College can be a stressful time in a lot of ways, and financial stress is near the top of the list. Many students are trying to scrape by on small allowances while facing escalating costs for tuition, lodging, food, and textbooks. Many are also taking on high levels of debt in order to complete their education.
We asked a group of financial professionals, businesspeople, and people who have been there and done that for their #1 tips for college students. Here’s what we got.
What They Said
As usual, some items appeared more than once. We tried to avoid duplication in the responses, but here are some of the subjects that were most often discussed.
- Budgeting: The most common responses emphasized the need to budget effectively and track income and spending.
- Loan Management: Several respondents stressed the need to select affordable schools, minimize borrowing, and avoid spending student loan money on non-essentials.
- Part-time jobs: multiple responses advised students to look for part-time work to supplement their income.
- Credit cards: Several respondents advised getting a credit card and using it carefully to build credit. Others warned about the danger of racking up debt.
- Saving money: another common piece of advise was to spend only on essentials and avoid luxuries.
We would point out that while many of these suggestions are good advice for some students, some may not be good advice for all students, and there’s often an “if” involved. For example, it’s certainly worth taking on a part-time job or side hustle, but if the demands on your time mean taking an extra year to graduate, you won’t come out ahead financially.
As with most money questions, you’ll need to balance the pros and cons and come up with the best strategy for you. For another perspective, check out our article on college without debt.
What’s Your #1 Financial Tip for College Students?
Here’s what our eighteen panelists had to say.
Avoid Debt As Much as Possible
My number one financial tip for college students is to avoid debt as much as possible, especially higher interest consumer debt like from credit cards or other sources of financing (perhaps from furniture or electronic stores). Student loan debt may be unavoidable but try to only use that for tuition, room, board, books, and other academically related uses. Avoid the temptation to use that “free money” on other things like a spring break trip or the local bar. Debt, especially the high interest kind, can follow you for a long time and be a huge burden on your financial growth.
Another tip is that you should experiment with various side hustles while you’re in college. It’s a great way to earn spending money (and avoid debt!) and see if there are things you may enjoy doing and things you don’t. In college, I used to flip items on eBay and learned that while it was lucrative, I really didn’t enjoy the customer service aspect of it. Sometimes you get a buyer who is exceptionally picky about the condition of an item (or they were looking to get a further discount) and I learned that dealing with those issues wasn’t for me! I did enjoy the flexibility of the work, the treasure hunting aspect of flipping items, and so I leaned towards finding jobs that had those aspects without the customer service.
Jim Wang is the founder of WalletHacks.com, a personal finance blog that helps young professionals and new families better manage their money to live the life they want.
Scale Your Debt to Your Expected Income
Keep your student loan debt in sync with your income after graduation.
If your total student loan debt at graduation is less than your annual starting salary, you should be able to afford to repay your student loans in ten years or less.
If your total debt exceeds your annual income, you’ll struggle to repay your student loans and will need an extended or income-driven repayment plan to afford the monthly loan payments. These repayment plans reduce the monthly loan payments by increasing the repayment term to 20, 25 or even 30 years. But, this comes at a cost of paying more interest over the life of the loan. You’ll also still be in debt when your children enroll in college.
Do not treat loan limits as targets. Borrow only what you need, not what you can. Live like a student while you’re in school, so you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.
Create a descriptive budget, where you track your spending, assigning each expense to one of several broad categories, such as food, entertainment, tuition, clothing, housing, medical care, taxes, etc. Also tag each expense as mandatory (need) or discretionary (want). At the end of each month, total up each category and tag. Increasing awareness of spending will help you exercise restraint.
Try to use paper instead of plastic (money, that is). Spending $500 on a credit or debit card feels the same as spending $5. If you have to count out a bunch of $20 bills, it feels like you’re spending money, making it more real.
