Ah, now we’re getting to the meat of things: money. All
college students need it, and there’s never really enough. Fortunately,
you don’t really need a ton of extra cash while you’re in school.
As long as you’ve figured out a way to cover the basic college costs—tuition,
fees, housing (which often comes with a meal plan), books, equipment,
and transportation home—you really only need some pocket cash.
The key is figuring out how much extra cash will get you through
the school year. You’ll want some cash for movies, pizza, dates,
music, clothes, and dorm room decorations. Depending on where you
live (and how you live), your personal out-of-pocket expenses can
range from $2,000 to $4,000 a year.
Where, exactly, is that money going to come from? Many students
rely on their folks to pay their student loans while in college,
but there are also scholarships, grants, internships, and work-study
opportunities that you can get for yourself to help with expenses.
No matter how good you are about making or saving money, you’ll
find yourself short on funds at some point. That’s OK, because college
is the one time in your life where you can be really poor and still
revel in it. Enjoy this time in your life, because after college
it’s not as cool to have holes in your socks.
Budgeting for what you want versus what you need is tricky. The
only things you really need are food, clothing, and shelter. If
you’ve brought enough weather-appropriate clothing with you and
if your dorm and meal plan are paid for in advance, then you shouldn’t
need a dime, right?
Oh, if only that were true! For starters, you’ll have
to stock up on essentials, like school supplies. And you’ll need
a budget for personal expenses as well.
It’s important to distinguish between needs and wants. When
you’re contemplating buying something, ask yourself if you really
need it. Then ask yourself if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,
like online. When using the phone, ask yourself if you need to call
someone at peak hours, or if the call can wait till later.
Below, we’ll summarize some of the expenses you’re likely
to incur during your first year. There are two types of expenses you’ll
need to budget for: educational and personal. While our lists aren’t
exhaustive, they’ll definitely get you thinking about what you’ll
need to survive college.
Educational expenses include school supplies, computer accessories,
and books, which will be your biggest expense in this category.
Top Student Expenses
- Computer. Most students bring a computer
with them from home. Don’t sweat it if you can’t: the computer labs on
campus should be open 24/7 (or at least late into the night). If
you’re buying a new computer, consider getting a laptop, which will
run you anywhere from $600 to $3,000. Some computer companies give
educational discounts to students.
- Printer. This purchase falls somewhere in
between the want and need categories, because you can burn your
files onto a CD or e-mail them to yourself and then print them in
the computer lab. But should you want to buy a printer, add $70
to $300 to your budget. Add another $70 to $150 for extra ink cartridges.
- Books. You’ll end up spending $500 to $750
a year on books, depending on how many used books you can acquire.
- Writing supplies. You’ll need about $50 for
pens, highlighters, pencils, and so on.
- Paper. Add $75 for paper, notebooks, etc.
- Backpack. Depending on how fancy you want
to get, add $30 to $150 for a backpack or messenger bag.
- Calculator. Add $5 to $50, depending on what
kind of calculator you need.
- PDA. You don’t need one, but they’re great
to have and make life a lot easier. Add $99 to $600 to your budget.
If you don’t get a PDA, a cheap pocket calendar will do.
- Miscellaneous supplies. This category includes portfolios,
files, folders, binders, computer software, and just about anything
else you can think of. Add about $250 to $400.
- mp3 player. OK, you don’t need one for college,
but you can buy a handy recorder attachment that makes taking notes
and recording ideas very convenient. You can also download books
and listen to them on the fly. How’s that for making the most of
your time? Add $200 to $400.
You can’t get out of many of these expenses, but you can shop
wisely by waiting for sales, looking for bargains, and buying used
items. Online auction sites are great for finding stuff on the cheap.
Personal expenses vary depending on the type of person
you are. The neat-freak is going to spend more on doing laundry than
the average student. Do you sneeze your way through the spring and
fall? You might have to pay for allergy meds.
Top Personal Expenses
- Laundry. You need to do your laundry. You
might be tempted to send out your laundry, but doing your own laundry
saves a lot of money. Even so, factor in about $25 a month.
- Medical. You’ll be assessed a fee every time
you visit the doctor or health clinic. If you take medication, prescriptions
will also cost you a fair sum. Medical expenses are difficult to
calculate—some students never get sick, while others are in and
out of the doctor’s office all winter long—so expect to spend anywhere
from $50 to $500 a year.
- Clubs and organizations. Plan on joining
a fraternity/sorority or a campus club? Every group on campus will have
dues and fees, ranging from $25 to $400.
