What is a subsidized student loan? How does health insurance work? Should you get a credit card?
If you’re a college or college bound student, these are all questions you’ll probably have to answer soon. College is many students’ first time dealing with major financial matters. Unfortunately, most students don’t get much, if any, financial education prior to college.
I’m very passionate about financial literacy among teens and college students. But I also know that personal finance is a tricky subject for a lot of people. Many families just don’t talk about money. For those that do, there’s a seemingly overwhelming amount of information out there.
I can’t answer all your questions about college and money in one blog post, of course. But I can (and have) put together a list of financial tips for college students. This list should be viewed as a starting point, not all you need to know about college finances. But doing the things on this list will put you in a strong financial position, both in college and beyond.
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Most students use some form of financial aid to help pay for college. Financial aid includes grants and scholarships and student loans, the largest source of financial aid for college. If you’re using financial aid to help fund your education, it’s absolutely critical that you understand how the financial aid system works.
You must know the requirements for keeping your scholarships. This includes the minimum GPA you must earn and any volunteer service you must perform to keep the scholarship. If you have a renewable scholarship, make sure you know the renewal requirements and meet them well before the deadline.
Financial aid and student loans
If you get federal financial aid, such as grants for college students or college work-study, know the requirements for keeping this aid. The minimum GPA requirements for federal financial aid are usually lower than those for other forms of aid. Be mindful about meeting the requirements for all your financial aid.
If you’re using loans to pay for college, you must know some student loans basics, like the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans. You should also know your loan interest rates and be familiar with your loan repayment options.
A budget is the best way to avoid overborrowing, or taking on more student loan debt than you really need. I’m a big advocate of creating a total budget for college. Even if you don’t do that, you should still create a monthly student budget and set up a money management system for college.
Budgeting can be difficult for college students. They often have irregular income from several different sources. For example, they may work and receive a paycheck every week or just once a month. They may get financial aid disbursement checks twice a semester. And they may receive money every month, or maybe just every once in a while, from family. Not having a consistent income from month to month makes budgeting much harder.
One approach is to dedicate your financial aid money to big or fixed expenses, like rent. This is much easier if you live on campus, since the university will deduct your dorm rent for the semester from your financial aid before it ever gets to you.
If you live off campus, you could deposit your financial aid into one account that you use only for major living expenses. You can set up a separate account for your paychecks and other money. Use this second account for smaller and incidental expenses.
Having a budget is one of my most important financial tips for college students. Unless you land a job making $100K a year out of college, you’ll probably be living on a budget in post-grad life. So, learning how to budget in college is critical. The budget checklist in my free resource library can get you started. Sign up below.
This should go without saying, but you need to pay your bills on time.
Bill paying is much easier today than in the past. Not too long ago, you received bills in the mail and paid by check, waiting several weeks for the money to be taken out of your account. These days you can set up autopay and the money is deducted from your account on or before the day a bill is due. You can also set up automatic reminders to keep you from making a late payment.
Despite the ease of bill paying these days, you should still make a habit of regularly checking in with your finances. During these financial updates, you should balance your checking account. Yes, I know that sounds old fashioned, but mistakes happen. You need to know exactly how much money you have to avoid overdrafting your account.
Your financial checkups should also include reading any correspondence you’ve gotten regarding your finances. You don’t want to get hit with a fee because your cable company increased your monthly bill and you didn’t correct your autopayment before it came due.
Once you graduate, your relationship with money will get more complicated, so one of my best financial tips for college students is to establish good habits now. Make and stick to a monthly budget and do regular financial checkups.
Tip #4: Be Responsible
This goes hand in hand with pay your bills on time, right? But being timely with your bills is only one aspect of financial responsibility.
If you borrow something, return it on time. Return or renew your library books by the due date to avoid overdue fees. If you rent your textbooks, return them by the deadline to avoid paying a late fee.
Also, keep track of your stuff. Avoid paying replacement fees for lost student ID cards or dorm room keys. And, of course, be responsible with high dollar items like your textbooks, laptop and cell phone. Trust me, you’d be shocked at the number of cell phones left in campus bathrooms every semester.
Don’t incur totally unnecessary expenses like parking tickets or late enrollment fees, either. Park where you’re allowed to and know when you’re eligible to enroll. Simply knowing and following rules and deadlines can save you a lot of money in college.
Tip #5: Know Drop Deadlines and Refund Policies
One of the deadlines you should learn each semester is the drop deadline. The university should refund all or part of your tuition money if you drop a class, but it depends on timing.
If you drop a class within the first week or two of the semester, the school should refund all of your tuition. After that, the amount of money you’ll be refunded declines. Most schools have at least one other drop deadline, at which time you may get a partial tuition refund. Refund policies for dropped classes vary a lot, so make sure you understand the drop dates and refund policies at your college.
If you wait until the final drop deadline, you probably won’t be refunded any of your tuition money. This is because the final drop deadline usually falls close to the end of the semester, when more than 80% of the course has been completed. So, if you’re thinking about dropping a class in college, it makes financial sense to do so sooner rather than later.
Tip #6: Learn about Paying Taxes
Lots of students have a job, a side hustle, or both. If you earn money, you have to pay income taxes, so you need to learn at least a little about the topic.
If you work a paid job, your employer will hold income taxes out of your paychecks. If you work a side hustle, it’s very likely you’ll be classified as an independent contractor. This is typical with many online jobs. Independent contractors are responsible for paying all taxes themselves, which makes calculating your income taxes more complicated.
Side hustle taxes
As an independent contractor you’ll have to pay income, Social Security and Medicare taxes. You should to set aside at least 30% of your side hustle income for taxes. Pay taxes on your side hustle quarterly to avoid getting hit with a killer tax bill every year.
