Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pragmatic Personal Finance Tips For College Students: Small Liberal Arts Schools And Beyond!

Over here at The Simple Dollar, Trent offers some tips to help college students save money. The Simple Dollar is an absolutely top-notch blog, but a fair number of these tips simply don't apply to me. They presume a fairly specific college experience, and it's not mine. Of course, someone's having that college experience, even if it's not me, and I'm sure Trent's list is great for those people. But it got me thinking about the people who are having college experiences like mine, and what I'd like to tell those people about the day-to-day things that shape their finances in school. Here's my list of personal finance tips for some other college students. Probably the small-liberal-arts-college ones, because hey, you write what you know. This one's for all the people who find this blog by searching "English major salary."

Choose your bank carefully.
Most schools host little finance fairs, where banks offer you free student checking accounts with signup bonuses. Go. You will not get that signup bonus if you just wander into the bank, and in fact, the person you talk to at a branch may not even tell you about the student checking perks. But do your research first. These are the two most important things to keep in mind when you pick the bank you'll use for college:
1) Where will you withdraw money?
If the bank in question has an ATM on campus, that is a big, big plus. Because trust me, you will not always be diligent about making sure you have cash. If the bank in question is also a significant presence in your hometown, so much the better. You won't incur fees when you withdraw cash on vacation.
2) Where will you deposit money?
You're going to need an accessible branch. At some point in your college career, you are going to need to go to the bank in the middle of the day, between classes, to sort something out. See above re: hometown.
If these are a wash, look for the benefits of the student checking. Continue to ignore the bonuses--they won't make the difference in the long-term (doesn't mean they're not good to have). Look for a bank that offers to refund your first overdraft charge (Bank of America), or, even better, one overdraft charge a year (Washington Mutual) Look for a bank with extensive online banking capability and an interface you feel comfortable with; you do not want to have to do all your banking in person.

Get a credit card, but don't use it.
Too many of my friends are currently struggling to establish credit. Creditors are never so willing to extend credit to you as when you're in college. Get a student card. Leave it someplace safe (that is, not your wallet). Use it to buy books. Pay it off immediately. Don't use it for anything else.

Consider living off-campus. (After freshman year.)
Room and board are expensive. They're worth it while you're making friends and getting the hang of things (and besides, most private colleges have a residency requirement for freshman year), but after that, look into whether living off-campus could save you money. I lived, ate, and socialized in an off-campus apartment for the cost of just housing on-campus. If you have loans covering your housing: many (but not all) schools will apply them to off-campus living, which means that you will owe less overall. Some schools will apply grants to off-campus housing and give you the rest of the grant as a stipend. If your parents are footing the bill: they will appreciate this. (Subsidiary hint: Live with tons of people. Cheap and fun!) HC rightly points out that the crucial factors here are the prevalance of affordable housing within walking distance of campus or good public transit. Word-of-mouth should be sufficient to find cheap housing if it's close by; otherwise, try Craigslist or the college housing office.

Know your options.
Know what money is coming to you. Negotiate your parents' contribution to your living expenses beforehand instead of calling them up halfway through your first semester to ask for money. Know what your financial aid options are. Introduce yourself to people who work in the financial aid office. They'll be more inclined to work with you if they know you.

Know your resources.
There's no reason to buy a gym membership when you can work out for free. There's no reason to pay for gas when there's a shuttle. There's no reason to pay retail for anything at any store, restaurant, or entertainment venue that offers a student discount (ask!). Et cetera.

Get free stuff.
When I worked for the admissions office, they used to buy me lunch once a week--if I'd eat with prospective students and tell them about the school. (This is a brilliant plan: who do you like more than someone who just bought you lunch?) I also regularly attended faculty search lunches--free lunch and participation in the faculty hiring process: what could be better? The psychology students compensated other students for participating in their projects with free food and even actual money. Welcome to the world of free pizza at club meetings and free events to fill your evenings.

Apply for internal awards.
The University of Michigan is currently initiating an award for a graduating theater major: the winner of this award takes about $2,500 (the amount isn't yet finalized) to apply to living expenses as she or he begins her or his theater career. Find out what awards and grants your school offers, and apply for them if they're relevant. Among other opportunities, my school had five "bookstore scholarships" every semester covering up to $300 worth of books. Maybe your school will cover your travel expenses for academics-related projects, or front you the money you would be making if you worked instead of doing community service over the summer. Introduce yourself to the staff member who coordinates fellowships and awards, tell him or her your interests, and ask for any relevant awards opportunities. It vastly expands your options. You may not pocket money free and clear (then again, you may), but it may also allow you to do things that you wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise.