Mark Kantrowitz is the Publisher of PrivateStudentLoans.guru, a free website about student loans. He is an expert on student financial aid, scholarships, 529 plans, and student loans. He has been quoted in more than 10,000 newspaper and magazine articles about college admissions and financial aid. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, MarketWatch, Money Magazine, Forbes, Newsweek, and Time. He is the author of five bestselling books about scholarships and financial aid and holds seven patents. His latest book is “Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?” Mark serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Student Financial Aid, the editorial advisory board of Bottom Line/Personal, and is a member of the board of trustees of the Center for Excellence in Education. He has Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
Robert R. Johnson
Professor of Finance; Chairman and CEO
Minimize Bad Debt
While not all debt is bad, not all debt is created equal. Some experts would contend that student loans are bad debt, but I disagree. I would categorize modest student loan debt as being “good debt.” In my opinion, student loans get a bad rap. There is no doubt that the system has been abused and that some students have accumulated a mountain of debt and have earned degrees that simply won’t provide the earning power to pay that debt back. But, used judiciously— and to earn degrees that truly build a person’s human capital and earning power — student loans can be an essential bridge to career success.
On the other hand, without question, credit card debt is bad debt. And, the priority should be to minimize the use of credit cards. People would be well served to realize that debt extinguishment should be a priority. To quote Albert Einstein “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” People can put their financial house in order by reducing debt and acquiring assets that grow in value over time. The fastest way to put one’s financial house in order is to obtain more assets that earn compound in value (like stocks or CDs), reduce one’s debts and lower interest payments.
Robert R. Johnson, Ph.D., CFA, CAIA is a Professor of Finance in the Heider College of Business at Creighton University. He is also the Founder and CEO of Economic Index Associates, an NYC-based firm that develops investable indexes. He is co-author of The Tools and Techniques Of Investment Planning, Strategic Value Investing, and Investment Banking for Dummies, among others. He was formerly deputy CEO of CFA Institute in charge of the CFA Program and was President of the American College of Financial Services.
Owner & Author
Trip Of A Lifestyle
Find Ways to Spend Less
The biggest financial hack that saved me in college was finding ways to live on less. Financial experts often encourage people to “live below their means,” but not many offer concrete ways to do that.
Here’s what helped me graduate college debt-free with some money in the bank:
- Live with roommates, because housing costs don’t scale proportional to the number of rooms. A 2-bedroom apartment doesn’t cost twice what a 1-bedroom apartment does, so the per-person cost is lower.
- Avoid transportation costs by biking, walking, or taking public transportation as much as possible. If you absolutely need to own a car, find a cheap, used one that you can pay cash for.
- Avoid restaurants and grocery stores. Instead, cook at home and buy your groceries at Walmart. Try inviting friends for a dinner party or afternoon picnic instead of going out!
- Take advantage of all the free stuff on campus (gym membership, movie screenings, club meetings, student life activities, and all the free pizza). The entire “college experience” is already priced into your tuition!
It also helps to increase your income, so choose a part-time job that pays the most per hour. I recommend tipped positions. Before I was qualified for other jobs, I worked at a restaurant where the base pay was around $5/hour, but with tips, I ended up averaging $20+/hour.
Lauren Keys graduated college debt-free and worked in marketing for 8 years before retiring at age 29. She details her journey to financial independence on her blog, Trip Of A Lifestyle, which is focused on how to have fun while also saving enough money to quit working full-time decades before everyone else. Trip Of A Lifestyle is a completely free resource to help more people get rich, work less, and travel whenever.
Debt Reduction Services, Inc.
Live Like a College Student
My #1 financial tip for college students is simple: live like a college student. You’ve grown up in a lifestyle that took years or even decades to create. Parents likely provided plenty of good food, made transportation available, gave you a comfortable room, and may have even paid for your entertainment options.
As a college student, you should not expect to have the same lifestyle as you had back home. Don’t go out and get into a car loan because you have to have a new, 100% reliable car. Don’t max out your student loans so you can use them to supplement your weekend entertainment options. Don’t get a credit card so you can buy the nicest of everything. Live like an independent college student, not the dependent child of a 40-year old working adult. Live responsibly below your means.
I’m not anti-student loan, but I see far too many college students maxing out their student loans, asking their parents to max out their student loans, all so they can live the lifestyle they were accustomed to back home.
Todd Christensen is the author of Everyday Money for Everyday People and an AFCPE-Accredited Financial Counselor. He has led more than 1,000 personal finance workshops and developed scores of online courses and webinars for individuals, couples, and organizations around the county since 2004.
Find an Income
Establish some streams of side income.
