Young female college freshman with no clue how to manage money

How to Manage Money for College Freshmen and Others, Too

All around the country, newly-minted high school graduates will soon be heading off to college. They’ll be taking a lot of things with them, but statistics tell us that financial literacy is not likely to be one of them. If I could spend a little time with these awesome students, I’d attempt to cram the basics for how to manage money into their heads, then pray that it penetrates their hearts.


A diverse group of college freshmen who need to learn how to manage money

A budget is your friend

That means …

  1. You have a written plan for how you are going to spend and manage money
  2. You use that written plan like you would a road map, consulting it often and
  3. You use a site like or a pencil and paper to record how you spend every nickel.

Sallie Mae has a monthly budget worksheet you can print out to help you estimate your costs and keep expenses under control. Do not attempt to do this “keeping track” thing in your head. You are amazing, but don’t push it.

Live with cash

Your generation has been somewhat brainwashed to believe that plastic is the only safe way to pay for things. That may be true if you buy things online, but overall it is just not true. Even then, there is a really cool way that you can shop on Amazon with cash. Let me show you here.

I don’t have the time or space to get into a long dissertation on the subject, just believe me when I tell you that using cash—currency, greenbacks, dollars, coins—will simplify your life and it will keep you from overspending.

Get a free checking account

It’s not easy these days to find free checking accounts with no strings attached—no monthly fee, no minimum balance requirement, and no minimum deposit. But many banks such as US Bank, do offer free student accounts that fit this criterion.

Explore banking options in the city where you will be attending school. Or find out if your parents’ bank or credit union offers free student accounts and has a branch near  campus.

Credit-card debt

Don’t be ridiculous. Credit card debt—a balance owing that you roll over from one month to the next, paying only the minimum required plus interest—has the potential to sink your ship. Think of it like cancer. At first, it’s just a tiny thing that’s not that big of a deal. But then it starts to multiply and if not dealt with swiftly, it will do horrible things in your life.

Never use a credit card to pay for things because you don’t have enough money. If you don’t have the money this month, what makes you think you’ll have it next month? Any amount of credit-card debt will put you on the fast track to financial trouble.

When you do use a credit card, make sure you pay the statement balance in full—right down to $0.00 every single month. Without fail.

You do not need a single iota of credit-card debt to build a great credit score so please do not use “building credit” as an excuse to burden yourself down with credit-card debt.

Credit limit

It’s super easy to see your credit limit on your credit card statement as your money—like it’s there and it’s yours to spend. It’s not your money. It’s the bank’s money that they cannot wait to lend to you at ridiculously high-interest rates. But it’s more than that.

Their goal is to get your credit-card balance just a few dollars more than you can repay in full, in a single month. Then you’ll revert to the small minimum payment, rolling debt over to the next month. You’ll be hooked so fast it’ll make your head spin! You do not want to get caught up in that loser’s game.

Eat your food plan

If you or your parents have paid for the school’s meal plan, you need to know how many meals are covered then do something remarkable: Actually eat those meals.

If you’re eating pizza in your dorm room or driving through Burger King instead, you’re just throwing away money. It might feel cool to spend your money like that now, but you will regret it later.

Don’t become a Starbucks regular

I want to say “never,” but I’ll compromise a bit on this one. Seriously, the coffee at Starbucks or Coffee Bean or any other trendy coffee house is so expensive it brings tears to my eyes.

Let your grandparents and others know how much you love Starbucks gift cards. They are anxious to know what they can send to you while you’re away. Then use the gift cards instead of your cash.

Think about it: If you spend $3 a day at Starbucks, that’s $90 a month. On coffee. Multiply by 9 to see how much you’ll buy in a school year ($810). You don’t want to spend your money that way. Buy an inexpensive coffee maker instead and make it yourself in your room.

Buy or rent used textbooks

The cost of new textbooks is going to be so shocking, it will make you want to chew your hair. You can cut that cost in half at least by buying used books online or even renting them. Take good care of them so that when you’re done you don’t get charged a damage fee on rentals, or if you purchased them, you can sell them back.

Keep searching

Students who couldn’t secure a scholarship for the fall semester shouldn’t give up hope. Many scholarships have spring deadlines, so continue your search during this school year and next year, too. Just keep applying.

Take these basic money principles and apply them to your life starting now. Take how to manage money seriously. You will never regret it.

And have a great year!

Updated 6-11-19

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2 replies
  1. SamSven says:

    Great article, Mary. Chock full of terrific advice. Let’s hope all the subscribers to your newsletters will share this with every new college student they know of.
    I was especially interested to know of the free bank accounts for college students.
    My desire is to know if there are any such accounts for other young people who are wanting to open a bank account?
    I appreciate you more than you can know. Thank you for all your good advice for everyone.
    Sincerely, Samantha Svensson in Conyers, GA

  2. linder says:

    Re: applying for scholarships: my mom worked at the local university as a scholarship coordinator. You would be shocked at how many scholarships are unclaimed after the fall semester starts! Some students accept any and all scholarships offered to them, only to go to a different school and leaving their unclaimed assets behind (and without notifying the other schools)! Keep checking with the financial aids office.


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