioritize essentials and invest in items that bring longer-term benefits. You don’t necessarily need to upgrade your smartphone or wardrobe every year, do you?

The biggest regular expense that most students have (aside from tuition, duh) is rent, so you might want to consider saving a few hundred dollars each month by seeking a more affordable shared apartment that’s walking distance from your campus. Shared arrangements allow you to split costs and grow into being comfortable with your finances, and it can actually be more fun to live with roommates and walk, bike, or take public transportation to class!

3. Use cash for ‘fun’

As a student, having an available credit line is undoubtedly practical in cash-tight situations. However, studies show that consumers can spend 100% more on credit than with cash. So, while your credit card company may offer attractive ‘rewards,’ be very careful to avoid sinking into high-interest credit card debt. Remember, you’re not saving 20% on that ‘deal,’ you’re actually still spending 80% of the original price.

The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to strictly reserve your credit card for emergencies and well-planned purchases. Leave the card at home and pay for everyday transactions with your debit card. A step further would be to leave all your cards at home and only use cash for ‘fun’. This makes limiting yourself to $40 on a night out with friends so much easier. 

This may take some getting used to, but by directly spending the cash that you already have, you maintain a stronger psychological connection with your money. This, in turn, makes it easier to not only monitor your expenses, but also spare yourself from yet another monthly bill (with so many fees!) to keep track of.

4. Sniff out inexpensive activities for students

You might be studying out of town in an unfamiliar city. Everything’s new and you’re excited to explore. As you get settled in, you’ll soon find that you’d rarely need to spend much on all the film screenings, stage shows, open concerts, art exhibitions, and workshops that are available for free or at significantly discounted prices for students. 

Many businesses offer substantial student discounts (enjoy ‘em while you can!), which is something to keep in mind when shopping around for supplies or textbooks, for example. A lot of nonprofit and student organizations also regularly organize fun gatherings and interesting events for the public. Just do a quick online search for things to do or places to visit to get your social, artistic, or cultural fix.

Speaking of student orgs and nonprofits, have you thought of joining one to develop your skills, explore hobbies and be with like-minded young people? Being involved with a student or volunteer organization is a great way to socialize and keep busy by creating and participating in meaningful activities that you actually care about.

5. Juggle your bills like a pro

Try to keep your recurring bills to a minimum. The simplest of all personal finance tips.

For example, you don’t really need (or have time for) multiple movie and music streaming subscriptions, do you? In fact, some of these services may even offer free memberships or discounted rates for students, so take some time to review which ones get more bang for your buck.

And is it necessary to stay on a mobile phone plan with unlimited minutes and a huge data allowance, when WiFi is free on campus and at your residence, anyway? Try to stick to as modest a phone and internet plan as you can still be comfortable with. 

If you do find yourself trying to balance multiple bills or debts at once, there are two common approaches to tackle them:

  • Prioritize bills that carry the highest interest or late-payment rates. These usually add up down the line, and getting them out of the way earlier leaves you with all the smaller, more manageable bills to deal with.
  • Prioritize bills with the lowest principal amounts or outstanding balances first. This method works under the assumption that quick ‘wins’ with smaller bills would give you the confidence to tackle progressively larger balances.

Bonus tip: Go to class (and get good grades!)

Yes, this is our final piece of advice. Remember that you’re in college to earn that degree! As a student, you’re investing your time and resources into your future, and that naturally comes with the responsibility of making the most out of the education that you are paying for.

A great academic record could also mean the difference in snagging a well-paying job after graduation. You can also graduate on time (or sooner) if you develop good study habits, in addition to being able to avoid having to retake any classes that you could have done better on the first time around.

Your college years are a playground wherein you can explore your potentials and test your limits, but don’t worry about making a few mistakes along the way. Everyone takes a different path toward reaching the same goal, so take some time to figure out what study habits work best for you.

Finally…

Managing a student budget can involve making some uncomfortable decisions and cutting a few corners, but it’s important to understand that you are always in control.

Living on a budget is not a pass/fail exam, and your mission is simply to mix the right set of solutions to fit your needs and lifestyle. So, if you’re struggling to stretch this month’s allowances or going over-budget, then try to find ways to make up for it the next month (or the next).

Remember that you’re studying to improve yourself, and so financial concerns shouldn’t necessarily dictate how you live and enjoy your student life. Keep these personal finance tips in mind and don’t be afraid to splash (or at least sprinkle) some cash to treat yourself by engaging in hobbies and going out with friends once in a while, or simply getting enough exercise and eating right.

There may not be a magic perfect solution, but approaching challenges with the right attitude is already a great start, and a valuable part of your education!

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