The students of a decade or two ago would be highly envious of the diverse range of earning opportunities for students – many of which require nothing more than a computer and internet connection.
From merchandise design to tutoring and micro working, there’s really no excuse to be a “poor student” anymore. Not that long ago, students had few options beyond washing dishes or serving behind a bar. There’s far more choice now, and it includes things that can boost a future resumé or even form the foundations of a future career.
Ben Taylor has been a business and IT consultant since 2004. He’s the founder of HomeWorkingClub.com, a global portal for freelancers and remote workers.
The African Garden
Take Charge of Your Budget
I would encourage all college students to be the boss of their own budget. This is a really important lesson for all students to learn, and delegating yourself a budget should be a top priority. Knowing exactly how much income you have is essential to the success of this task, and you need to make this income last.
Figure out exactly how much cash you have coming in, including any additional loans or money that is coming from other sources in addition to your main income. Now, you will need to find out exactly how much money is going out on things like rent, bills, socializing, college resources, and more.
Once you have figured out both your incomings and outgoings, you can subtract your outgoings from your income to find out exactly how much money you have to live off for each month. It is essential that you don’t spend more than you have coming in. Ideally, it is also a good idea to put a specific amount, no matter how big or small, into a savings account each month.
Shannon Bernadin is a botanist and the horticultural fanatic responsible for creating The African Garden. She has spent her life devoted to the flowers and fauna that populate the average American yard and brought her online garden to life to share her knowledge with anyone and everyone interested in floriculture.
Don’t Spend Student Loan Money on Non-Essentials
Some college students spend part of their loan money on clothing or entertainment, but this decision could come back to haunt you.
Be intentional about how much debt you take on, and avoid spending student loans on vacations or music festivals. If you find you took out more student loans than you need, return the money so you don’t end up paying interest on it.
Bottom line: If you’re using student loan money for non-essentials, you could come to regret it after graduation when those first student loan bills kick in. Not only will you have higher monthly payments, but your larger debt balance will accumulate serious interest.
Allan Borch is the founder of Dotcom Dollar. He started his own online business and quit his job in 2015 to travel the world. This was achieved through e-commerce sales and affiliate SEO. He started Dotcom Dollar to help aspiring entrepreneurs create a successful online business while avoiding crucial mistakes along the way.
Teacher and Former College Advisor
Simply Well Balanced
Choose an Affordable School
Having worked with thousands of families throughout the process of applying and enrolling in college my number one financial tip is to choose the college or university that you can afford. I have seen students and parents devastated by financial debt due to choosing a college or program that was out of their budget. It is even more devastating when the student drops out or decides to change their major, adding years to their graduation date.
I have spoken with many students who say they “refuse” to go to an affordable community college or state university. However, the reality is that if you can’t afford the expense of the college you hope to attend, you need to consider more affordable options. Do not expect your parents to go into debt for your education. If you hope to make wise financial decisions as an adult, you need to learn how to live within your means and sacrifice the things you want for the things you need. While you may want to go to an out of state school by the beach, but what you need is a degree and the best choice is to earn it at the most affordable school you can find.
Lauren Tingley is the creator of Simply Well Balanced, a site where she shares tips to simplify family life.
Manage Your Money
College is often a student’s first big step into the real world in terms of budget planning. Consequently, many students come unprepared to handle such a task. One of the many reasons why budgeting is important is that students who do not learn financial management risk running out of student loans and dropping out of college.
I believe that if students learn a few basic tips and tricks, they can avoid facing any sort of financial constraints. To manage their money, the first step they must take is to develop a budget proposal to evaluate their revenue and expenditures and set a monthly budget. Furthermore, learning to distinguish between my wants and needs was something that helped me get through college without ever going broke. This helped in preventing impulsive buying and spending. I also applied this rule to situations where I was subjected to peer pressure and learned to say no.
Another thing I did was to always have emergency cash on me to pay for unforeseen bills like parking permits and repairs, because even a single unanticipated event can send a student’s monthly budget spiraling out of control. Finally, my advice is that students must understand that they can become trapped in a debt crisis if they mishandle their credit cards and mishandle their student loans for immediate gratification. They must comprehend that their credit mismanagement will have an impact on their credit score and, ultimately, their financial future. Hence, budgeting is a very important skill that every college student should master.
