Making the transition from high school to college can come with a number of growing pains, not to mention minor laundry catastrophes. (Mom really was right about washing your whites separately.) But one of the biggest challenges new college students face is figuring out how to manage their money.
Learning how to make good financial decisions in your first year at college will not only set you up for success in school, but also for the rest of your life. Here are four important money moves that you should master during your first year of college. (See also: Build Your First Budget in 5 Easy Steps)
Make friends with your financial aid office
It’s common for college students to forget about their financial aid office, except when it’s time to resubmit their FAFSA each year, and when they need to come in for the exit interview before graduation. However, getting to know your financial aid office can save you a great deal of heartache in the future.
To start, a financial aid counselor can help you to understand exactly what to expect from your student loans. They can provide you with information about what your repayment will look like post-graduation so you can make more concrete decisions about taking on your loans.
In addition, your financial aid office can help you determine if there are ways to mitigate your student loan debt. It’s also through your financial aid office that you’ll learn about work-study jobs that can help you earn a little money without committing to a traditional part-time job.
Making time for an appointment with your financial office once a year will help you feel more prepared for the costs of college and your post-college financial life.
Get the most from your meal plan
One of the perks of going to either a larger university or a school located in a major urban area is the meal plan. Many of these universities allow students to use their meal plan to purchase meals from fast food restaurants or buy items a la carte using a point system.
The downside to this perk is the fact that your off-campus meal purchases can add up quickly. You may find yourself using up all of your meal plan long before the end of the semester, leaving you with the unenviable task of trying to feed yourself for the rest of the year on the cheap.
It’s better to learn early on exactly how far your meal plan will go, and decide ahead of time how many meals a week you can afford to treat yourself to from the local restaurants.
Saving can feel like an impossible task in college, since many college students already feel like they’re living on a shoestring. If every penny you bring in is going toward your college expenses, how are you supposed to save money?
But it’s never too early to get a jump on paying yourself first. And college students can take advantage of the fact that small amounts can add up quickly. Start by opening a student savings account at your bank. These accounts will often require no minimum balances and have no fees, which will make it easy for you to practice your savings habit even when you’re broke.
Then start automatically transferring a small amount to your savings with every paycheck. Even automatic transfers as low as $5 to $20 can help you build a cushion that will help you weather an unexpected car repair bill or a higher-than-usual textbook cost. Then you can also start to add in any excess money you come across, like the cash you get for selling back textbooks or the tips you get at your restaurant job.
Plan for fun
College life offers a great deal of exciting things to do outside of studying, and that’s why financially-savvy college students plan ahead for their fun.
If you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re willing to spend your time and money on, it’s much more difficult to refuse the last-minute invitation to go out. Without a plan in place, you’ll be much more vulnerable to both peer pressure and the stress of studying.
Instead, determine how much money and time you can spend on the non-scholarly part of college and stick to it. If your budget and study schedule can afford four nights out per month, then you can make sure you spend those nights doing something that actually gets you the best bang for your buck and enjoy your time away from the books.
Smart financial habits for life
Your first year of college is a great time to learn how to be an adult. Not only are you getting your first taste of being on your own, but the financial stakes are lower than they will be when you graduate. So you can set up your smart habits without feeling overwhelmed and get used to the kinds of decisions that will set you up for a life of healthy financial choices. (See also: 5 Steps to Successful Budgeting)