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Back to School Money Tips for College Students

by Ryan Guina

College is starting up around the country right now. My sister just began her freshman year of college, and like many people her age, this is her first time living away from home. For most people, going away to school is an eye opening experience. In a lot of ways, it’s sink or swim. Hopefully you already have a strong financial foundation. If I had to boil it down to just a few tips for how to financially successful in college, I would recommend these tips:

Live within your means

The most important thing you can do for your finances is live within your means. If you spend more money than you earn, you will always have financial difficulty. No amount of credit will erase the problems you can bring upon yourself. The key is to stay out of debt from a young age.

Use credit responsibly

A key to living within your means is using credit responsibly. There is nothing wrong with using a credit card as long as you pay it off every month. If you decide to get a credit card, you should have a basic understanding of how credit scores are determined and how to improve your credit score. And stay away from those credit card booths that give away t-shirts and koozies for signing up for a card. You’re better off getting a cash back rewards credit card, a card that will give you cash for signing up, or one of the best student credit cards. The rates for these cards are usually better and you get rewards for using them. Again, be responsible with credit!

Set up an emergency fund

An emergency fund is important to keep you out of debt in an emergency. How big it needs to be while you are in college depends on your situation. If your parents are supporting you, you may only need $100 to catch the bus or train home. If you are completely on your own, you might want to have a thousand dollars or more. Try to save until you have sufficient funds to cover your situation. You can save yourself a lot of money and heartache by staying out of debt.

Save money

Hopefully you have some form of income – maybe from a part time job, a monthly allowance, or something else. If you paid attention to the first few steps, you are living within your means, using credit responsibly, and have a little extra saved up for a rainy day. Now you need to try to find a little extra to save if you can. Even if you can only save a little bit of spare change it is worth doing. It adds up quickly!

There are many ways to save money, the key is finding something that works for you. Actively seek out deals like saving money on back to school computers, try to find ways to make free money, etc. A little extra money in the bank gives you security and allows you to splurge once in awhile.

Invest in yourself

You are more than your bank account. Invest in yourself. Your career and your ability to create income is your greatest asset. There are many things you can do to enhance your career opportunities. Learn a language, learn some sales and marketing skills, and above all, chase opportunity. You are young and now is the time to see, do, and experience many new things, both personally and professionally. Do it.

Have fun

Don’t put too much stress on yourself. College is a time to live and learn, and once you graduate, you are the only person who is ever going to care what your GPA was. You will thank yourself later if you go out and experience life instead of sitting in your dorm room studying every weekend. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have fun. There are literally hundreds of free ways to have fun in and around college campuses. Find them!

Good luck, and enjoy your college experience!

This article is part of the College Money Network’s Back to School Giveaway.


Published or updated March 14, 2011.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 david

Dont forget to drink only cheap beer like Natural Light. ;-)

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2 Kristen

Good post, Ryan! I have a piece of advice for college students. Open an checking account at a bank near your college.

When I went to school in Ohio, my bank was back in Pa. Everytime I got checks for babysitting (which was frequently), I had to mail them home, wait for my mom to deposit them, and then pay an ATM fee to withdraw funds. It was costing me time and money to get access to my money. I found a bank that happened to be located in my hometown and by my college. It made life a lot easier.

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3 Ryan

David: I can’t with a good conscience recommend that anyone drink Natty Light. ;)

Kristen: Great recommendation! I ran into a similar situation when I was in the USAF and didn’t have a local bank. Then I joined a bank that didn’t have ATM fees anywhere!

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4 tiffanie

great tips :) i’ve been in college going on 6 years now, lol. (i switched majors 4 years into my program…how typical, right?) i’m the never-ending college student!

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5 Laura

Great tips Ryan! Living within your means is the foundations. Too many times college students (myself included) use credit cards to pad budgets.

I’m out of credit card debt and I’m happy.

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6 Steward @ My Family's Money

I sometimes wish I could go back to the ol’ college days and do things a little differently. I would definitely play less video games and spend more time making use of the library. They have so many books and so much to learn it is ridiculous.

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7 Ryan

Steward, I would go back and have more fun and learn what I wanted to learn instead of blindly following a prescribed set of courses. But I’m making up for it now! ;)

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8 BTGNow.net

Could not agree with you more on the Start and Emergency Fund and the Start Saving points!

It’s people with low incomes, like college students and minimum wage workers, who especially need to do these two things, yet somehow there’s a sense that only people who already earn high incomes can afford to save money. Not true! Great post, I hope it helps inspire college students to start saving! It’s so necessary!

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9 Ryan

BTGNow: Indeed, small amounts of savings ad up quickly. The key, as you mentioned in your article, is to be consistent. Thanks for the comment.

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10 Hussey

I sometimes wish I could go back to the ol’ college days and do things a little differently. I would definitely play less video games and spend more time making use of the library.

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11 Angelica

Another way I found to save money was to get a prepaid phone. Net10 have a flat rate for minutes. Only 10 cents per minute and 5 cents for text. For college student that 5 cents a text is great, i know most services charge 10 cents, so its like half over. There are no activation fees or anything and the service charge averages to about only 7 dollars a month. I love it because I can keep up with my family around the nation and across the country! Its a cheap way for me to stay in touch.

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12 Simon @ shrewdcookie.com

I love this article – excellent – I recently blogged about this and here are my 19 essential money tips for students – article.

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13 Manu

I think the best money someone could do when they are in college and on a budget, is spend money on a prepaid cell phone instead of a contract phone. Why spend an unnecessary amount of money on a contract phone when you can have all the same features on a prepaid TracFone and you can pay for the minutes as you need them?

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