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8 Money Tips I Wish I Knew Before I Went to College

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 03-08-2015 Natalie Bacon

If you have the benefit of learning money lessons before you go to college, you will be ahead of the curve. Just listen to an episode of Dave Ramsey and you’ll find people later in life who are struggling financially, in debt, wishing they had learned money lessons a lot earlier. 

You don’t have to be one of these people. You can learn simple money lessons early and avoid these common pitfalls. Here are eight money tips I wish I knew before I went to college that will help you lead a financially responsible life. 

1. Live with roommates.

One of the easiest ways to cut your expenses is to decrease your living costs. Each roommate you have cuts your living expenses compared to what you would pay living alone. In college, you want to live like a student so that when you are a professional, you can live like a professional. For example, I have a friend who lived by herself in college, paying full price for rent while paying student loans. She lived in a snazzy apartment, traveled and bought lots of clothes. The truth is that she took out student loans for her living expenses and used all of it. Now, she has to have a roommate, can't travel and lives on a very tight budget. My friend did it backward. When you're in college, you should live like it – have roommates, live cheaply and save your pennies. This way when you're out on your own, you can actually live like the successful young professional that you are (no roommates necessary). 

2. Take out the least amount of loans as possible.

College is expensive – that's for sure. The best financial thing you can do for yourself is to have as little debt as possible in college. This may mean attending a community college for two years before transferring to a four-year program. Or, it may mean going to a state university instead of a private school. Maybe it means living with your parents while you attend a college nearby. Whatever you can do to decrease your student loan debt – do it. You won't regret it.

3. Work and go to school (forget the rest).

Colleges have so many activities to offer. From sports to academic clubs to community service, there is something for everyone. But what really matters (for your life, finances, and graduate programs) is your grades and your ability to pay. You always want to focus on getting good grades, but second to that should be working to decrease your student loan debt or save for other expenses. Focusing on other activities won't pay off the way that focusing on school and work will pay off.

4. Don’t follow your friends’ money habits.

Not all students are created equal. Your best friend may have a completely different financial situation than you. She may be wealthy and have tons of money to spend. Conversely, she may be horrible with money and spend every penny she has. The point is that you should not follow what your friends are doing. Ask yourself, "What is the wise decision for me to do given my situation?" This will help you make the best financial choice for you.

5. Shadow people in your desired profession.

You may have an idea what you want to do with your life, but the reality of what it means to be in that profession may be completely different from what you imagine. Shadow someone in your profession before you get too far along in your education. This will help you avoid a huge financial mistake of getting a degree in something you don't want to build a career in (or worse, taking on a lot of debt for something you don't want to do).

6. Stay on a budget.

If you stay on a written budget when you're in college, not only are you going to set yourself up for financial success for years to come in your adult life, but you are going to avoid huge financial mistakes while in school. It's a lot harder to be careless with your money when you're in college if you have a plan telling your money what to do every month. A separate "spending money" category can be a specific area where you allow yourself to make riskier financial choices. The idea here is to only use available spending money, not money you need for important things – like books or rent.

7. Create financial goals now.

Instead of waiting until you're in your late 20s and ready to buy a house to start your financial planning, start now. This begins with deciding what you want for your life and setting financial goals. Maybe you want to be debt-free, have an emergency fund, buy a home and be able to retire at 60 years old. If you start making decisions that move you in that direction when you're 20 years old, then it will be a lot easier than if you start when you're 30 years old. Establishing what you want and setting goals will help you create the life you want for yourself, ultimately leaving you with fewer regrets. 

8. Know that how you use money now will affect your life later.

When you are in college, money may not feel as real as it does when you are working full time. This may be because your money comes from your parents or from student loans. Usually, you are not getting a full-time paycheck every two weeks to pay for your life. Therefore, it is incredibly important to keep in mind that all of your financial choices now will affect your life later. For example, taking out loans in college will ultimately make your financial life harder down the road. Try to embrace a mature mentality about money that promotes good decision-making and sets you up for financial success in your adult life.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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