All around the country, newly-minted high school graduates are heading off to college. They’ll be taking a lot of things with them, but we know that financial literacy is not one of them.
If I could spend just two hours with these awesome students, this is what I would attempt to cram into their heads, then pray that it penetrates their hearts:
A BUDGET IS YOUR FRIEND. That means you 1) have a written plan for how you are going to spend your money 2) you use that written plan like you would a road map, consulting it often and 3) you use a site like Mint.com or a pencil and paper to record how you spend every nickel. SallieMae.com has a monthly budget worksheet to help you estimate your costs and keep expenses under control.
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 criteria. Explore banking options in the city where you will be attending school or find out if the bank or credit union that your parents already use offers free student accounts and has a branch near the college campus.
CREDIT-CARD DEBT? Don’t be ridiculous. Credit card debt 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. That is the fast track to financial trouble. You do not need to have a cent of credit card debt to build a great credit score. Please do not use “building credit” as an excuse to burden yourself down with credit-card debt.
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 over all it is just so not true. 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.
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 almost makes me choke.
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 $90 a month. On coffee. Multiply by 9 to see how much you’ll 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 USED TEXT BOOKS. 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.
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. And have a great year!