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Another new year brings another set of resolutions — many of which involve making new financial goals. Whether you’re currently in school or have been in the workforce for a few years, it’s smart to make these changes now in order to set yourself up for future financial success.

But it’s one thing to make financial goals, and another thing to stick with them. Here’s a few tips to save more money and budget effectively to keep yourself on track throughout the year.

Create A Budget. Then Write It Down.

This is important. Many of us budget in our heads, but don’t take the time to write it down. Dig out your notebook. Then, follow these steps to set up an effective budget that helps you make responsible decisions with your funds.

  • Determine a timeline for your budget — will you track it by week, month, semester, or year?
  • Separate your expenses into categories like housing, transportation, and entertainment
  • Revisit the document on a regular basis to update and track payments

The way you set up your budget is up to you. The important thing is to get it written down.

Wants Versus Needs

Obviously, there are things you need to pay for. Tuition, fees, housing, and food can all add up. The line between “needs” and “wants” can be blurry, so it’s important to clearly define them in your budget.

For example, if you’re paying for a school meal plan, going out with friends is a “want,” even though you need to eat. That doesn’t mean you have to give up eating out or spending money on things you want — in fact, it’s often important to do so!

By determining which expenses are “wants” and which are “needs,” you’ll be able to spend your money responsibly without going overboard.

Financial Goals Quick Tip: Consider giving yourself a set allowance to spend on your “wants.” If you’re saving up for something big, determine which “wants” you’re willing to spend less on each week.

Credit or Debit?

When it comes to the debate between credit cards and debit cards, there’s really no right or wrong answer. In many cases, it’s smart to use both. However, it’s especially important to use your credit card responsibly.

  • Use your credit card for one small charge each month — otherwise, keep it for emergencies only
  • If an emergency does happen, stop your monthly charges and instead use that money to pay off your credit card
  • When using your debit card, keep an eye on your checking account to make sure you aren’t spending more than you have

By handling your spending this way, you can build your credit score without relying on credit card debt to fund all of your wants. Your debit card gives you the convenience and security of not having to carry cash everywhere.

Loans and Financial Aid

Chances are you’ve had to borrow some money to pay for at least a portion of your education. If you’ve taken out a variety of different loans, it can be difficult to keep track of what you really owe.

When you’re considering taking out a loan, it’s helpful to research repayment options to find the loan that is right for you. If you find your payments are too high, you may consider refinancing all your loans into one loan with a potentially lower interest rate.

Setting up your financial goals doesn’t mean sacrificing experiences like going to the movies or eating out with friends. By budgeting and defining your wants and needs, you make smart choices that count.

Want to make another smart financial decision? See how U-fi From Nelnet can help with smart choices about student loans.

You’ve finished off the leftover turkey and dressing and have shifted gears into holiday shopping mode. As another year comes to a close, it’s a good time to look back on how your budget planning went this past year.

After an assessment, you can begin to find ways to improve your financial well-being in the upcoming year. In order to be prepared for a bright financial future in the New Year, it’s important to set your budget, contribute to your savings, and pay down any high interest debt.

Now is the Time for Budget Planning

Do you know how much you spent this year on utilities, groceries, housing, or entertainment? Once you have an idea of how much you’re spending on certain categories, you can estimate your projected expenses each month and use budget planning to find places to cut expenses.

There are a number of apps that can assist you with tracking and categorizing your spending, but you can also do it on your own by entering your expenses into a spreadsheet. If you use your debit card for most purchases, you can use your online bank statement to help you identify your expenses. Don’t forget to account for the cash you spend if you want a true picture of all your expenses.

When setting your budget, you’ll likely have fixed and recurring expenses for housing, transportation, student loans, utilities, and other similar areas. Then, you’ll need to set an amount for variable expenses like groceries, clothing, and entertainment.

Knowing your income each month will help you set goals. If you have a steady job, you probably have a consistent weekly or monthly income and can use that to start your budget. Your monthly expenses should be less than your available income each month.

If this is not the case, you can review your expenses to identify areas to trim back and reduce your spending each month. Once you’ve created a budget, try to stick to it as best you can each month. That way, you’ll stay on track and not get into a position of having to use credit cards or possibly getting behind on some of your bills.

Save, Save, Save—The Sooner You Start the Better

Even if you’re in your 20’s, it’s never too early to include retirement in your budget planning. If you start with small contributions, you can make it a habit and priority. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan and matches your contributions, take full advantage of the opportunity for free money.