Charlotte Senger is the co-founder and senior discount expert at SeniorStrong.org. She is very involved in the work of helping families opt for the best discounts for their needs. As a blogger, social worker, accountant, and advocate, she has over 10 years of experience helping adults and their families.
CEO and Founder
Buy Used, Tutor On the Side
Two tips for college students:
DON’T BUY NEW! If you’re like most college students, you’re on a tight budget. So when your professor assigns a ridiculously expensive reading for class, it’s tempting to just buy the book brand new from the campus bookstore. But before you do that, think about other options.. You could rent or borrow the book from a friend or the library, or even buy it used online, which I normally do. In most cases, buying new just isn’t necessary anymore – and it can end up costing you more in the long run. So save your money and don’t buy new stuff during college!
Do Tutoring as a Part-Time Job! Finding a job to pay the bills and keep me afloat during college was a challenge. If you’re looking for a part-time job that can help you stay in school, tutoring may be the perfect fit. Tutoring is one of the best part-time jobs for college students because it’s flexible, pays well, and helps you build your resume. The tool that has been handy for me during college was google calendar because it is basically free! It keeps me on track with the deadlines and tutoring schedule so that I can plan my week ahead, So if you’re ready to take on some extra mile, consider becoming a tutor!
David Scott is a software developer by day, and the chief editor and publisher of TopReviews by night.
Director of Audience Growth
Take Charge and Accept Responsibility
Given that you are now a college student, it is probable that you are in charge of your personal financial affairs to a greater extent than you were while you were still living at home and functioning primarily as a subset of your family’s economic universe. You do, without a doubt, have greater discretion over where and how you spend your money, especially if your parents live a long-distance away. However, independence comes with the duty to manage one’s finances prudently.
Here are two suggestions to assist you to maintain a healthy financial situation as you begin your college career.
- Take charge and accept responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose sight of your money when there are so many other obstacles to overcome and adaptations to make due to being a student in college. However, you cannot start your adult life with poor money management skills, and college is a perfect moment to decide to take care of your finances and be fiscally responsible with your money.
- Keep track of everything. Create a habit for yourself that includes keeping track of your finances consistently. Your financial condition will become more apparent if you keep meticulous records of what you’ve paid out and how much money you have leftover in your account(s) to fulfill the remaining portion of your monthly costs. Maintaining your financial self-awareness is essential for staying on track. The fact that you have a general idea of when you can get a few extra dollars from ATM and when you have to curb your appetite for an expensive meal off-campus will make your life more manageable and allow you to focus on more important matters — like your grades — will make your life calmer and will enable you to worry about more important issues — like your grades.
Chris Muller is a businessman and director of Audience Growth at personal finance blog Dough Roller
Smart Saving Advice
Avoid Credit Card Debt
College is one of the most trying times for young adults both in regards to stress and finances.
The number one tip that I always give those that are going off to college is to avoid credit card debt. Going into credit card debt as a college student is easy as you finally have access to “adult money”.
But be warned, those charges on your new credit card can last long past your graduation date. I had many friends in college who charged everything from a weekend party to the books for their classes. While at the time the lifestyle they were living seemed like a lot of fun, the mountain of debt they were burying themselves under was far less fun.
I always advise new college students to only get a credit card if they make sure they can pay it off every single month. If you miss a single month’s payment in full then cut up the card and don’t use it again until that debt is payed off.
Matthew Robbs is the founder of Smart Saving Advice. A blog designed to help people make smart financial decisions.
Minimize Your Borrowing
If you have to take out loans, take out the smallest loans possible. As a financial expert who took out over $100k in student loans, I can tell you from both expert opinion AND personal experience that student loans really weigh you down. If I could go back in time and take out smaller loans, I would do whatever it took to make that happen. That’s why I always suggest having a job while you’re in college, even if you only work a couple of hours a week, because a little goes a long way. There are also options like being an RA which can help you save on room costs, which will decrease the amount of loans you have to take out.
Jake Hill is CEO of DebtHammer, a top personal finance publication that aims to help people make better financial decisions.