- Food. This is the one area where students
often go over budget, so you might as well account for extra costs
in your official budget. Even with a meal plan, if you buy one additional
beverage a day, along with a bag of chips, a candy, or a protein
bar, and split a pizza once a week, you’ve easily hit $50. There
are also birthday dinner parties, roommate dinners, and food expenditures
at movies, concerts, and sporting events. A conservative amount
to budget would be $1,000.
- Travel. Want to go camping for the weekend?
You’ll need some extra cash for that, and other, trips. Traveling
home generally isn’t an option—you’ll need to do that. Fortunately,
most students can get their folks to pay, or at least pitch in.
Depending on where you live, budget $250 to $1,000.
- Music. You’ll discover new music while at
college, and you’ll definitely want to buy CDs and go to concerts.
Add another $300 to your budget. Borrow music from your friends
whenever possible, and you’ll easily knock this figure down.
- Duds. At some point your hole-riddled wool
sweater will become unwearable. You’ll need new clothes now and again,
so budget a modest $250.
- Hygiene: Personal hygiene products can be
pricey, especially if you’re a fan of expensive shampoos and lotions.
You need deodorant; you want $50 hair conditioner. You’ll spend
no less than $500 on these types of products.
- Transportation. If you bring a car to campus,
consider fuel, repairs, and insurance, which will run you as much
as $2,000. If you don’t have wheels, factor in public transportation
costs. In a big city like New York, that can add up to $600 a year.
- Entertainment. You’ll want to keep an entertainment fund
for movies, movie rentals, concerts, bowling, etc. There are many
free events on campus; go to these as often as possible, and you’ll
hopefully keep your costs down to $500.
About a week to ten days after your college receives your
loan funds (called disbursement) and subtracts what they need for
tuition and fees, you should get a refund check—but not in your
first semester. First-time loan borrowers of federal funds have
to wait thirty days for the loan to be disbursed. So, it’s a good
idea to come to college with at least $400 in the bank (or more,
if possible) while you’re waiting for your loan to be processed.
Students usually spend more money at the beginning of the semester,
so you’ll want a cushion to make it through September.
Managing Your Loan
You should be able to check the status of your loan online, through
the school’s or lender’s website. There, you will find when the
money is going to be sent to the bursar’s office, which collects
charges and coordinates billing for all student expenses. At that
point, your school should know how long it will take for you to
get the difference. Mark the day on your calendar. Loans are given
in two disbursements, at the beginning of each semester. So, just
after you’ve gone broke over the holidays, you’ll refill your account
for the New Year.
If your college has a direct deposit option, sign up as
soon as possible. Your money will arrive in your account much faster than
if you sit around waiting for a check. Even so, make sure that the
school always has your correct address. Some colleges allow students
to pick up their loan checks from the bursar’s office.
Scholarships and Grants
If you’ve earned a scholarship, the money is generally
paid directly to the college, just like your loan money. The school deducts
what it needs, then gives you the rest. If your scholarship requires
you to meet certain requirements, such as keeping your grades up,
then you’d better work hard. If your GPA slips because of difficulties
at home, personal issues, or because you’ve gotten in over your
head with difficult courses, see your advisor. There may be a way
to hang on to that free money.
Grants, unlike scholarships, don’t require that you maintain a
certain GPA, or other requirements, after you’ve received the cash.
They are often need-based, or go to members of minority groups or
alumni networks. Again, these funds will be given to the college,
and then will be disbursed to you once your school has taken its
share. Keep an eye on your student financial account to make sure
that all grants coming to you have arrived and are being properly
Your Bank Account
Start doing some research on the banks in the town. You’ll find
all the details you need on opening a new account on their websites.
Some larger colleges offer their students accounts in their own
credit union, generally where most of the school employees belong.
In college towns, banks will offer special deals to students.
Here are a few things to remember when looking for the
- Low costs. Get the account
with the lowest transaction fees. Banks charge for everything from
cashing checks to ATM withdrawals. Also, look for a no-cost or low-cost account
that won’t hit you with big fees just for opening and maintaining
an account; a few bucks a month adds up.
- No transaction limits. Find an account that
allows you to have plenty of free transactions per month. Figure
out how many checks you’ll write per month and how many times you’ll
access the ATM. Then add four transactions (one per week), just
to be safe. If you can get this many transactions for free, you’ll
- Low or no minimum balance. Some banks offer
great deals on accounts if you keep a certain balance, but this amount
will invariably be too high for you to maintain. Find a bank that
allows you to have a low minimum balance without added fees. Student
accounts often don’t force you to maintain a certain balance.
