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A Beginner's Guide to Financial Responsibility

The start of college means new responsibilities, especially new financial ones. Here are some ways to start successfully managing your finances as you start college.

The summer after your senior year of high school is one of the most memorable and exciting times of your life. The stress of school is over, you don’t have any homework, and you’re about to start a new chapter in your life.

However, there’s also a lot of new responsibility that comes with graduating, including learning to become more financially responsible. Between graduation gifts, summer concerts, dorm shopping, and spontaneous ice cream runs, there’s no shortage of temptations to spend money. If you’re not careful, you could go broke before you even start college! 

The transition to college is a great time to work on being more responsible about how to manage your money and start planning for the future. While everyone has different financial situations, we can all benefit from being more financially literate and responsible. Here are a few ways to do just that. 

Limit your summer spending

We spend most of our money on spontaneous expenses. Chances are many of your friends are going to ask you to hang out and grab a bite to eat with them “one last time” before college starts. These little costs add up quickly, and maybe it’s not in your budget to get lunch with every friend you want to spend time with. Try to convince your friends to find inexpensive things to do together, such as attending free concerts, going hiking, or cooking together instead of going out to eat.

Create a budget

It’s a good idea to create a budget for yourself. It can be as simple as saying you want your credit card bill to be under $150, or it can be elaborate and specify how much you want to spend on food, clothing, transportation, etc. There are even budget apps and online tools you can use like Mint to make budgeting easier.

Related: Budgeting Basics for College Students, Plus Example Spreadsheet

Think about investing

It’s a common myth that you need a lot of money to start investing. Investing can be as simple as you need it to be. There are many low-commitment investing apps, like Stash or Acorns, that have deals for college students where they waive any fees, making investing simple for everyone. For example, with the Acorns app, you link your credit card to the account and it automatically rounds up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invests that money for you—no work necessary, and you probably won’t miss the 30 cents it takes from rounding up your daily coffee.

Certificates of Deposit (CDs) are another easy way for young adults to invest their money. Go to your bank, choose the amount of money you want to deposit and the length of time, and that’s it! CDs are great because they help prevent unnecessary spending, as you can’t access the money until the specified time is up (unless you pay some hefty fees). CDs are available through most banks or online through creditors like Discover.

Time is on your side: investing early allows your money to grow faster due to compound interest, meaning you earn interest on interest you’ve previously accumulated.

Identify needs versus wants

This is an important skill to develop, especially as you transition to college. While $4 lattes every day during finals week may be justifiable, treating yourself all the time isn’t sustainable. You could make your own coffee instead and choose to only buy coffee out once a week. Swapping more expensive items for cheaper ones or choosing to make things at home is an easy way to save money.

Talk with your parents

Make sure you’re on the same page with your parents when it comes to finances. Are they planning on sending you money each month? If so, how much? Who is in charge of paying your bills? It’s important to have a plan for who’s paying for your tuition, housing, food, and other expenses to prevent confusion and avoid late fees.

Know bank account basics

Chances are you probably already have a bank account. However, smaller local banks may not have branches near your school, which could make it hard for you to deposit and withdraw money. See if your current bank has locations where you’re going to college or if you should start an account with another bank for when you’re at school. If you don’t want to open another account, see if your local bank has online banking options so you can still deposit checks without going to a physical location.

Also, if you only have a savings account, you might consider opening a checking account too. Savings accounts usually have a limit on the amount of times you can withdraw money per month, making them hard to use to pay bills and get money when you need it. Checking accounts are better for day-to-day financial needs.

Related: 5 Financial Strategies Students Should Learn Before Going to College This Fall

Save money where you can

Learning to use coupons is a great way to save money. It’s as simple as signing up for a store’s email list, looking at the coupons that come in the mail, or checking RetailMeNot when you walk in the store. Also have your student ID ready at checkout and ask if they give student discounts. A little effort can go a long way when it comes to saving money!

Also, one thing I’ve recently discovered is how amazing shopping at thrift stores is. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding exactly what you want at a fraction of the price. Thrift shopping is also a fun way to spend time with your friends. 

Related: How to Save Money Dorm Shopping

Start carrying your health insurance card

Though you hope you won’t ever have to use it, it’s good to have your insurance card with you when you go off to college. And if you do need to use it, most insurance companies even list your copays directly on the card, which helps you stay aware of how much doctor visits will cost.

In addition to having your insurance card on hand, you should know which hospitals and pharmacies in your college’s area are covered in case of an emergency. If there are no hospitals in the area that accept your insurance, you might want to consider joining your school’s student insurance plan.

Consider getting a credit card

If you don’t already have one, it might be time to consider opening a credit card. The main advantage of a credit card is that, with responsible use, you can start to build your credit score. One of the things that factors into your credit score is how long your credit history is, so starting early can positively impact your score.

There are many good credit card options for students, including ones with benefits for good grades, low credit lines, and low interest rates. There are also cards your parents can open with you and have joint ownership of in case you forget to pay a bill. However, if you don’t think you can be financially responsible with a credit card (e.g., you think you’ll miss paying your bill), then it might not be a good decision to get one. 

Related: Understanding the Dangers and Benefits of Credit Cards

Overall, becoming financially responsible and independent is one of the first steps to succeeding in college. Make good decisions and have a great summer everyone! 

Looking for more financial advice? Check out our Financial Aid section.

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bank accounts budgeting credit cards financial literacy financial responsibility investing money saving money

About Chrissy Ramakrishnan

Chrissy is a sophomore Statistics major at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who loves all things Wisconsin, ice cream, coffee, and dancing no matter the occasion. A self-proclaimed college application and financial aid nerd, she thoroughly enjoyed taking the ACT and hopes to get her PhD in Education Policy so she can stay in school forever!


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