It’s also important to set aside funds for unexpected expenses or emergencies. A good rule of thumb is to have three to six months of income in a savings account that you can access for those unplanned events. Not only will this give you peace of mind knowing that you have your own safety net, but it will help you avoid putting large charges on a credit card that will likely incur high interest fees.

Pay Down High Interest Rate Debt

Whether you’re paying off a student loan, a car, or a credit card balance, it’s always an accomplishment to know you have extra income to go toward something else (like saving).

If you can allocate some extra resources to pay down your debt, it’s generally best to start by tackling the account with the highest interest rate. That might be a credit card balance that seems like it never gets smaller because of the interest that keeps adding up each month.

Another goal you might have is to simply pay something off with a smaller balance just to get that sense of accomplishment and then move that money toward paying down other debt. It might make sense to look at debt consolidation or refinancing where you may benefit from paying off higher rate loans or debt with a lower interest rate personal loan. This is especially helpful with high rate credit cards. See our article on using personal loans to cure those post-holiday credit card blues. All of us at U-fi From Nelnet wish you a successful and prosperous new year!

It may seem as though summer break just started, but with August comes the start of another school year is just around the corner. You’ve probably received your college bill and are starting to make plans to transition back into school. We’ve developed a financial checklist to help you get ready.

1. Save summer earnings for college expenses

Although it’s tempting to spend what you earn, save as much of your summer paycheck as possible for college expenses. If your college bill is covered, you can use your summer earning for books, supplies, and personal expenses while in school.

2. Be sure you have taken all required steps to secure your financial aid

Have you returned your award acceptance and responded to any information requests from your financial aid office? If you are a new federal borrower, you will need to complete federal entrance counseling and sign your loan promissory note. Your financial aid office would have reached out to you with directions and steps you need to take along with completion dates. If you haven’t already, locate that information now and make sure you have completed all the steps.

3. Pay your college bill in full and on time

Most colleges require students to pay bills for the semester in full before they arrive. If you are unable to cover the bill after financial aid is applied, you may still be able to obtain additional student loan funds. Check with your financial aid office for guidance on any additional federal loans you or your parents may be eligible to borrow. If needed, private student loans may also be available to bridge the gap. Just be sure to pay whatever you can before borrowing funds that you will need to pay back later, with interest. Information on private student loan programs can be located on your school website.

4. Look for discounts on books and supplies

Many instructors will provide a list of books and supplies online before school begins. Some schools will also provide links and resources for purchasing used books. You can save money by looking to those resources first before buying your books new. You can generally pick up general supplies like paper, notebooks, pens, etc. more reasonably at home than at school. Check your school’s website to see if discounts are available on equipment like computers and printers.

5. Set up an in-school budget

Whether you’re going to school with money you’ve saved for personal expenses, a family-provided bank account, or with financial aid designated for living costs, you probably have a lump sum which will need to last throughout the semester or even the entire year. Establishing a budget that considers your available funds and your expenses will help you stretch that money over an extended period instead of spending it all upfront. Budgets take self-discipline and planning but they are well worth the effort.

6. Try to arrange for a part-time job now

There are two different types of jobs during college. One is Federal Work-Study, which is included on your financial aid award letter. The other is a part-time job that you obtain on your own. Colleges often help students by posting opportunities on job boards which identify positions as one or the other. You can also look on local jobs websites for part-time jobs. If you apply for jobs now, you’ll be ahead of the rush. You’ll also demonstrate your initiative to prospective employers. When students return to campus, it will be more competitive as many students search for jobs at the same time.

Taking the time to prepare now will pay great dividends later. By taking care of financial matters in advance, you can focus more on your studies and enjoy your time in college.

Special Note: If you have not yet applied for financial aid, you can still complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Don’t assume you won’t be eligible. If you need help for college, apply! Your time is getting short though, so file the FAFSA as soon as possible to be sure your financial aid eligibility has been assessed before school starts.

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.

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.

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.

Congratulations, you’ve graduated college! You’re ready to begin your new life in the real world with a real job! This step into adulthood is very exciting, but it can also be a time of confusion with new responsibilities. Set yourself up for financial success early by following these financial tips, including planning emergency savings.

Salary Expectations

Many college students graduate with an unrealistic expectation their salary earnings for the first years after college. Accenture conducted an online U.S. survey in March of 2015 consisting of 1,001 students graduating from college in 2015 and 1,002 participants who graduated college in 2013 or 2014. The survey found that 85 percent of 2015 graduates expected to earn more than $25,000 a year after graduation. While the reality is, 41 percent of working 2013 and 2014 graduates actually earn $25,000 or less a year. Even though you have a college degree, you will likely start your career at an entry level position. It will be important for you to make a budget aligned with your salary.