Get an on-campus job.
Unless you'll be making double the money elsewhere, the lack of travel time and the flexibility with hours (not to mention the resume boost and letter of recommendation) will make this job your biggest asset.

Play games with money.
I don't mean poker. Pick a category of money that you consider "found money": your paycheck from your on-campus job, your pocket change, every single you get in change, the money you get paid to participate in psychology studies...whatever. Put it away in a high-yield online savings account. Don't touch it.

Avoid driving whenever possible.
Most college towns offer pretty good public transportation; some schools even offer shuttles. Take advantage of them. Your time isn't at a premium right now, and riding the bus with your friends is more fun than driving alone.

Make regular thrift-store expeditions.
All the cool kids are doing it. Trust me. Seriously. The Gap is not cool. No matter how many scary Audrey-Hepburn-dances-beyond-the-grave ads they run. Even the not-at-all-outside-the-mainstream Olsen Twins look like the bag ladies of Karl Lagerfeld's wet dreams, and you can get that look for less. The super-cool local vintage stores (The Red Light, Avalon, Beacon's Closet, to name a few of my personal experience) are more expensive than the chain resale stores (Buffalo Exchange, Ragstock, &c.) are more expensive than the big-boxes (Salvation Army, Goodwill) are more expensive than the big-box outlets. When you absolutely must have a specific seasonal piece, hit Forever 21 and H&M. You'll find what you want for cheap, and by the time it's disintegrated, it'll be out of style anyway. When you're looking for something good that won't disintegrate immediately, hit the resale stores. You should also be selling your gently-used clothes to these places (a friend of mine in school made something of a business of buying the gems at Goodwill and reselling them to Buffalo Exchange). An afternoon rooting through the by-the-pound bins is fun, cheap, and keeps your wardrobe moving.

Word of mouth is king.
Ask questions. Ask people where they get cheap sushi, where they get cheap beer, where they get cheap couches and clothing and posters and cereal. Just ask. They'll tell you, and you'll be participating in the peculiar and wonderful mythology of your college by perpetuating the legend when you tell someone else.

That's...pretty much what I'd recommend. Readers, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree about the travel part. I figured the school spent about $10,000 sending me to other countries for research projects and conferences during my four years there. But then again, I'm paying school $30,000 a year.. so.. er, who's coming out ahead? ;)

Anonymous said...

The off-campus living tip really only saves money if you have good access to public transportation or to cheap student housing near campus. You're presuming both of those here, but it's hardly universal.

When I attended [Small Liberal Arts U.], the campus was set next to a fairly nice residential neighborhood, and the walking distance apartments were actually a few hundred MORE over the course of a semester. And because the bus system there wasn't that great, I would have had to have owned a car to live anywhere else, which would have wiped out the cost advantage.

Of course, SLAU also had a three-year residency requirement, so it was pretty much moot.

English Major said...

You're entirely right, HC. I'll amend that item.

ispf said...

This is a GREAT list. I had a few more tips to add, so instead of leaving a long comment, I created a "Part 2" on my blog. I hope you dont mind.

Also, I am a big fan of travelling on research grants :) I wrote about it couple of weeks back. Just in case you are interested, the link is

Stephanie said...

My school didn't have many options for housing in walking distance off campus, but did have an extensive on-campus apartment system, in addition to the dorms. They often saved you a lot of money, especially if you were willing to live in the more run down ones that were a further walk. And of course, there was a shuttle to the academic buildings! It definitely saved me a lot of money when I moved from the dorms to the apartments.

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Monroe on a budget said...

If you don't mind living in the "freshman" or "underclassman" dorms, or the rooms that house three or four students; those rooms are generally cheaper than the luxury-level apartments or suites the upperclassmen often wait in line or have to draw lottery number to request.

Bonus if the cheap dorm is near your classes! (I was that lucky!)

Brochure Printing said...

If you do have one, resist the urge to use it if you know you won't have the money to pay for it anyway. Credit cards can be really tempting but think of the money you'll save from the late payment fees, interests, and other finance charges.

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