5 Steps to Being Budget $avvy in College

By Arkansas NEXT Staff on Monday, September 19, 2011

Graduating from high school and pursuing higher education can mean leaving your parents’ safety net and starting a financial life of your own. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep things balanced, and with terms like “APR” and “FICO,” confusing, too. But by following a few simple guidelines you can begin taking the right steps to a successful financial future that goes way beyond freshman year.

1. Open a checking account if you don’t already have one and sign up for a debit card. Since these cards only draw from money you already have in your account, they offer the convenience of a credit card without the risk of racking up debt. The best checking accounts are free, are clear and up-front about possible fees and have an online banking system that posts transactions quickly. Some banks offer checking accounts for students with perks like free iTunes downloads each month, free checks, overdraft protection and sometimes even an initial gift of $10 or $20 deposited straight into your new account! Look for some of these options when comparing banks.

2. Start saving. College can be expensive, so saving money might seem like an impossibility, but you’ll be glad you set some aside when that proverbial rainy day arrives. Open a savings account and commit to adding to it on a regular basis. Depositing just $25 a month adds up to $1,200 of savings in four years. Skipping the name brands, buying clothes during sales and choosing used textbooks are easy ways to start seeing your extra cash add up.

3. Set a budget. If you don’t keep track of what money you’re receiving and what you’re spending, you have no idea how to make things better. Online banking systems that show all your purchases can make spotting harmful spending trends a piece of cake. Getting into the habit of budgeting now will make it a lot easier down the road when you take on more expenses, like a car payment or a mortgage.

4. Don’t get into debt! According to a study conducted by Sallie Mae, the average college student in 2008 had $3,173 in credit card debt. While credit cards can be helpful in establishing a good credit history or in emergency situations, students can fall prey to the idea of buying anything they want without paying for it. The long-term cost for that splurge purchase can be more than you bargained for, including high interest (money that’s charged every month you don’t pay off your debt) and lasting harm to your ability to borrow later. The bottom line: Use credit wisely and don’t buy things you don’t have the money for. Need to borrow to pay for college expenses? Think before you swipe. Look into options that will cost you less in the long run, including scholarships, grants and low-interest college loans.

5. Beware of "Free". On campus, you’ll encounter people offering “free pizza,” “free sandwiches” or major discounts on laptops or textbooks. But be careful; there’s always fine print. These freebies are usually too good to be true and have strings attached—you’ll be asked to sign up for a credit card before receiving the “gift.” So, it’s best to walk away, no matter how good that pepperoni pizza smells.

Research, ask questions and stay informed. The financial world can be complex, so make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into when buying big-ticket items such as cars, agreeing to service contracts, or renting an apartment. A shiny new smartphone might be free on a new service contract, but signing on the dotted line means you agree to cough up a hefty fine if you cancel your service before it expires. Don’t forget about associated costs either – with fuel, oil changes, insurance payments and property taxes, a car costs far more than the original sticker price. Factor in all of these expenses when making your decision.

What's a FICO?

Your SAT/ACT score isn’t the only one that you should be interested in. There’s another score in town – the FICO score, a three-digit numeric representation of your credit history. Once you’ve signed up for a credit card (which we wouldn’t recommend you do until you at least have a part-time job) and have faithfully paid it off, your score reflects that and remains high. Likewise, if you’ve missed payments on money you owe, your number goes down.

The higher your FICO score, the better off you’ll be when borrowing later in “the real world.” FICO scores influence interest rates on things like car loans and mortgages, meaning you pay less if your credit history is good, and employers can look at your credit history when considering hiring you, too.

Staying out of debt today means a better future for you tomorrow – so always use credit with caution (or not at all if you can avoid it).