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Help Your College Students Manage Their Budget

Chances are good you’re not living like a college student anymore. So it’s likely that your children aren’t used to living like one either. One of the roles parents take on when helping teenagers transition academically from high school to college is also helping them transition financially. It’s a time of tremendous growth for everyone, and with growth often comes growing pains. But there are ways to help kids avoid breaking their budget. Here are some helpful budgeting tips for college students.

Have a Heart to Heart, Often

Sending a child out into the world to live independently, even in a relatively sheltered environment like college, can be scary for parents. But having an honest conversation about finances could help them navigate the college years armed with a money map for success. Sure, there will be bumps in the road, and every kid makes mistakes. The key is to understand what went wrong and how to do better. So plan on having several talks about money over the years with your child. And consider being really open about your own financial successes and failures. Use those experiences as teachable moments with your child. Here are some ideas to kickstart a conversation about being financially smart while away at college.

Stretch The School Supplies Budget

The school supplies budget that everyone complained about all through elementary, middle and high school just balloons in college. College Board estimates for books and supplies in 2017-2018 were $1,250 per year. But there are ways to reduce it right away. For example, buying used textbooks or renting textbooks can be cheaper than buying new textbooks for every class. Suggest that your student put the word out about what books are needed; sometimes students buy and sell to each other, negotiating for better deals than what the campus bookstore offers.

Remind your child about using the library to find assigned reading books instead of buying them. While most libraries don’t loan textbooks, some classes require a lot of literature; items like the works of Dickens, Chaucer, etc., are often available from the public library.

Consider what school supplies might be optional. Students should think about what they will really need or use and how that relates to their personal learning style. Let’s say your student is a stellar note-taker right on the laptop because that’s what high school teachers expected. Then perhaps some notebooks can come off the school supplies list.

Advice for Day to Day Living

Now that your college student is responsible for their own daily living expenses, offer them sensible advice about how to make the most of their money. Students living on campus should sit down and decide how much they typically eat in a week and purchase an appropriate meal plan. If this is a kid who skips breakfast every day as a high school senior, they’re probably not going to start eating breakfast every day as a college freshman.

Encourage them to avoid grocery shopping on an empty stomach because that’s how impulse purchases get made. Remind them that generic brands are just as good as name brands and that using coupons can save them money. Plan out meals for the week before grocery shopping, and arrange to make dinner with friends. Sharing the shopping and cooking can save money and time. Plan to make coffee at home and carry it in a Thermos to save money. Drink more water instead of buying soda, iced tea, and juices. Limit eating out to an occasional treat instead of a weekly occurrence.

Use public transportation where possible. Walk more, and ride a bike (if the climate allows for it). Arrange for carpooling with friends when traveling home on breaks.

Eliminate the Extras

Everyone’s got things they spend money on but don’t need to. The key to healthy finances is to figure out what those things are and whether they can be cut. In addition, it’s useful to explore ways to maximize the cash they are holding onto.

Have your college student make a list of extras that could be eliminated or cut back. Examples include smoking and drinking (health concerns notwithstanding); robust cable, smartphone, and internet packages; expensive coffee shop runs; and car ownership.

Take the money that’s saved and suggest they open an interest-bearing savings account. Credit unions often have friendlier terms for consumers and usually welcome student accounts. Counsel your child to avoid borrowing money for anything except school expenses, and then talk about what school expenses are legitimate. Consider skipping the big spring break blowout and stay somewhere closer to home, or see the world through a volunteer or mission opportunity instead.

Encourage the usage of financial tools like where students can get a visual on where their money is going and whether or not they’re staying on budget. Email and text alerts can also help curb spending and motivate saving.

Have a Good Financial Head on Your Shoulders

Talk to your child about the real world risks associated with credit cards and paying bills, especially impulse purchases. Emphasize how important it is to pay bills on time, and how high late fees are. Stress how beneficial it is to pay off credit cards quickly. Yes, establishing credit is important. But it’s hard to shake a bad credit score earned by mismanaging finances.

Remind them that they can make a little extra money by selling what they don’t use or don’t need. Second-hand sales sites are very common online, like Craigslist or eBay. Another way to earn money is by becoming a resident advisor (RA). While there are often additional responsibilities that come with the role, RAs often have some (or all) room and board fees waived. Alternatively, your child can explore whether it’s possible to test out of some classes and save money on things like general education requirements.

And last but not least, stress how important it is to go to class. These are classes your student is paying for, one way or another. At least your student will have something to show for it at the end of their college experience if they attend all classes and graduate.

Make Good Lifestyle Choices

Have your child patronize area businesses that offer student discounts. Students may get discounts at local laundromats, dry cleaners, convenience stores, and more. See which services are replicated on campus. Let’s say there’s a gym nearby; why sign up for a gym membership if students are allowed to use the campus athletic center? See movies on-campus instead of the movie theater. Check out on-campus museums, art galleries, sports events, and cultural events, like festivals and guest speakers. These are often free or low-cost entertainment options.

Hit Pause on the Pet

And finally, if your college student is like many, they’re eager to get out of the house so that they can get their own pet. Help them to understand the advantages of waiting until after they’re done with school. For example, a pet’s ER visit can cost nearly $1,000! If you already have a family pet, pull out vet bills and ask them how they’d propose to pay for their own animal’s care. Instead, suggest volunteering at an animal shelter or rescue organization.

It’s not easy shepherding teens through these last milestones to adulthood. However, learning to be financially responsible is a lesson that will benefit them for life. By having a series of on-going conversations about spending and saving wisely, parents can help their college students avoid busting their budget before their degree is in hand.

Take these budgeting tips for college students and talk them over with your teens. Get them acquainted with these ideas and prepare them to follow through.

Lindsay Muzzy has over 12 years of experience working with families from diverse economic backgrounds to navigate the complex financial aid process.

As one of the leading school counselors in the Chicago Public School system, she has also worked with colleges across the country and has developed unique insights on how to help families optimize their financial aid and boost their scholarships and grants.

Lindsay is also an expert in helping families navigate the FAFSA and CSS Profile, review their award letters, and provide assistance with the verification and appeals process. 

Under her leadership at Lindblom Math & Science Academy, Lindsay has assisted thousands of families to plan for college, earning her school #1 ranking in scholarship dollars awarded and for college persistence.  She has had major articles published in Professional School Counselor, the flagship journal of the American Student Counselor Association, LINK for Counselors, Smart Social, Accredited Online Colleges, U.S. News, and other publications.

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