4 Ways I Saved (or tried) in College
When I was 17 my dad’s motto seemed to be “stop spending your money.”
But to me, spending was easy. “Saving” was hardly a word.
The first time I considered cost – another new word! – was the moment my dad said, “You know, you’ll end up with a lot more student loans if you choose one of those private schools… We can only help so much.” This language was confusing for a teen like me with limited financial literacy.
By help, he was referring to making some down payments and applying for student loans as my cosigner. The rest would be up to me – a fact that I would learn many years later.
I applied to four private universities and one state school, which I considered as a back-up plan because in my mind “private” meant “elite” and therefore “public” meant “inferior.” With my 98 GPA and solid SAT scores, I was accepted across the board and had my pick.
With a full platter of selections, I obviously had my eye on the elite! Sure, I looked at the price tag, too, but if my parents had given me their blessing to apply there, that must mean we could afford it, right?
Student loans! That’s the golden ticket to this chocolate factory.
And being a cosigner on those loans, that meant my parents had financial liability and, ultimately, I’d need to make payments based on their incomes and FICO scores.
I picked a private school anyway, and away I went. Then I watched our family funds dwindle, and as the 2008 recession took hold of our economy, I knew I needed to be frugal – another new word!
With frugality in mind...
My tough lessons in college finances:
1. Pay myself first
I had to convince myself, “If I don’t have money to save, then I don’t have money to spend.” It does not work the other way around. And once you can train yourself to do this, your lifetime of saving can begin.
2. Avoid the expense of luxury
My various living situations in college:
- Becoming a Resident Assistant so I could get a “free” dorm room.
Remember though, it’s a job and can be time-consuming…
- Working new student orientation in the summers (again, free housing and good pay), which also helped me explore my college town when it wasn’t swamped with students.
- “Couch-surfing” and living out of my car so I didn’t need to pay rent!
- Sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 5 students and a cat - my room was barely big enough for a twin bed and a small dresser, but at least it had a functioning window and the roof didn’t leak.
3. Invest my time
Instead of investing money (because I didn’t have any), I invested my time, asking, “How can my time now improve my finances tomorrow?”
- Gain practical experience, instead of simply studying the topic:
- Apply my skills in a professional setting to make myself more valuable when seeking a better-paying job
- Build a strong resume for post-grad applications and internships
- Learn from active mentors working in the field
- Network and hustle – Without your own motivation, your network is useless and stagnant:
- Share a meal with a professional to “pick their brain”
- Temp work will give you extra cash that you could start investing
- Internships might develop into bigger, paid opportunities
- Volunteering can open doors to paid gigs
4. Stretch my student loans
Many student loans come with a bit of flexibility. Meaning, they are more than you need for tuition and housing.
Seeing those excess funds in my bank account, I realized that I had to be responsible not to burn through it carelessly. Like many students, I was on my own in a new city, and yearning to break free from the pesky rules and watchful eyes of my childhood home.
I won’t debate the benefits or the consequences of behaving like John Belushi in Animal House, but I’ll tell you from experience, it’s usually a waste of time and money.
Other financial tips for college students, from personal experience:
- Budgeting means being strict when asking, “What is a necessary expense?”
- Buy used books from friends, and hunt for the bargains. Books can be pricey, particularly at the beginning of each semester. Sell the old ones, and never buy new if it can be avoided.
- Don’t buy new outfits or clothes every semester. Focus on the supplies you need.
- Learn from your previous semesters and improve your system. After couch-surfing for three months, I realized that I needed a consistent form of shelter (big surprise!), even though it seemed to be unnecessary at first.
- Take advantage of free food. Many clubs offer students free food as incentive to go to meetings. If I saw a sign posted for "Free Pizza" I was there for two reasons: to save money on the meal and to network.
- Perhaps your college offers an all-you-can-eat option at the dining hall. Mine had the “Carte Blanche Meal Plan.” I was not going to go hungry, because I could visit the dining hall as many times as I wanted weekly.
- Develop a “side hustle” that brings in some extra money. These ideas and opportunities can emerge as the result of internships, temp work, or even volunteering and building your network.
- You don't need to spend it all. If you can save part of your student loans, you can use those funds to help make your first loan payments after graduation. Similarly, you could keep loans as low as possible by paying off the interest that accrues while still in school.
Any way that you save or make the most of your college investments, you’ll thank yourself for it later.
If you’re still in high school and looking ahead, start developing these habits now by getting a job and building a budget. Seek advice from advisors, use your campus resources, because once you’ve graduated they won’t be there to hold your hand.
But if you do run into trouble with finances, hopefully you have a credit union like Visions that offers one-on-one counseling and free financial wellness resources to get you back on track! *wink*