- Overdraft protection. An overdraft is the
amount of money a bank will loan you when you cash a check, use
a debit card, or have an automatic payment charged against an account
that has too little money in it to cover the withdrawal. For example,
if you have $150 in your account and you write a check for $175,
you want a bank that won’t bounce the check (have it returned with
insufficient funds), but will instead lend you the $25 needed to
let the check cash. Banks offer overdraft protection for a low annual
fee, and some offer it for free if you carry a certain balance.
- Accessible ATMs. Choose a bank that has a
lot of ATM machines on or close to campus. Fees for taking money
out of ATMs not affiliated with your bank can add up to a lot of money.
- Direct deposit. Your account should have
a direct deposit option so that your parents or employers can put
money into your account without having to give you a check. Ideally,
this option should be free.
- Debit card. A debit card looks like a credit
card and functions like one too, but the money comes directly out
of your account, and you can use it at an ATM as well. Think of
a debit card as a “check card”: using one is like writing a virtual
- Online banking. Choose a bank that allows
you to manage your account and bills online. This will make life
a lot easier.
- Interest. If you can get an interest-bearing
account that also meets all of the above requirements, more power
to you. It’s unlikely that you’ll find one, and if you do, the interest
will be low. Don’t let interest be a big deciding factor.
- Gifts. OK, gifts are the last thing you should
consider, but all things being equal, go with the bank that gives
you a gift for opening your account. Cell phones, money vouchers, and
other gifts are tempting. Just don’t let these gifts sway you into
opening a bank account that doesn’t suit your needs.
Balancing Your Checkbook
Balancing your checkbook means keeping track of your account
by subtracting withdrawals and adding deposits. Doing this simple
task helps you find bank errors (it does happen) and helps you keep
track of how much cash you have in your account.
You can balance as you go along, or you can do it at the
end of the month when your monthly bank statement arrives. You might
consider getting cheap and easy-to-use software that will download
your bank statements right into your computer and autobalance your
account. It doesn’t get easier than that. But, if you want to do
it using brainpower, here are a few things to remember:
- Read your bank statement carefully to make
sure that all the withdrawals and deposits are yours.
- Be sure to check for extra fees—you’ll see how most of
these are avoidable.
- Keep all receipts or printouts of online transactions,
and write down anything else that doesn’t come with a receipt.
- Remember, the current balance on your ATM receipt isn’t always
- Keep track of all checks you’ve written. Has every check you’ve
written for the month cleared? Your balance may be lower once these
- Don’t forget to keep track of bank fees.
- Remember to add interest earned, if any.
- Only write checks against money you know you have in your
account. Checks used to take over a week to clear, but that time
has been cut down significantly.
- If your calculations are a little bit off, try to remember
what you’ve missed. ATM fees? Those shoes you bought with your debit
- If your balance is still off, go back and make sure that
you wrote things down correctly. It’s easy to transpose numbers.
If you live on campus, you’re not going to have any utility bills,
though you will be charged for long-distance phone calls. If you
have a cell phone, you’ll have to deal with that bill as well, unless
your parents have offered to pay it for the time being.
If you’re living off campus you will have many bills:
rent, electricity, phone, water, and gas, to name a few. If you
have roommates, don’t put all the bills under one name. If they’re all
in your name, you may have to go hounding your roommates for the
money, and you’ll have to pay the bill anyway, even if they don’t
have the cash. If you don’t pay, you can ruin your credit, even
if it’s not your fault that your roommates are bums. Share the burden.
The financial aid office or student affairs office will
often loan you some cash in an emergency. These loans are generally
short-term, small ($200–$500), and won’t accrue any interest. The
college will consider loaning you emergency funds for educational
supplies, medical expenses, and traveling home for an urgent situation.
These funds generally need to be paid back by the end of the semester.
Maybe you have a nice little allowance and your part-time job
is paying enough to pad your bank account. Great! Now try to save
some of that cash. There will be something you’ll need or want in
the future, and you’ll be glad to have some cash stashed away. Emergencies
crop up as well, and it’s nice to be financially flexible at those
times. The best way to save is to not spend in the first place.
There are no real tricks to saving: just refrain from buying things
and wasting money.
You’ll want to have some money set aside for yourself
when you graduate, and it’s never too early to start saving for
that moment, especially if you’re going to be paying off loans. There’s
a grace period of six months after you leave college before you
have to start paying back your loans, but interest will still capitalize,
which means that the loan amount will grow if you don’t pay the
interest as it accrues. Not paying back your loans is called defaulting,
which will destroy your credit and make it nearly impossible to
get another government loan, not to mention a loan to buy a home
or a car. And forget about ever getting a credit card.