Buy Books After Classes Start
Before the semester begins, lecturers tend to send a long list of books you are supposed to buy for use in that class. Later on, only a quarter or less of those books are used after spending hundreds of dollars purchasing them all. Hence, it is advisable to buy books only after the classes start, so you are sure you will use them and avoid wasting money. A good way to save on books is to buy them used since they are cheaper and make sure to keep them in good condition so you can resell them later. Alternatively, you can opt for digital copies since they are easy to access on the go and will in most cases be cheaper than physical books.
Stephen Curry is CEO of CocoSign , a digital signature service provider helping businesses to automate and streamline documentation processes.
Mom Money Map
Limit Your Non-Essentials
My #1 financial tip for college students is to limit your non-essentials. With the latest and greatest products constantly being advertised, it’s easy to think that these items are necessities. You don’t need the trendy sweater that an actor you admire was wearing if your current go-to sweater is in good condition. You don’t need the most updated iPhone if your current phone works just fine. You need to learn to ignore the advertising and use what you have until it’s beyond repair. When what you have is no longer working, you might want to consider getting it fixed before seeking a replacement.
Jacqueline Gilchrist is the founder of Mom Money Map, a resource treasuring time and money. She uses her MBA, BComm and corporate strategic planning experience to help people manage their finances so they can achieve their financial goals.
Editor in Chief
Have a Plan
This isn’t so much a tip as it is a mindset. While a college degree is still one of the best things you can do for your future earnings potential, the rising price of tuition and historically stagnant wages mean that getting that diploma is more of a financial risk than it’s been in a long time.
With all this in mind, you need to go to college with a plan that emphasizes getting the most earnings potential for the least tuition. That starts before you even apply to schools when you choose a degree or certification to aim for. Focus on something with both good wages and a wide variety of job openings across the country.
From there, your next stop should be your local community college in order to take as many general credits as possible at lower prices. The jump from community college to a four-year institution should be one more chance to reassess your options and make sure you’re picking a school and a major that are a good fit for you. Focus on graduating quickly by taking as many credits as you can handle during regular semesters and taking advantage of summer terms where they exist.
If you prioritize the financial aspects throughout your college career, you’ll graduate with a minimum of debt and a clear job path.
Melanie Hanson is an educator, research analyst and the senior editor for EducationData.org. She is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and began teaching as a graduate assistant while she earned her master’s degree in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, she has led classrooms from the kindergarten level through senior undergraduates. In working with postsecondary students, she focuses on research and source vetting. At the primary and secondary levels, she encourages critical thinking and exploration.
Founder & Editor
Keep Track of Your Money
My number one tip is that you should always keep track of your money. The easiest way as a college student is to set up a very basic excel sheet. Nothing fancy is needed, just the numbers for how much you get in a month, what you spend on, and how much you want to save for a rainy day. When setting up your budget sheet think about what categories your expenses will fall into. Groceries, clothing, travel, bills/rent, entertainment, savings, etc.
This way you can quickly make financial decisions like which category is the most expensive, what do you want to cut back on, etc. After running this chart for a short while you will begin to see where you have to fine-tune your spending. For example, if you’re trying to save up some money but your entertainment expenses are way too high then you can think about how you want to limit yourself. A good next step is to add values to each category. For example, groceries 200 – 250 USD/month, or save 15% of your income.
I remember doing the same thing when I was in college. Keeping track of my expenses helped me become a more conscious spender. It also allowed me to save money every month so I had a little extra just in case. The most surprising part of it was that the small amount of effort made the financial part of the college experience noticeably easier.
Ferenc Elekes has been a devout Overlanding enthusiast for many years. During that time, Ferenc has explored 75 countries on six continents, with overland travel involved in 40 countries on three continents. On his website, he shares informed opinions about everything from the best overland gear to how to get a vehicle unstuck. Ferenc has also written for Ih8mud, the Expedition Portal, the Overland Journal, and he is often invited as a guest to outdoors-related podcasts.
Let’s Sum That Up
College is a time for gaining skills and knowledge that will boost our personal satisfaction and professional prospects for the rest of our lives. For many of us it’s also the first time we live alone, and a chance to develop positive financial habits that will stay with us for life.
We hope these tips will help you put your student finances in better order and build positive money habits!