Jun 23, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Many college students find themselves tackling invaluable life skills for the very first time when they head off to college. From keeping your gas tank filled to separating the whites from the brights (unless you like an all-pink wardrobe, that is), it’s a lot to take in -- particularly if you’re also managing a full college course load.                                              

While there’s is a learning curve to most of it, the reality is that how you manage your money can have a significant and far-reaching impact on your financial health. These five tips can help you get off to a smart start.

 

1. Make a budget.

College textbooks. Your daily stop at the campus coffee cart. Friday night out with friends. While these may seem like small costs on their own, they can quickly add up to a bank account-draining disaster when combined. Factor in limited student funds, and the outlook can be bleak for students who fail to keep track of their expenses. A budget offers a comprehensive picture of your finances, including what’s coming in, what’s going out, and where it’s going.

Budgeting is an essential part of adult life, and the sooner you start learning to budget, the better off you’ll be. Not to mention that college is largely about independence, which applies to much more than simply when you come home at night.

 

2. Use online apps.

Think budgeting means laboring over a spreadsheet for hours on end? Think again. Making a budget doesn’t have to be a chore thanks to a preponderance of intuitive budgeting apps, including Mint, Left to Spend, Toshl Finance, LearnVest, and PocketBudget.

Not only do today’s apps help you track your spending by automatically sorting your expenses into sensible categories, but many also link all of your accounts for the ultimate in time savings and user-friendliness.

 

3. Beware of credit cards.

Credit cards have been the financial downfall of many an unsuspecting student. As Laurie Campbell, CEO of Credit Canada Debt Solutions, told The Globe and Mail, “There are so many first times (for students) that this (a credit card) is just another piece of ammunition for them to get themselves in trouble.”

The first rule of using credit wisely? Just because you’re offered a credit card doesn’t mean you should take it. Flashy welcome offers are often disguising less-than-appeal hidden features, such as high interest rates and annual fees. Similarly, just because you have a credit card doesn’t mean you should use it.

Other tips for being a savvy credit consumer include always paying the monthly balance in full; paying on time to avoid interest and penalties (automatic payments are great); avoiding cash advances, limiting the number of credit cards you have; and always checking your monthly statement for errors.

 

4. Make saving a priority.

Many students make the mistake of thinking that they can’t possibly save on a student budget.  Many experts recommend the 50/30/20 rule, which prescribes designating 50 percent of your budget for essentials (housing, food, etc.); 30 percent for discretionary expenses; and 20 percent for savings.

If this isn’t possible, however, keep in mind that saving something beats saving nothing every time. Explains Time, “Many college students don’t save for retirement because they don’t think they have enough money to make a difference. That’s the irony: Saving early is the most important aspect of building a nest egg, not how much you’re saving.”

As your financial picture improves, you can always increase the amount you’re socking away. It’s the habit that counts -- not to mention the compound interest.

 

5. Keep student debt to a minimum.

We’ve already covered the value of living within your means and the perils of credit cards. But there are other ways to keep student debt low, as well. Choosing the right student loans with the most favorable interest rates, seeking out scholarship and grant opportunities, getting a part-time job, and throwing any extra money toward tackling your loans can all help you keep debt manageable.

Freshman year of college is one of life’s most exciting experiences. However, many students end up paying for injudicious spending during this time for years to come. The best way to avoid becoming a cautionary tale? Commit to taking control of your finances long before you even step foot on campus. We can think of no better time to start than right now.

 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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