College freshmen across the country are settling in at school for the first time and, with the high cost of tuition, money is in short supply. But even if they’ve gotten great deals on their textbooks and saved money on their school supplies, are they prepared to be responsible now that they’re making their own financial decisions?
According to a 2013 study sponsored by Higher One, many may not be. The study found that 20% of college students have bought things they can’t afford and 24% believe that others would be horrified by their spending habits.
In just the first few weeks and months, as college freshmen adjust to their new responsibilities, they’re at risk of making several common financial mistakes. Here are six of the biggest financial mistakes that freshmen make and how they can avoid them.
1. Not Creating a Reasonable Budget
Going away to college without creating a budget can be a recipe for disaster. Students without budgets are at risk of running out of money before the end of the year, or even before the end of the first term.
But even students who do have budgets can run into problems. Because most high school students don’t have to pay for their own expenses, they don’t truly understand how much everything is going to cost. Their first attempt at a budget might not take everything that they need into account. Even if students base their budget on the college’s estimated cost of attendance, that figure often underestimates the actual costs.
If students want a more realistic budget, they can create a budget before college starts and then revise it after looking at their expenses in their first month. If they’ve spent too much, they will either have to cut back, learn how to be more frugal or find an additional source of income. Each month, they can check back in to make sure that they’re on track.
2. Charging It Like It’s Free
Many students are already setting themselves up for years of debt by taking out student loans. But some students also add credit card debt to the mix. During orientation and in the first few months of school, there are lots of opportunities to get a credit card.
The trouble can come if students use their credit cards to make up for gaps in their budget or to splurge. Since students are new to credit, their “starter credit cards” tend to have higher interest rates than people wit better credit scores, so credit card debt can quickly spiral out of control for a cash-strapped student.
Getting a credit card can be a perfectly good idea, as long as the student doesn’t use it like it’s ‘free money.’ In fact, opening a credit card and using it responsibly can help you build credit. Responsible credit card use entails keeping your balances low relative to your credit limit (ideally 10% or lower) or paying it off in full every month, and paying your bill on time, every time. When you’re establishing and building a credit history, it can be helpful to check your credit reports and credit scores to see where you are, and to track your progress. You can get your free credit reports once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies on AnnualCreditReport.com, and there are many ways to get your credit scores for free, including through Credit.com.
3. No Longer Looking For Scholarships
Another mistake that freshmen make that can end up being extremely costly is that they stop looking and applying for scholarships. While the majority of scholarships are available to students who are seniors in high school, there are still hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of scholarships that are targeted towards students who are currently in college.
To make sure that they know about scholarships they can apply for, it’s important that freshmen get to know their financial aid officer and let them know that they’re looking to apply for scholarships. The financial aid office will let them know how to apply for the institutional scholarships that their college gives out, and might even contact them for last-minute scholarship applications.
In addition, freshmen can continue to search for scholarships online. Winning even just a few thousand dollars in scholarships each year can make a huge difference when it comes to a college student’s budget.
4. Peer Pressure
Peer pressure may be difficult in high school, but in college it can take on new dimensions. Students do not have their parents around to moderate their spending. With this newfound independence, some students get into trouble trying to keep up with their peers who either have more money or aren’t financially savvy.
Depending on who their friends are, freshmen might be pressured to eat out often with friends, buy expensive clothing, go out drinking every weekend, or go on a costly Spring Break getaway. That kind of spending quickly adds up and can lead some students into significant financial trouble.
It’s important that students and their parents talk about how the student will handle peer pressure. They could potentially decide to say no, get an extra job (there are usually plenty of on-campus options) or find lower-cost alternatives.
5. Failing Classes
For most freshmen, the social aspects of college are important. But when students spend more time hanging out with friends than studying, it could lead them to fail their courses. Failing a course isn’t just a problem from an academic perspective – it’s also a problem from a financial perspective.
Not only will the student have to spend time making the class up later on, they also may have to pay additional fees in order to retake the course. This could cost a student hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
It’s important that students remember why they’re at school and how much it’s costing them to be there. They should be sure to prioritize schoolwork and may even need to get a tutor if they’re in danger of failing.
6. Working for Minimum Wage
Many students have to work to get through school and it’s not uncommon for them to end up working in minimum wage jobs. However, there are a lot of ways that students can make more money per hour and have a flexible schedule.
For example, if a student did well in high school, they can start a tutoring service for local high school students. Many parents will pay $15-$30 per hour for tutoring. Students should also consider finding ways to use their talents. For example, if a student is good at photography or if they like music, they can do wedding photography or DJ.
Students could also leverage the skills that they’re learning in class by doing graphic design work, creating websites or doing social media marketing for small businesses. There are also a number of easy ways to make money online such as starting a blog and monetizing it, creating an Etsy store or doing remote work.
It’s important for students to find ways to leverage their time so that they can make more money for every hour that they work.
Avoiding These Mistakes
Avoiding these six mistakes isn’t easy. There are so many temptations for freshmen to overspend and many don’t yet understand the long-term consequences of their financial mistakes. It’s important that parents talk to their kids about how they’re going to handle money in their freshman year. By talking to students and ensuring that they’re aware of spending pitfalls and how to avoid them, you make sure your child is less likely to be calling you come November because they need more money.
More on Student Loans:
- How Student Loans Can Impact Your Credit
- How to Pay for College Without Building a Mountain of Debt
- Strategies for Paying Off Student Loan Debt