If you have income from several sources and not all of them withhold taxes, you might consider seeking professional help when calculating and filing your taxes. The internet has opened up a lot of job and side hustle opportunities for college students, but that’s also made college student taxes more complicated than in the past.
Tip #7: Keep Applying for Scholarships
This is undoubtedly the most often ignored of my financial tips for college students. Failing to apply for scholarships is a huge financial mistake I see students make every year.
Many students seem to think that once they’ve been accepted to college, their scholarship application days are in the past. But most colleges have scholarship money set aside specifically for junior and seniors, and the number of applicants for these scholarships is usually small.
I speak from experience here. My department has scholarships for juniors and seniors in our major. We have a hard time getting students to apply for these scholarships. The dollar amounts involved aren’t huge, but enough to pay for books or tuition for several classes. And, there usually aren’t many applicants, which means those students who do apply have a good chance of winning.
In addition to scholarships offered by your department or university, there are lots of scholarships from non-profits and other organizations open to non-freshman students. You’ll get busier every year in college, but set aside time every semester to apply for scholarships. The process takes time, but winning several scholarships could significantly reduce the amount you must borrow to pay for your degree.
Tip #8: Treat Your Job Seriously
If you’re working during college, treat your job seriously. A lot of students don’t put much effort into what they see as just a crappy college job. Sure, your college job may not be the kind of work you want to do forever, but you should still put in your best effort.
There are several reasons to take your college job(s) seriously, besides earning money. Potential post-college employers will expect to see some kind of work history, even if the jobs have nothing to do with your degree. Having held down a job or two during college shows that you’re responsible, able to balance multiple commitments, and can get along in a workplace.
Another reason to take your college job seriously is to get a good reference from your employer. It’s very likely that interviewers for your post-college jobs will ask about references; make sure your employer can honestly give you a good one.
Also, you never know where your college employer or coworkers will end up. It’s possible you could be interviewing with one of your old coworkers in five or ten years. You want them to remember you as someone who was responsible and always willing to do your part.
Tip #9: Use Credit Wisely
If you get a credit card before heading off to college, be sure to use it wisely. You’re taking the first step in building your credit history. What you do now will impact your opportunities in the future.
For example, when you graduate, it’ll be difficult to rent an apartment in your own name if you have a bad credit score. Similarly, you’ll pay higher interest rates on car and home loans if you wrecked your credit before you even finished college.
If you don’t have a credit card before college, trust me, you’ll have plenty of chances to apply for a credit card once there. Back when I was an undergrad, credit card companies were allowed to directly market to 18 year olds. Here’s what usually happened:
During freshmen orientation week, card companies would set up booths and give out prizes if you applied for a credit card. The cards generally didn’t require proof of income or cosigners, which meant you didn’t need to give them your parents’ information. As a result, I knew plenty of students who had 5 or 6 credit cards by the end of freshman year.
How the Credit CARD Act of 2009 affected college students
A 2009 law changed credit card marketing rules so that companies can no longer directly target people younger than 21. No more credit card booths at freshman orientation and access to easy credit. However, once you turn 21, you’re no longer covered under these laws. Expect to start getting all sorts of credit card offers in the mail.
If you’re interested, weigh these offers carefully. Choosing a credit card can be complicated, especially for college students who may not have much experience with personal finance. And once you do have your card, make sure not to run up the balance beyond what you can repay every month.
This is probably the most serious of my financial tips for college students. Be very careful with credit. It’s unbelievably easy to rack up significant credit card debt. Having loads of credit card debt, or having bad credit, will have a much greater impact on your future than failing to apply for scholarships or forgetting a drop deadline.
Tip #10: Understand Your Health Insurance
I know from experience that many college students believe the campus student health center is free. No. The student health center is not free, for students or anyone else.
Your student health center may provide certain services for free, like flu shots. Otherwise, the student health center is just like any other doctor’s office: they expect payment at the end of your visit.
Whether you stay on your parents’ health insurance plan or have your own, you need to understand how your insurance works. (This is part of that “be responsible” thing.) At the top of your to-do list is making sure your campus health center actually accepts your insurance.
You should also understand your copays. You could owe between $30-$50 each time you see a doctor at the campus health center. Be aware that your copays can vary, depending on the place where you get medical treatment.
For example, if you get sick late at night, when your campus health center is closed, you might go to an urgent care center instead. Urgent care falls into a different category in many insurance plans, so you could have a higher copay there. And you’ll owe the most if you seek treatment at an emergency room.
You should also understand your insurance plan’s pharmacy benefits. No pharmacy plan covers all drugs, so if you take a regular prescription, be sure it’s included in your insurance. Also, some plans won’t cover name brand drugs if a generic brand is available at a lower cost. Again, know your coverage.
If your insurance plan doesn’t include pharmacy benefits at all, you’ll be paying the entire cost of prescriptions yourself. In that case, comparison shop. Don’t assume the student health center has the cheapest prices.
Well, this post is much longer than I originally intended. It was meant to be ten short financial tips for college students and morphed into nearly 3,000 words instead. That’s because this is serious stuff.
College is the first time most teens have any real financial obligations and responsibilities. Handling those things poorly can massively complicate their lives down the road.
The truth is, I see college students make bad financial decisions every single day. Like not buying required textbooks but indulging their $8 daily Starbucks habit. Or spending their entire financial aid check on a $2,500 Macbook when a $500 laptop will meet their needs just fine. So, I’m really insistent that young people should learn some personal finance basics.
Unfortunately, most students don’t think about personal finance until they graduate and are facing massive student loan debt. For many students, loans are a necessary tool to help pay for college. But do yourself a favor, okay? Learn about student loans, and other aspects of personal finance, before you head to campus. It will make your post-grad life much easier.
Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,
P.S. If you liked this post, be sure to check out my top money-saving tips for college students.