Budgeting

Once you land a job and start earning a steady income, it can be tempting to carelessly spend money. It’s time to make a budget. Make sure that your monthly income minus your monthly expenses is a positive number. If not, you will need to cut back in areas or get a part time job in order to live within your means.

Now is a good time to start planning for the future. What are your short and long term goals? Are you currently living at home, but want to get your own place? Do you have an emergency savings account set up in case you lose your job? These are all things that you should budget for. Also keep in mind future expenses, like student loan repayment, that will be coming your way. Typically six months after graduation, your loans will exit their grace period and you will need to begin making payments. Make sure you’re prepared for repayment by following these four steps.

Savings

Ever heard of the term, “pay yourself first?” This is a phrase typically used for any type of savings or retirement plans. Pay yourself first means putting a specified portion of your paycheck to savings or retirement before spending anywhere else. The best way to do this is to set up a direct withdrawal from your account whenever you get paid. That way, the money is already in your savings or retirement account before you even see it. If you have money for savings, there are two areas you should focus on to set yourself up for financial success: retirement and emergency funds.

Saving for retirement as early as possible gives your money more time to grow before you retire. According to Bankrate.com, if you save $2,000 a year starting at age 25, you would have approximately $560,000 in retirement savings by age 65, assuming 8 percent annual growth. If you save that same $2,000 a year and have the same 8 percent growth rate, but don’t start until age 35, you will only have $245,000 by age 65. That is a loss of $315,000 just because you started 10 years later.

Emergency Savings

An emergency savings fund money you save for emergencies only, like a loss of a job. It is typically suggested that you have enough emergency funds to cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses. For example, if you have $2,000 in monthly living expenses, you should have anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000 saved in your emergency savings account. People that don’t have emergency funds and lose their job can often end up living off of credit cards with high interest rates. This can not only put you in debt that you may have a hard time getting out of, but it will also hurt your credit history, which can take a long time to rebuild.

It may be difficult at first, but saving early in life will benefit you in the long run. Accounting for a realistic salary and sticking to a budget that allows you to put a little money away lays the foundation for a fiscally responsible future. Be smart with your money and you’ll be on your way to a financially successful life.

Spring break is a time that college students look forward to all winter. It’s your chance to escape the rigors of the classroom and relax on a warm beach or other exciting destination. Although spring break can be fun, the costs associated can add up quickly. With a little planning and preparation, you can enjoy a week away from studying without emptying your bank account. Use these five planning tips for a successful spring break.

1. Set Your Budget

The best thing you can do is plan your spring break trip a few months in advance. This will not only give you ample time to get everything organized, but you’ll have more time to save and plan for your trip. Determine what your budget is and let that guide you’re planning. Then, take the time to research destinations and estimate the costs for each option. Transportation and lodging will likely make up the bulk of your cost, but don’t underestimate your other expenses during your trip. You may find that some trips are just too expensive based on your resources and budget.

2. Split the Bill

If you’re driving to your destination, ride with friends and split the cost of fuel. Additionally, you may be able to save on hotel costs by sharing a room with friends. Those extra savings can go a long way and will give you more funds for other activities during your trip.

3. Borrow – Don’t Buy

Create a packing list and figure out if there are items you don’t have but know you will need. It’s a pretty safe bet that buying something will be more expensive at your destination. Try to borrow anything you might need from friends or family, especially if it’s an item you’re unlikely to use after the trip. Try your best to anticipate everything you’ll need during your trip and pack accordingly.

4. Find Fun Closer to Home

Although it sounds great to take a big trip somewhere far away, you can have just as much fun trying new things closer to home. Remember, the entire purpose of spring break is to take a break from studying, relax, and enjoy yourself. Sometimes, that might simply be going home to see family and friends. And the best part of that kind of spring break is you won’t have to spend much money at all! Check out tourist destinations in your current city to explore new activities. You’d be surprised at how many things are nearby that you may have overlooked previously. Get creative and enjoy yourself.

5. Pay as You Go

Ideally, you want to be able to pay for your spring break trip with savings and not use high interest rate credit cards or even student loans to fund your adventure. Again, try to set a budget for your trip and then keep your spending within your budget. Don’t be tempted into spending more than you have or feel pressured into trying to keep up with someone else’s crazy spending sprees. Spring break can create memories that last a lifetime, but you don’t want create a financial burden that lasts a lifetime either!

Enjoy your spring break and the time away from your classes. Remember to be safe and protect yourself and your belongings while traveling. A little planning and budgeting will help you have a great time and feel good about your finances when you return.