Crash Course for College Freshmen

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.

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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!   

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  • Andy

    A couple more tricks to textbooks:
    1. Use http://www.dealoz.com. This website compares book prices on many different websites so you can find the cheapest. But watch out for International Editions–they’re a lot cheaper, but can occasionally have slightly different content. Plus the legality of them is a little hairy.
    2. Sell back your textbooks on your own through Half.com. They take a small percentage, but you get back a lot more of your money than if you went to a textbook buyback event on campus or at a bookstore. It’s a little extra work with shipping, but you’re getting money for that extra effort.
    You might be thinking, “But what if I want to keep my books for future reference?” To that I say, sell them anyways and buy an older edition through Half.com–same content, cheaper price. Old editions are dirt cheap. Authors are cranking out new editions of their books these days, so make sure you get your books listed for sale before the following semester starts. Your book won’t be worth half it’s original value if a new edition comes out (sometimes this is out of your control).
    Price your book competitively, but be patient. Some courses are only offered every other semester, so your book might not sell for another 6 months. Also, find out if your school has some kind of book selling website or system where you can sell books to fellow students on campus. This allows you to sell those books that are specific to your professor/class.
    You also could try your hand at using an old edition, but that usually causes problems because the page numbering is different or the quiz questions at the end of each chapter are different (many teachers use these for homework assignments).
    I’ve had huge success with these two methods. Often, I buy a book cheap, take care of it, then sell it for more than I paid. Through 7 years of college (including grad school), I estimate my net spending on textbooks to be under $500.

    • skye

      student can also get together and share a book, sell it later and split what they get for it. works well if they are in a study group. together.

  • ABC

    Re: coffee & Starbucks

    Some might say, “But I like the Tazo Chai Lattes and I can’t make those in my room!” Yes, you can…for a fraction of the cost at Starbucks.

    Go to Target (or some WalMarts) and buy a box of Tazo Classic Chai teabags (2.99 to 3.50 for 20……20!!). Put half as much water as you are going to ultimately want (you will use equal amounts of milk & water) into your coffee mug. I’ve made as much as 1-1/4 cup (total) before with no diminishing of the taste of the tea. I would daresay you could make as much as 1-1/2 cup or a little more.

    So anyway, put the mug into the microwave and heat to just boiling. Take out and put in an equal amount of milk, then plop the bag in and let it steep for the recommended time on the box, or longer if you like it strong. Then just add your sugar and you’re good to go! It tastes just like the ones at Starbucks. If you like a little foam at the top, you can even just whip it with the spoon a bit (use a large mug!) and it foams up nicely.

    Actually the Chai Lattes at Starbucks are too rich and too sweet for me, therefore at home I use skim milk, and put just enough sugar to make it slightly sweet. I also have to reheat in the microwave after steeping….but you must be careful not to boil it again with the milk in it…it doesn’t render it completely undrinkable, but it changes the taste and can curdle the milk if you let it go too long.

    Hope this is understandable….I tend to ramble! 🙂

  • Gehugh

    May I add getting a library card from the public library in town. A branch may be within walking distance. There may be limitations on check outs dependent on your residency. You may be able to order and check out a hard copy of that book for English 1 that you really don’t want to buy. Many libraries belong to consortiums that share across the state or region. They msy have music cds and DVDs.They may offer online check outs for books on mp3, cd, and other devices. Usually library cards are free and some have interesting seminars and events. Your school’s town public library may be just tge quiet place OFF campus to chill or study if the mood strikes you.
    Every high school senior should have a basic consumer studies class before going off to college or life in general. If not, make sure it happens IN the freshman year. Learning now to become a savvy consumer will prepare you for YOUR life.

  • Matt

    Great article. Have you seen this website offering free PDF textbooks? https://openstaxcollege.org/