Whether entering college after high school or transitioning from full-time employment, your financial picture will change as a student. The summer is a good time to prepare for that change. College may be the first time you manage finances on your own. Or, you may be cutting back on your work hours and living on a lower income while attending school. Either way, these six tips for understanding education costs can help you develop a financial plan for the months ahead.
Create a Budget
Maybe you’re coming to school with money you’ve saved for personal expenses. Perhaps you have a family-provided bank account. Maybe you have financial aid designated for living costs. Either way, you probably have a lump sum which needs to last throughout the term. Establishing a budget that considers your available funds and expenses helps stretch that money instead of spending it upfront. Budgets take self-discipline and planning, but they are well worth the effort. They can play a big part in understanding education costs. Use this helpful budget worksheet to get started.
Don’t Borrow More Than You Need
Student loans come primarily from federal or private sources. After federal loan funds are exhausted, some students turn to private student loans to help cover expenses. Student loans provide money to help with college costs. But, you need to repay those funds with interest after you leave school. It’s sometimes easy for students to develop an, “I’ll worry about that tomorrow” attitude about borrowing. They often take out more than they need. While they are a good investment in your education, loans can add up. They can become a large financial commitment for years after you leave school. This is especially true if you start using student loans for living expenses. Our advice: only borrow what you need for college bills.
Work Part-Time While You’re in School
A big part of understanding education costs is realizing what you need. Getting a part-time job can bring money in on a regular basis while you’re in school. It can also keep you from using student loans or credit cards to cover personal expenses. There are two different types of jobs: Federal Work-Study, which would have been included on your financial aid award letter, or a part-time job that you obtain on your own. Colleges often have job boards that identify positions as one or the other. You can also look on local job websites for part-time employment. Businesses in college towns often rely on students as a part-time workforce. Concerned about work conflicting with your coursework? Studies show students who work less than 20 hours a week actually do better academically. They are also more likely to graduate.
Be Careful with Credit Cards
College students often receive credit card offers in the mail, online, and at concerts and events. Those free t-shirts and travel mile offers entice new banking customers, but they may not be worth it. While wise use of credit is a move toward financial independence, overuse of credit can cause financial pressure. It can compete with your academic and financial goals. Read the small print, take out the best rate with the lowest fees, and use credit sparingly, if at all. If you do decide to take out a credit card, the best way to use credit is to pay it off completely every month. That way, you can develop a positive credit history, but not accrue interest and fees that can take years to repay.
Understand Your Financial Aid
Students who go directly to college from high school often rely on parents to complete financial aid forms, review financial aid, and pay college bills. However, understanding education costs is an important part of knowing you are responsible for keeping that financial aid. You must make Satisfactory Academic Progress, get a job, if eligible, for Federal Work-Study, and repay the loan you have taken out. When you are in school, the financial aid office will reach out to you to take action or answer questions about your financial aid. It’s important for you to understand your financial aid and the corresponding responsibilities.
Protect Your Personal Information
As a student, you may be a primary target of identity theft. Students tend to be more trusting, have new and unblemished credit, and are unfamiliar with the ways their information can be compromised. Be sure to protect personal information like your Social Security number, date of birth, driver’s license number, bank account numbers, PIN numbers, and other related information. Avoid shopping online on public computers and keep personal documents and information in highly secure places. More helpful tips are located in this How to Avoid Identity Theft fact sheet.
Although your income will be lower when you are a college student, you’re certainly not alone. Your classmates are in the same situation, struggling with understanding education costs. As a general rule, think of the long run instead of just current wants or needs when making financial decisions. If you make smart financial decisions while attending school, you can use your college years to form a strong foundation for the future, both academically and financially.