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17 Money Tips For College Freshmen

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A college education is expensive, but there are plenty of ways to make and save money in college. Don’t leave for campus without these money tips for college freshman.

The day you leave for college is one of the most exciting days of your life. A lot of new experiences await you, and one of them is handling money on your own for the first time.

What you do or don’t do, learn or don’t learn as a college freshman regarding personal finance can set you up for a lifetime of success or ensure that you spend decades trying to undo mistakes.

Some Big Lessons

I was a college student in the mid-1990’s and credit card companies were all over campus signing up students for credit cards. You didn’t need to provide any proof of income, or even have any income and you could open up multiple credit card accounts. I did that, and it haunted me for years.

It took about a decade to get all of my credit card debt paid off. Things are different now. Credit card companies are no longer allowed to open accounts for students without verifying income or failing that, without a consignor.

Most high schools don’t teach personal finance, and if our parents don’t teach us, we head out into the world without critical information. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you so here are my money tips for college freshman.

1. Shop Smart

Another good way to make and save money is to use cash back apps when you go shopping. Sites like Shopkick, Ebates, and Ibotta can keep extra money in your wallet.

Remember how fun it was stocking up for school supplies when you were a kid? Well, it’s still fun now that you’re in college so don’t go nuts.

You don’t need a different notebook for each class, highlighters in every color, and all kinds of fancy pens. Most of your work and note-taking will be done on a laptop which eliminates the need for a lot of traditional school supplies.

2. A Credit Card is a Tool

And like any tool, you can use it for good things or bad things. There is nothing inherently wrong with a college freshman having a credit card. If you’re far from home and run into an emergency situation like needing a new tire, a credit card can really bail you out.

Having a credit card at a young age can also help build and improve your credit score. Part of what makes up your credit score is the age of your credit file. Opening a credit card at 18 is often the first account in a credit file for many people and ensures that you have a nice, long credit history for the rest of your life.

But a credit card can get you in so much trouble. Not using it responsibly can mean you will be in debt for years. It’s a hard hole to climb out of, especially if you graduate with student loan debt too.

The ideal situation would be for a parent to make you an authorized user on one of their existing credit cards that report authorized user activity to at least one of the three major credit bureaus, not all of them do.

This way you will have access to a credit card for emergencies or whatever expenses your parents may agree to pay, but they will be able to monitor your spending and cut you off if you start to use the card for anything other than what you’re supposed to and you’ll be building your credit.

3. Make Some Money

We know you’re busy studying and drinking in all the social activities available on and off campus, but it’s still a wise decision to have a little money coming in. Getting an on-campus job means that your employer will be willing to work around your class schedule.

An off-campus job will probably offer some flexibility as local employers are used to dealing with college student employees, but they may not be quite as accommodating as an on-campus job.

If your class schedule is just too packed to take a part-time job, you can still make some extra cash in the little downtime you do have. Survey sites can be a great way to earn a little extra money or gift cards.

To get you started, here are a few of our favorites:

If surveys aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to make some money online.

4. Shop Around

College textbooks are a long-time scam. They are obscenely expensive and, no, no the $40 Fifth Edition won’t do. You must have the $175 Sixth Edition because two lines have been updated. Hoping you can recoup some of your money and sell them back at the end of the year?

Well, you can, but the stack of books you paid $800 for is now worth about $3.50. Don’t go to the college bookstore for your textbooks,that is almost certainly the most expensive place to buy them. Instead, go online for your books.

Look at sites like AbeBooks, BookFinder, and CampusBooks. Some sites even give you the option to rent textbooks rather than buying them and to sell books you did purchase back at the end of the term for much more than your campus bookstore will give you.

You can make buying your books even cheaper by finding someone to share with. You can each pay half and then take turns using the book. Of course, you will have to work out a sharing schedule and not leave assignments to the last minute, but it’s a good option to save a little more.

5. Coordinate

Speak to your dorm-mates before you start buying stuff for your room. You don’t need to mini fridges or two televisions. Splitting up your list of shared items means you’ll spend less money and have more room.

Get a Discount6.

Many retailers offer discounts to college students. If you have a .edu email address, you can get six months of Amazon Prime Student or half off an annual Prime subscription. Some clothing retailers including American Eagle, Club Monaco, and Champion offer discounts with student ID.

If you need a mattress, Leesa offers a 15% discount. Allstate and Geico offer discounts on insurance coverage to eligible students and several of the big wireless companies offer discounts on cell phone plans. Really, before you buy anything, Google “name of the thing you want to buy” followed by “student discount” and see what you can find.

A lot of local restaurants and retailers will offer discounts for students too. College students are good for the local economy so businesses will compete for your dollars. Let them!

7. Start an Emergency Fund

Conventional wisdom tells us that $1,000 is the absolute minimum we should have in our emergency fund, 3-6 months worth of expenses is ideal. But even $1,000 is a big ask for a college student, and most college students are still relying financially, at least in part on their parents so don’t need to have as much in an emergency fund as does someone out on their own entirely.

So let’s set a goal of $500. Save and earn a total of $500 by the end of your freshman year. Doing so will show you that you can save up money and having a small emergency fund gives you a nice little head start on having a big one.

8. Take Advantage

Your campus and university will offer all kinds of free and discounted events, things, and services. Things like free events, free lectures, free classes on things like self-defense, free gym memberships, free medical care. Find a listing of everything you can get or do for free on your campus and take advantage of them.

