Personal Finance 101: More Tips from a Financial Advisor for College Students
The importance of college students learning and applying personal financial planning skills cannot be overstated. Today’s college students are attending school in turbulent financial times: we are just coming off the heels of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, and the cost of attending college is soaring while well-paying jobs for recent college graduates are scarce and extremely competitive to obtain. As any prudent financial advisor will tell you, college students need to develop their financial education and capabilities now and cannot just put it off for when they are released into the “real world.” A college student’s personal financial education should focus on improving their financial knowledge, developing money management skills, and increasing confidence about financial decision-making and fiscal responsibilities. Ideally, by developing and honing these skills in college, the student will develop invaluable personal financial training that will enable them to make good financial decisions and avoid costly mistakes during both college and beyond. In the first Summit blog on the topic of college students and financial planning, three tips including budget planning, responsible credit card use, and graduating early to save money were discussed. In this second blog on this vitally important topic, we will set forth three additional tips that should prove helpful for college students and their personal financial planning needs.
- (Don’t) Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Some colleges require students to pay for a meal plan, especially if they live on campus. This can be a huge expense, for example at the University of Rochester, freshman are required to buy one of two plans, each of which costs $2904 for the semester (an a whopping $5808 total for the school year). If you purchase food or visit restaurants not included on the meal plan, you can just tack those expenses onto this already exorbitant expense. If your college requires you to buy their meal plan, start off with the most minimal plan offered (i.e., 12 meals a week rather than 21 meals a week). Most students with the biggest meal plan packages rarely use all their “meals.” If you live in the dorms, try to keep your own simple, quick, and healthy breakfasts and lunches in your room and take advantage of any communal kitchen areas to cook more involved meals. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also be less likely to put on the notorious Freshman 15, which in addition to often drinking too much beer is often attributed to the all-you-can-eat buffet style of many college student meal plans. Oh, and here’s a bonus tip: don’t put restaurant or take-out food on your credit card. If you don’t currently have the money in your account to pay for it, you shouldn’t be eating out but rather you should be buying groceries and cooking for yourself where you will get exponentially more fiscal (and typically healthy-eating) bang for your buck.
- College Dorms: Rip-off or Good Value? Some colleges require all freshmen or even all enrolled students regardless of class year to live in on-campus or school-provided housing. Other schools give you the option to live off-campus and find your own housing, if you prefer. Determining which is a better deal often comes down to where your college is located. For example, if you attend NYU in New York City, college-provided housing is usually significantly cheaper then renting an off-campus apartment and students typically have to enter a housing lottery to win a spot for the limited student dorms. On the other hand, if you attend the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL, where the rental housing market is inexpensive and there is a surplus of off-campus rental housing options for students, (the number of unoccupied apartments and houses exceeds the number of students looking for off-campus housing), which often makes living in an apartment or house off-campus cheaper than living in a college dorm.
- If your college lets you choose whether to live on campus or not, you must consider any funding you have from scholarships and student loans. Most student loans and scholarships can be used for on-campus housing since the money is directed straight toward the school; however, in many cases, students may not be able to use this money to pay off-campus rent. Also, if you have a 529 plan or some other specific types of college saving plans, you may find that the plan’s rules restrict you to living on campus. In addition, there may be a maximum amount of money you can use from your 529 plan to pay for off-campus rent. If you exceed that maximum expenditure ceiling, that money then becomes subject to taxes. If your family utilizes a financial advisor to set up and maintain such college savings plans, you definitely want to discuss these issues with him or her.
- Be Book Smart! How to Find the Cheapest College Textbooks: The cost of college textbooks is staggering. A brand new, hardcover college biology book can cost around $300. If your part-time college job in a phone bank “dialing for dollars” and soliciting donations from university alumni pays you $10 an hour after taxes, that means you will have to put in 30 hours of making fundraising phone calls just to pay for your biology textbook. And oh yeah, you may also have a companion textbook and lab supply fees for your biology lab and several textbooks for the four other classes you are taking that semester.
- As a starting point, use an online textbook price comparison search engine (i.e., bookfinder.com) to get a rough idea of the price spectrum for the book you need. By using this site, you can compare new, used, and rental offers and save up to 90 percent by comparing 100,000 sellers. Whenever possible, always buy used and remember to check sites like eBay, Craigslist, and any Facebook groups your college may have for buying and selling textbooks. If you can find out ahead of time whether the course you want to take requires a brand new edition of the textbook, if possible try to take that course with a different professor who isn’t requiring a new edition of the textbook. Did you know that many times the authors of these new textbook editions (where the differences between recent editions is at the very least minimal, if not barely perceptible to student readers) are you very own professors who are teaching from their self-authored textbooks? No wonder professors frequently publish so many new editions to their textbooks—it’s often just extra money in their pockets (and an extra publication credit on their CVs).
- You can also look into renting your textbooks. There’s a plethora of textbook rental sites out there and even Amazon.com and Barnes & Nobles have textbook renting programs. Just make sure to crunch the numbers and carefully read the terms and conditions of your rental agreement before renting any textbooks.
- See if there is a digital/electronic version of your textbook as they are often cheaper than a physical copy of the book. For example, I found on Amazon.com that the same financial engineering textbook can be rented as a digital eBook for the semester for $19.55 whereas the paper copy of the same textbook is $69.95. Digital eBooks also save space, are environmentally-friendly, and keep your backpack from weighing more than you do.
- Don’t be fooled by college bookstore textbook “end of semester buyback” programs. Sure, they’ll give you money at the end of the semester for your used textbooks that you purchased from them, but don’t expect more than 15 to 20 percent of your book’s original purchase price. You’ll likely make more money selling your used books on eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, or directly selling your book to a fellow student at your school.
- Check to see if your university library has a copy of the textbook you need. They may not let you check the textbook out of the library, but if you will only need to consult the textbook a few times and don’t mind having to do it at the library, this could be a free option.
- If you have a trusted friend in the same class as you, you can also share the cost of the textbook. Just keep in mind the potential inconvenience factor and issues like “Who gets to use the textbook the night before the final exam?” It’s all about the cost/benefit analysis here; and sharing textbooks works better for certain types of classes than others.
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