When you use a credit card, a company (usually a bank)
is giving you a loan based on your promise to repay the money. For
this convenient service, they charge you interest on all of your
purchases—this is how they make money. Each month, you have to pay
a minimum balance on your credit card. The longer you take to pay
back the remaining balance, the more interest you accrue. When you
don’t pay back what you’ve spent, you lose your credit standing,
and it takes a long time to get back.
You’ll find booths all over campus trying to get you to
apply for credit cards. They’ll even give you a free T-shirt or
Frisbee if you fill out the form. Only apply for credit cards if
you really think you can be responsible with them. They’re not free
money! You have to pay back every cent you charge, including interest.
Yes, they are convenient, but they’re not to be confused with actual
Having a credit card and taking out student loans in your name
are a great way to build credit, as long as you don’t default on
them. Using a credit card every once in awhile and then paying off
the balance each month shows future creditors that you’re a good
credit risk. Having good credit is crucial, and affords you a measure
of fiscal security that you’re going to appreciate later when you
want to buy a car or a home.
Ways of Making Money
Unless your parents are sending you a hefty allowance,
you’re going to need some pocket cash. Getting a part-time job is the
way to go. Part-time jobs for college students aren’t all that difficult
to find. They don’t pay a ton, but they’re better than being broke,
and if you can find work in a food joint, then some of your meals
will be covered too. You’ll be able to find a job even if you don’t
have any job experience. Ideally, you’ll only work fifteen to twenty
hours a week. Any more than that and you risk sacrificing your GPA.
The Job Search
Your first stop should be your school’s career center.
They often have job listings that are perfect for college students. Local
parents (sometimes professors at the university) put ads into the
career center’s database looking for babysitters and tutors. Many
career centers have job fairs throughout the year that are a great
resource for part-time jobs and internships. Try to make a good
impression on the people behind the booths at the job fairs: they
just might be the people interviewing you some day.
Next, check the classified ads in your local newspaper.
If there’s a particular place you think you’d enjoy working, walk
in and ask to speak with the manager and then ask if they’re hiring.
Always ask to fill out an application.
Be prepared to fill out a ton of applications. There are
a lot of other people who want the same job, but if you keep at
it you’ll eventually land a job you’ll be happy with. Apply at places
where you think your odds are slim: other people have the same doubts,
so there are likely to be fewer applicants. Hey, you never know.
You can also put the word out to professors that you are
a reliable house- or pet-sitter, that you can do lawn and garden maintenance,
or that you can shovel snow. Professors and other university staff
are always on the lookout for a reliable student to take care of
jobs around the house. If you’re good, the person will recommend
you to others, which will help to keep your pockets full.
Financial aid packages often include money through the
Federal Work-Study program. The federal government gives schools
money that they can use to employ students on campus. Colleges love
this program, because it’s free labor for them. The jobs tend to
be menial, and often pay minimum wage. There are some good ones
to be had, however, and unlike part-time jobs, your pay from work-study
jobs is not reported as income, so it’s not taxable. Plus, your
employer tends to be more flexible than a regular employer and you
get to work with other students, faculty, and staff on campus. Those
connections can lead to bigger, better things.
Working on campus is convenient, though it doesn’t pay much
and the work is often menial. At certain times of the year, like
during registration, your school may need extra hands and will hire
students on a temporary basis. Schools often need students to work
at events on campus. These jobs aren’t always advertised, so ask
your RA, your professors, or other campus employees if they know
of any job opportunities.
If you’re at a large research university with lots of
graduate students, consider being a guinea pig for some of their
experiments. Labs will pay well over minimum wage to conduct research
on you. The psychology department is a great place to start. If
you’re in a large town, check the local newspaper for institutes
looking for human guinea pigs. Some of these gigs pay over $1,000
for little effort on your part.
An internship is a low-paying job that offers you college credit
in exchange for “real world” experience. Generally, the internship
you want will be in a field that you’re interested in pursuing.
Because you’re a first-year student and you might not be sure what
your major will be, you have the benefit of choosing something that
simply sounds interesting. First years may not be offered internships
during the regular academic year, but summer internships after your
first year are common.
Since we’re talking about money here, we have to mention that
some internships don’t pay a thing. Nada. Zilch. But you do get
college credit. So, you have to check your bank account and ask
yourself whether you would benefit most from a part-time job or
an unpaid internship.
If you work, you’re going to pay taxes. You don’t have
to worry too much about this, because your employer will be taking
money out of your paycheck automatically. Most colleges have accounting
departments that help students with their taxes. If you haven’t
made a lot of money, you’ll probably get a full tax refund.
You have until April 15 each year to file last year’s
tax return. Do it as early as possible after January 1. You can
even file online. This is great practice, because as the years go
by your taxes will become more complicated.