This is something my roommate and I would do if we got tired of dorm food. We would look up a list of campus events and find out which ones were offering food and eat dinner at those!

9. An Eye to the Future

When you’re looking for a free lecture to attend or considering joining a campus group, make your choices with an eye to the future.

Is there a professor in your department giving a talk? Go and speak to him or her afterward, make yourself known. Is there a club or group you can join that is related to your chosen career field?

You will never have so many opportunities to make connections that can be important to your future as you have while you’re in college. You only have so much time, be sure to choose at least a few of your after class activities based on what can help your future career prospects.

10. Go to the Fair

The job fair, I mean. College campuses often host job fairs. They’re meant to help seniors find work after graduation, but there’s nothing stopping you from attending. Go to as many as you can.

If you’re unsure about what you want to major in, talking to company representatives at these fairs might help give you some direction.

You may also find an internship or part-time job opportunity. And talking to HR people in a zero pressure setting (since you don’t need a job) is a good way to learn and practice interview skills so when being a good interview is critical, you’ll feel more confident.

11. Get Some Free Money

I hope that you made this a part-time job while you were still in high school, but if you didn’t, it’s not too late. Apply for every scholarship you are even remotely eligible for. All of them. If you don’t have perfect grades, look for scholarships that aren’t GPA dependent, there are plenty out there.

Don’t know where to start? What are your interests and hobbies? Make a list of them and then Google “Your hobby” followed by “scholarships.” Do you like to knit? There are scholarships based on that. Like duck calls (for some reason!?)? There’s a scholarship based on your strange appreciation.

These rather obscure scholarships aren’t going to pay your tuition individually but cobbling a few of them together could mean thousands of dollars a year in money to help fund your educational expenses. And the more free money you get, the less you have to take out in student loans.

12. Do a Little Learning

We know, you’re in college. All you’re doing is learning! We want you to add one more subject to your list, personal finance. You don’t have to hit the books hard, but we want you to make some source of personal finance education a part of your regular life now.

Find a blog you like (Frugal For Less!) or a podcast, or a magazine that covers various aspects of personal finance and check in with them regularly.

Learn a little about investing, credit scores, and how to pay off student loan debt quickly now while the stakes are relatively low.

13. Start Investing

What? You don’t have enough money to start investing? Au contraire! When you invest with Acorns, all you need is some spare change. People think what you need to become rich through investing is lots of money but it isn’t.

What you need is lots of time. And you have all the time in the world right now for your money to grow and grow.

Starting investing early not only gives your money more time to grow, but it also gets you in the habit of investing, and it’s one of the most important personal finance habits you can develop.

14. Don’t Get a Pet

Many colleges require freshman to live on campus in a dorm, so this won’t apply to most of you. But if you do live in an apartment, don’t get a pet. You might think a puppy or kitten (or rabbit, or guinea pig, whatever is your pet of choice) just requires some food, toys, and a litter tray but you’re wrong.

Pets require a lot more than those basic things, they require medical care, possibly a walker if your schedule keeps you away from home for long stretches, a sitter if you travel home for holidays or vacation over spring break and a hundred other things that you don’t think of until your pet needs it. Pets are not cheap.

And you’re not in a place in your life where you should be responsible for another living thing. This is a time to be free and even a pet that you love dearly and is very independent (as much as an animal can be), requires a lot of time and attention. I love animals, and I encourage you to adopt one but only when you have the time and money to give them the life they deserve.

15. Leave Your Car at Home

Some college campuses don’t allow freshman to have cars. Even if your campus does, consider leaving the car at home. Many campuses and college towns are designed for people who don’t have cars. They’re walkable and have some form of public transport.

Not having a car is not as convenient as having a car but it can certainly be done. I’ve never owned a car, I don’t even know how to drive, and I’m still here to tell the tale! Cars are especially superfluous for college students these days given things like Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft.

Having a car on campus is just an expense and a hassle you don’t need.

16. Bring a Snack

If you’re gone from your dorm for long stretches and get hungry between meals, don’t succumb to the campus bodega or food court. Many meal plans only cover two or three meals a day, not snacks in between so anything you buy off plan is going to come out of your pocket.

There are lots of things you can carry around in your bag for a few hours that won’t go bad in they’re not refrigerated for a couple of hours, boiled eggs, tuna in those foil packets, nuts, hummus and veggie sticks. These are healthy things that aren’t too expensive and will tide you over between meals.

Be sure to carry a reusable water bottle when you’re away from your room too, so you’re not spending money on drinks.

17. Have Fun

Many people remember their college years as one of the best times of their lives, and it’s no wonder why. College is this wonderful sort of bridge between being a kid and being a fully fledged adult.

You have all of the good parts of being a kid, few responsibilities, you’re surrounded by friends, you’re learning interesting things, and all of the good parts of being an adult, no one is telling you what to do, and you get to make your own decisions.

Enjoy every minute of it. You’ll be in the “real world” soon enough. That’s not a bad thing, lots of great stuff in the real world! But you’re never really in that in-between stage again that you get to experience while you’re a college student. We’ll see you in the real world in a few years.

Final Thoughts

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 17 Money Tips For College Freshmen. See something that’s not on the list and should be? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading and happy frugaling!

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