8 Financial To-Do's for College Freshmen


College freshmen are often leaving home for the first time and will therefore need to be responsible for their own personal finances, without direct help from mom and dad. Ideally kids and teens should be learning financial lessons as they grow up, so the transition to college isn't overwhelming.

Students headed off to college will need to learn to manage their money as well as build their knowledge about personal finance. Not only will they need to stay on financial track during their school years, they will need to be prepared for the "real world" in just a few years' time.

Here are the eight financial to-do's every college freshman needs to do.

1. Go Away Frugally

It can be very exciting to shop for your new dorm room or apartment, but if you don't really know what to expect, you can blow a lot of cash you can be using for other things. Shop for the basic essentials you know you need, but wait to see what college life is really like before spending all your (or your parents') money. Find used items that typically have big price tags like small refrigerators and furniture when you get to school, so you don't have to spend a lot of money on transportation. (See also: Best Money Tips: 12 Things College Students Don't Need)

2. Create a College Budget

Budgeting is a simple concept but one that many people do not put into practice. A college budget will give you a clear picture of the amount of money you have to spend each month, whether it be your savings, your parents' allowance, or cash you earn from a new job. The "income" you have should be reduced by the set expenses you have for meals, books, rent, and the essentials. If you pay your own way, you'll need to include that, too. Money that is left over should be budgeted further for your entertainment. If you spend without a thought of priorities, you'll likely find you come up short for cash every month. (See also: The College Freshman Budget)

3. Save With a Purpose

Some college freshmen will be walking a thin line between financially comfortable and completely broke depending on their circumstances.

If you are earning money from an on-campus job, it is important to put a portion of that into a savings account no matter how difficult it may be. By putting a portion of your paycheck into a savings account, you can earmark money for emergencies, airline tickets home, or for other things you'd like to do or buy. Figure out how much you need to save each month to achieve your goal. If airline tickets cost $300 and you plan on going home in three months, make sure at least $100 goes into savings each month.

4. Understand Credit Cards First

Many financial disasters start in college when kids spend recklessly on credit without any idea of the consequences. New credit card regulations may not permit college students to get a credit card until they are 21, unless a parent co-signs the agreement. If you do have access to a credit card, don't spend a cent until you know what the process involves. Using a credit card does not mean you are getting stuff without paying. The reality is that the stuff you buy impulsively can end up costing you (and your parents) three times more than the purchase price and can set you on a downward spiral very early in your financial life. Ask your parents or another trusted adult for a basic lesson in credit cards or do your own research about how credit cards work. Keep the plastic in your wallet but for emergency use only.

5. Assume Responsibility for Your Own Finances

Some students will have parents to take care of all money issues throughout their college career. This could actually have negative effects after graduation. It is wiser for college kids to start getting a handle on financial responsibilities early in life. Be sure you know what your expenses are each month and learn how to manage your financial responsibilities to ensure your bills get paid on time. If you share an apartment, make sure you have the money to cover rent, utilities, and groceries every month before you go out to restaurants or splurge on unnecessary extras. (See also: Degrees of Frugality: 7 Tips for the College-Bound)

6. Research Available Free and Cheap Resources

If you attend a big college, you may not be fully aware of what is offered to you for free on campus. To be able to save money, consider using the free Internet in campus buildings, rent textbooks for your classes, and use the free gym facilities to stay in shape. Take advantage of the on-campus resources before you spend money elsewhere. (See also: My Number One Tip for College Students)

7. Figure Out Your Means, and Live Within Them

Because college freshmen come from a variety of financial situations, it can be easy to befriend people with different financial means than you have. You may have a rich roommate with parents that always say "yes," and it can be tempting to try to live a similar lifestyle, even though you are paying your own way. Understand now the importance of living within your means. Follow the guidelines of your budget so you can save money and prevent major financial mistakes.

8. Keep Your Personal Business Personal

Never, ever share your personal information with anyone. This includes your Social Security number, your credit card, your online passwords, your ATM card, or any other personal bit of information. Never let your friends borrow your credit card for any reason. Be cautious with roommate situations, and financial commitments and information. There are people you may encounter that aren't interested in maintaining their own financial lives, so they'll happily steal yours. Get a lockbox and hide the key.

What frugal lessons do you wish you had learned earlier?

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Guest's picture

These are great tips! Please stay away from credit cards unless you know what you're doing. They're like fire!

Guest's picture

Don't try to keep up with your rich roommate / dorm-mates. Some college towns are really expensive and the stores near campus will have double or triple the prices compared to stores further away. You might find it's better to bring a semester's worth of detergent, ibuprofen and everything else along with you from home. Make sure you know how to do laundry before leaving home. Otherwise you'll ruin all your clothes. The school bookstore will charge 5-10x as much for school supplies as Target or anywhere else. The student health clinic often has free condoms and really cheap birth control. If you need this service, use it! There is no excuse for not! Don't gain the freshmen 15. If you do, you'll have to buy a new wardrobe.

Guest's picture

A prepaid card (choose wisely, fees vary) is a great alternative to a credit card for your college bound kids.

Guest's picture

Your tips for were spot on, I would add to be persistent. Students have to realize that you must apply to as many as possible.