Money management may not be at the top of the list of students’ concerns when they think about transitioning to life at college, but it’s a crucial part of the newfound independence that comes with moving out and living on one’s own.
And it’s likely to be a challenge for some college freshmen, at least according to their parents, a recent Mastercard survey has found. Of the 310 respondents with students in high school or college, about 64 percent report being worried about their children’s spending and money management abilities. Two in five don’t even expect their students to have funds left over after the first month of college, according to the MasterCard Student Transitions Survey.
“The survey came about because we knew that parents, as they neared that period that they want to send their kids off to school, [have] many concerns about their financial preparation to be on their own and to start managing money and to not get into debt,” says Flor Estevez of MasterCard. “What we found was, correctly, many of the parents who had college-aged students ... were deeply concerned about their financial literacy.”
Ideally, your parents would have started to talk to you about money management years ago, but if you’re beginning college without a financial plan in place, it’s not too late to get started. Take these steps so you’re not scrounging for change in the dormitory lounge by finals week—or earlier:
1. Be careful with your cards: Opening a bank account at school and applying for new debit or credit cards are steps many students take when they get to college. Doing so is a mark of adulthood, but it can also be a quick gateway to overspending.
[Read about the hidden fees some campus debit cards carry.]
"It's that sort of independence moment," notes Patrick Kandianis, cofounder of financial literacy website SimpleTuition.com. "The student now is all of a sudden like, 'Wow, I have a card in my hand, ... I have cash, my parents aren't around, and I have all these opportunities to buy stuff.'"
If you're signing up for your first debit or credit card, make sure you know the basics, including the differences between card types and the risks associated with credit, recommends Manhattanville College economics professor Robert Derrell.
2. Keep track of the little things: Grabbing a coffee before class and picking up a new top for a Friday night out may seem like small purchases—but they can really add up.
Make a weekly budget, Kandianis recommends, mapping out the lifestyle you were accustomed to before college and considering whether that's feasible to keep up while in school. If money is tight, don't forget to scout out local deals, Kandianis notes, and make a commitment to using your meal points in the dining hall most days rather than splurging on an off-campus meal.
"Last-minute or quick decisions to eat out—those are the things that add up quite a bit," he says.
[Read more about how students can budget and track their spending.]
3. Embrace independence limbo: Moving out of your parents' house may feel exhilarating, but don't be quick to sever the ties of childhood completely.
"Students want to be independent ... but they're not completely ready," Derrell says. "Sometimes, students want to do it all by themselves, and that's when things can catch up to them."
Even though you're out on your own, it's OK to still need your parents for some things—including financial guidance from time to time.
4. Communicate: Once you're comfortable with growing while still partially relying on your parents, make sure to keep the lines of communication open, Derrell recommends.
"Ultimately, in most cases, the parents are funding a good deal of the education for the student, and the parents sometimes don't know everything that's going on with the student at school and may not realize that there may be some very legitimate expenses the student has to pay," he says.
If you're struggling to pay for books and meals, or even if you've slipped up on other expenses, have an honest conversation with your parents. Chances are, they'll be open to discussion and helping you to avoid a similar situation in the future.
[Read more about staying in touch with parents during college.]
5: Re-evaluate: To save yourself some funds in the long run, keep tabs on your spending through the semester. Whether you're using funds from Mom and Dad or borrowing to pay for college expenses, see if you have some slack in your budget that you can cut out. Doing so might save you money in subsequent semesters and, for borrowers, could add up to even more in avoided interest payments if you lower your loan amounts or take out less in the future.
"Only borrow the bare minimum to cover those essential expenses," Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial, has recommended. "Students should be very careful about adding excessive amounts of wiggle room—you're paying interest on that wiggle room."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.