College is a wonderful time to be alive. For many students, it’s the first time you’ve lived away from home. You have tons of freedom—as long as you’re getting your homework assignments done—to do whatever you want. And that’s wonderful. But you really want to use college as a time to set up good financial habits. Especially since college is a time you’re strapped for cash.
6 Life Saving Financial Habits for Every College Student
1. Check in with how you’re paying for school.
While the most common way to pay for college is through student loans, it’s not the only way. In fact, there are many other different ways to finance college. The first place you should start is by making sure you’re taking advantage of all your financial aid. Your financial aid officer should be able to help you determine that.
Also, make sure you fill out your FAFSA every year. FAFSAs are Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms that the government provides. If you fill one out and qualify for aid, you can receive grants from the government. These drastically cut college costs.
Another pro tip is to talk to your student loan officer and negotiate the price of college. The price of college has gone up drastically each year, but enrollment has dropped. Use this in your favor when you talk to your student aid officer to see if you can knock a few grand off of your tuition.
2. Make sure you’re paying down your student loans.
But if you do have student loans, you need to make sure that you’re also monitoring them. Depending on the kind of student loans you have, your loans can be accruing interest. Make sure that you find out if they are and consider making payments. It’s best if you make payments that also take care of some principal, but even just keeping the interest paid off can save you years in the long run.
Also, see if there are ways you can avoid accruing loans. Many universities offer scholarships to help with the cost of college, and over $100,000 a year in scholarships go unclaimed. If you find one you might qualify, apply! Even if you’re not quite sure if you meet every specific requirement.
Even $1,000 in scholarships could save you shave years off your loan repayment.
Another idea you can use is to shop around for student loan percentage rates. If you have federal loans, you’re good to go. But if you need to take out private loans, make sure that you’re going with the lowest rate on the market. It might take some digging, but this one strategy will save you thousands of dollars over the life of your loan.
3. Create a budget that works for you.
Budgets are often construed as something that limits freedom, especially in college where you still have minimal expenses and all these cool experiences. But really, budgets are just tools to help prioritize your freedom. Write a list of all the things you need to pay for and how much they cost. Take that total and subtract it from your monthly (or semester) income.
After that, make a list of everything you want to do, and number them 1-10 (or however many items on your list) in order of importance. And then add their price tag. You can use those numbers to determine how much you allocate towards each item every month. And it helps you get the most out of your money because you’re prioritizing what you actually care about and making your money go towards that.
And now budgeting is easier than ever with apps to help you budget. Nav.it helps you improve your money habits with automated and customizable budgeting. Our app is a great way to help set up a budget and get started looking at your money differently.
4. Prioritize saving and investing.
Okay, so saving doesn’t seem like the most fun thing to do while in college, but it is the most responsible. And it’ll set you up well for success in the long term. Here are a few things you should be saving for:
An emergency fund. An emergency fund is usually 3-6 months of your expenses kept in a high yield savings account used in case of emergency. It’s a great buffer between you and the crazy world.
Short-term goals. Are you looking to go on vacation or do you want to move across the country after you graduate to get the heck out of dodge? Both are noble pursuits and should be saved for instead of financing. You can save either using a high yield savings account or a brokerage account.
Long-term goals. Buying a house or saving for a wedding can be other great long-term goals. If you’re into using apps for investing, here’s a great resource to evaluate the current apps on the market.
Retirement. A great way to save is by using a Roth IRA for tax-advantaged money. You might also take advantage of an employer’s 401(k) options, which are great ways to get started investing. Keep in mind that compound interest works in your favor and allows your money to grow exponentially without you touching it.
5. Learn to prioritize expenses.
Learning to prioritize your expenses is huge. Make sure that you’re spending money in ways that matter to you. While it might be fun to go out with your friends on Friday night, make sure that your grocery bills are covered first. This one strategy saves you from scrambling during the last few days before you get paid. No one really wants to eat ramen four days in a row—but we’ve all been there. Checking in with your money before even small splurges gives you the chance to make sure you’re taking care of what you need before what you want.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have any fun in college. Quite the opposite, having fun and going out when you know that your money is taken care of is a level of freedom that takes the fun to a whole other level. It saves you from the post hangover regret that you get when you open your bank account after a night out. Because you know that all your necessities are taken care of.
TIP: Have a separate online checking account to stash fun money in to make sure that you don’t accidentally overspend and use bill money. It keeps your money separate and your spending guilt free.
6. Practice responsible credit card habits.
College is the time to start building credit. Many lenders will give you student cards with small limits, like $250. While it can be a great allure to rack up daily expenses on your credit card, avoid that and instead put one or two monthly expenses on your card—such as your car insurance or gym membership—and pay it off regularly.
Utilizing credit cards like this will build credit and that helps you in the long run for larger purchases like cars and houses—anything you need credit on. And it keeps you out of the murky waters of credit card debt.
But only use this tool if you’re confident that you won’t get yourself into credit card debt because that’s the last thing you need as a college student.
TIP: Put your credit card in ice in the freezer. This seems a little wonky, but having to thaw out your credit card will make you think twice about whether something is actually an emergency and keep you from spending money you don’t have.
By following these six financial habits, you will be well on your way to financial success.
While these steps might not feel like they’re making a big difference since you might not be making a bunch of money right now, creating the habits will last a lifetime. And when you create a solid habit like always paying off your credit cards every month, you won’t ever get into credit card debt. And if you start saving now, you’ll be able to save for the rest of your life and live the meaningful life that you’ve always dreamed of.
That’s all money management is really, setting yourself up to live an incredible life. And these six financial habits will create the habits you need to make that amazing life you want.
Moriah Chace writes about low-income money and queer culture at moriahchace.com. Her work has been featured by The Motley Fool and other large media outlets. She has words in Women’s Personal Finance, The Deal Taker, and Live Betr. As a part-time barista and full-time coffee addict, she spends her spare time over-caffeinated fixing up her 1978 Winnebago Itasca and plans to travel around the USA with her dog and two cats after she breathes life into the old soul of an RV.