Most people go to college in order to better their lives and earn a degree that translates into the working world. On the flipside, parents and college kids may be rightfully stressed about the financial implications of pursuing higher education at a traditional college or university — particularly if they're relying on student loans to pay for school.
With that being said, there are plenty of ways for college freshman to save money as they move into the dorms and get their first taste of adulthood. Here are some of the best tips for college freshman who are gearing up to head off to school in the next few weeks (or have just started in the last week or two).
Assess Your Monthly Spending Situation
Nationally-recognized consumer finance and budgeting expert Andrea Woroch says that all college freshman and their parents should have a general idea of monthly spending so they can look for areas to cut.
"From subscriptions to auto insurance to mobile data plans, reassess your bills to make sure you aren't paying for services you don't need or use," she says.
In terms of your phone bill, for example, she adds that a recent study found people waste money on unnecessary unlimited data plans because they actually use less data than they thought. In that case, switching to a lower tiered data plan can offer a better value.
To figure out if you really need unlimited data, Woroch says to review your data usage and see if your carrier offers a cheaper option to meet your actual usage. From there, you can look into switching to online-only wireless carriers such as Mint Mobile which sells service in bulk, offering talk, text and data for just $15 a month.
"They even provide usage breakdowns, suggesting lower cost options in the event you use less data than what you’re paying for," she says.
Woroch adds that you can look into cutting streaming subscriptions and opting to stream content for free through your library's digital platform for more savings. While you'll only save a few dollars here and there for cutting or limiting subscriptions, even small savings can add up and give you more breathing room in your budget to afford food and other daily college living costs.
Get Free Stuff When You Can
Woroch also says that, before buying anything for a dorm room brand new, college freshman should shop thrift stores, online resale sites or consider refurbished options second hand.
You can find gently used clothing at sites like Poshmark, join Buy-Nothing Groups on Facebook, look for gently used furniture via OfferUp, and score significant savings through direct-to-consumer liquidity sites like Secondipity.
Nextdoor’s For Sale & Free boards are also a good place to find used mini fridges, bed raisers, school supplies, and more. You can also get free stuff for college by simply asking around.
Don’t Automatically Buy New College Textbooks
In the meantime, you can also see about getting free or gently used textbooks , which can help you save big when compared to buying new. For example, you may be able to purchase used textbooks from last year's students, or through your school bookstore.
You can even rent textbooks via Chegg.com or Textbookrentals.com rather than buy them to save some cash, says Woroch. She adds that you can boost your savings at these textbook rental sites and others by looking for coupon codes on websites like CouponFollow.com .
Always Check For Student Discounts
Dr. Jaime E. Peters of Maryville University says that incoming freshman should get into the habit of checking for student discounts whenever they can. This makes sense considering the average student discount can be worth more than 10% off, and since the savings from student discounts can definitely add up over time.
"Your student ID can be used as a discount card in hundreds of places," she says, adding that companies from Apple AAPL to Zipcar have student discounts. Even movie theaters and Amtrak offer significant discounts for college students, but you won't be given this discount automatically. You have to ask.
Start A Monthly Budget
Financial planner Katie Kavehrad of Paradigm Wealth Partners says that college freshman can set themselves up for success by learning how to create a budget and stick to it early on.
"Make a plan for every dollar and review it regularly," she says. "This habit will serve you well in your post-college career as well."
While you can create a written monthly budget using pen and paper, Kavehrad says there are also lots of great budgeting tools out there including YNAB , Mint.com and EveryDollar . Mint in particular is totally free to use, and it helps you get an overview of where your money actually goes each month.
Kavehrad adds that parents who contribute towards their child’s college expenses should make sure that they communicate in advance and set money boundaries on what types of expenses will be paid for, and what the child will be expected to pay for. That way, money meant for food is less likely to be used toward a weekend bar tab or a shopping spree.
Automate Your Savings
Investment advisor Dan Casey of Bridgeriver Advisors says that college freshman who plan to work should strive to build up positive savings habits. This includes learning the concept of paying yourself first, or making sure you set aside a certain amount of every dollar you earn before it's spent elsewhere.
While setting aside some money in a savings account is smart, Casey adds that a Roth IRA can be a good choice for college students since this account lets them invest their savings so it can grow tax-free. Not only does money in a Roth IRA compound tax-free over time, but withdrawals are tax-free after age 59 ½. Contributions to a Roth IRA (but not earnings) can also be withdrawn at any time without a penalty, so this money can be accessed if you truly need it.
That said, it's important to note that college students need earned income to invest with a Roth IRA. There are also income limits that apply, but they typically aren't a problem for college students working part-time.
Be Wary Of Credit Card Offers
Finally financial advisor Andrew Rosen of Diversified LLC says that it's smart to be cautious when it comes to looking at the new student credit card offers that will almost certainly head your way.
If you're getting your first credit card or you want to with the goal of building credit, he says to look for a student card that doesn't have fees, and then only charge purchases you can afford to pay off right away. From there, you should pay your credit card balance in full each month to avoid the credit card interest hammer that will otherwise apply.
While carrying a balance may seem harmless, the average credit card interest rate is currently over 17%. As a result, paying interest on your balance will make everything you buy cost considerably more than it should.
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