When new freshman move on campus, they’re usually more focused on conventional aspects of college like going to class, studying, and partying with your friends. But this is also a kind of training ground for adulthood; for many freshmen, this is the first time you’ll be away from home, living on your own, which means you’ll need to take control of your finances and spending habits if you want to make things work.
On top of that, these are pivotal years that could dictate the habits you carry for decades to come. Mastering your finances while you’re in your late teens and early twenties will give a serious leg up on financial management for the rest of your life.
The problem is, most freshmen don’t know where to start.
The Most Important Steps to Take Early
These are some of the most important steps you can take now:
1. Understand and compensate for your tuition costs. First, don’t choose a school blindly, and think carefully about the tuition demands for your top universities. The average private college costs more than $34,000 a year, while state residents at public colleges pay an average closer to $10,000. After 4 years, that’s $136,000 and $40,000, respectively. Depending on your degree program and the college you’re attending, that may be worth it—but you should also work actively to compensate for those costs by looking for grants, scholarships, and other forms of assistance. Filing for FAFSA may also help significantly.
2. Create a budget. Next, when you’re living on campus, you’ll need to prepare a strict budget. Depending on how you’re paying for college, you might have room and board built in, but you’ll still need to monitor your spending on other things, like school supplies, entertainment, and extras. This is the perfect time to create your first budget—a blueprint for how much money you have coming in, and how much you’re “allowed” to spend each month. Aim to end each month with at least a little bit of cash left over.
3. Prepare an emergency fund. Every young person should know how to build and maintain an emergency fund . This pocket of extra money should be able to last you at least a few months if your primary income source runs out, or cover a major unexpected expense (like a hospital bill). It may take several months of saving to build up your emergency fund, but if it isn’t there when you need it, it could put you in debt.
4. Establish a source of income. In an ideal world, you’d be able to devote 100 percent of your time to going to class and studying, but getting at least a part-time job, or a side gig while you’re in college is beneficial to your long-term financial health. Not only will it help you start compensating for the costs of college, but it will also get you used to receiving a steady paycheck, giving you practice on how to manage that paycheck.
5. Open and manage a credit card. Even if you don’t plan on using it often, it’s a good idea to open at least one credit card. Credit cards are an easy way to build up your credit score (something many millennials overlook), and their downsides only kick in if you allow your debt to grow beyond “manageable” territory. It’s also important to have for emergencies, and is a good way to build a strong habit of paying your bills on time.
6. Have a plan to pay off your student loans. Most students don’t like to think of the harsh realities they’ll face after graduating—which often include paying off a massive amount of student debt. But the sooner you start thinking about this, the better. How much will your minimum monthly payments be? How will you be able to afford them? How can you save more, so you can pay down that debt even faster?
7. For bonus points, open a Roth IRA. If you have some extra money to save and you’re interested in planning for your long-term future (i.e., retirement), consider opening a Roth IRA. A Roth IRA is a type of account with special tax perks, since it’s used to help people save for retirement. Any money you put into this account is allowed to grow completely tax-free, which you’ll soon realize is incredibly valuable, especially if you start while young to reap the power of compound interest.
Immersing Yourself in Financial Knowledge
It’s hard to cultivate good habits and learn financial lessons all by yourself. Fortunately, in college, you’re in a perfect position to immerse yourself in financial knowledge. Consider taking classes on economics or personal finance if your college offers them, and talk to your professors or other students who seem to be more experienced than you. The more you confront what you don’t know, and the more open you are to learning, the faster you’ll gain mastery over your financial habits.