8 Realistic Money Tips for College Students (And Why Credit Cards Are Like Dorm Food)

Between hittin’ the books and hittin’ that hot soccer player piece of ass from the dorm (college is awesome), the start of the school year is a very busy time for the average college coed. If you’re one of ’em, I’m guessing that extracurricular reads about money responsibility are the last thing on your September to-do list. Boy, do I understand that. You woulda been hard-pressed to see me read an article about Being an Adult! while I was in college. But as your weathered, (kinda) wise elder, I encourage you to take ten minutes to read this today.

Why? Because there’s hardly been a diggity damn day since I turned 25 that a girlfriend hasn’t said to me, “Why didn’t anyone warn me about this in college?” I’ve seen too many young people jeopardize their happiness in their twenties and beyond because of money decisions they made during these years. I certainly don’t blame them for not getting the right help—everyone needs a teacher—but I also don’t want this to be you. And it doesn’t have to be! Here are some realistic money mantras to keep in mind as you tear into the school year.

1. Your spending shouldn’t exceed your income.

This one is obvious, but I think it’s worth starting out with the golden rule of money management. College funding can be complicated because you might be getting income from a variety of places: grants, aid, scholarships, loans, parents and other family members, and your own employment. Pool it up and know how much money you’ve got to spend each month—especially if you’re partly responsible for the bill. Your spending shouldn’t exceed this figure. Even if your parents are footing the bill, it’s good life practice to track inflows and outflows.

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on budgets, but there are a lot of great resources out there to help get you started.

It’s kinda like:

Knowing your drinking limits. If drinking 11 tequila shots makes you wake up in a gutter without your pants, alcohol intake just exceeded your body’s physical cap. Mistakes happen (for me, they happened a lot) but you just learn and readjust for next time.

 2. Don’t get a credit card just ‘cause someone’s offering free pizza.

There will be stalls and stands that crop up around campus during orientation where banks are offering credit cards. Many of them will have bubbly salespeople who will offer you a stuffed animal or a t-shirt if you sign up for their card. Additionally, every department store you walk into will be offering a credit card that you can walk away with on the spot, and with 10% of your purchase today. Be leery of these people and promo offers.

Really, this advice isn’t about declining these specific offers; it’s about understanding credit cards before you sign up for one.

Yes, you eventually need to build “good credit” by showing you can use a credit card and pay it off, in full, each month. But getting a credit card on a whim is a slippery slope that can do a lot more harm than good. If you’re feeling up to the task of acquiring a credit card to build credit responsibly, do your research on a good card for students with a low APR and no annual fees.

It’s kinda like:

Givin’ a blowie for a free pizza. When someone on campus actively offers you a credit card, it’s not an altruistic act. I assure you, the credit card companies are the ones that are getting the good deal here.

3. Use, don’t abuse, a credit card.

Most students will end up with a credit card in college. Great! You can start to build credit which will be important when you’re trying to get that first apartment or job out of college and can even save you on car insurance. (I know, crazy.)

While always paying it off, in full, is the ideal, let’s be real—this doesn’t always happen. Handing a starving college kid a credit card is like handing a child star a bag of cocaine on his fifteenth birthday. When you’re studying for a midterm and counting out $3.45 in nickels to buy enough gas just to get home from the library (and slightly delusional from Top Ramen-related nutritional deficiencies), it is tempting beyond natural human willpower to just charge the whole tank (or groceries, or whatever) to credit. “I’ll just deal with this shit later.”

If you are the one that’s ultimately going to be responsible for that credit card bill, I only encourage you to be careful. Interest rates on credit cards are absolutely terrible, and can balloon even small balances after years of not paying your credit card off each month. Before you know it, your balance could be in the thousands of dollars and that’s all money that you’ll have to pay back. Painstakingly.

If you genuinely can’t pay off a credit card each month, consider applying for aid or loans instead. Don’t take out a loan if you don’t really need one—it’s just as tempting to spend/overspend this “monopoly money,” but rates on loans are better than credit cards.

It’s kinda like:

Going hog wild on dorm food. Yes, buffet food-style food serves a purpose in college, but the limitlessness of it gets a lot of students into trouble. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, ya know?

Numbers 4 and 5 are regarding student loans; skip to number 6 if you’re not planning on taking any out.

4. Try not to take out or spend more in loans than you absolutely must.

The general rule of thumb is that a manageable student loan is equivalent to your first year’s pay. In 2017, the average starting salary was just below $50,000. To me, a $50,000 loan is pretty fucking scary and I’d tell any undergrad to take a loan of this size seriously. Frankly, for some folks, a college degree isn’t worth $50,000 (which’ll actually cost closer to $70,000 at a 6% rate of interest over ten years). I’m not necessarily saying that this is the case for you! But I do wish this was a serious discussion we had with every kid.

$50,000 is the average starting salary; if you’re planning on entering a lower-paying field, your personal loan threshold is likely lower. And while it’s absurd to think college students should on any level know what they will want to do with their lives, it is possible to be realistic about potential career paths. If you’re leaning towards the arts, education, social work, writing or journalism, or other admirable but low-paying fields, you need to rethink going to a school that requires hefty loans.

Other ideas: Explore loans and grants—you don’t have to be an incoming freshman to apply for many of these!—community college, state schools, take time off to work and actually decide what you want to study so you’re not actively wasting money as you try to figure it out. This can be hard because people who halt education will face stigmas and backlash, but srsly haters be damned!! and do what’s best for you.

I understand that this can suck to hear. But your future self will thank you for thinking twice before taking on a giant mountain of debt. (If you’re not convinced that a whopper of a student loan can hurt your life, please listen to these peoples’ stories.)

Also, just because you have access to a loan or loans doesn’t mean you have to spend it! Same idea as with credit card spending. It’s totally fine to use borrowed money to comfortably get an education, but be careful using it too much beyond this.

It’s kinda like:

Not attending evvvveery single social engagement you hear about on campus. When my dad dropped me off at college, he left me with one piece of wisdom: “Amanda, you don’t have to go to every party.” I barely listened to him, but this advice is sound. Yes, you can go to every party and you can take out heaps of student loans—but that doesn’t mean it’s the best decision for your well-being.

Rare footage of me at college:

 5. Take out federal loans first.

Generally speaking, there are two major sources of student loans. You can take out loans from a bank (private loans) or from the government (federal loans). The latter—federal loans, issued by the federal government—should be your first choice.

First, federal loans generally have better rates of interest, which is the price you pay to use money that isn’t yours. While the difference of a 6% and a 9% rate may seem like beans, even a percent or two could save you thousands of dollars over time. And I cannot stress how much your future, newly-employed self will appreciate a lower rate—and more importantly, monthly payment.

Second, federal loans are chiller than private loans. They have better protections in case you have trouble finding a job, are laid off, or need to adjust your payback schedule. Private loans are notoriously less forgiving and some even have a history of predatory lending practices (aka dicking young kids over who have no way of knowing better. Cuz that can happen in this fucking country.)

If you have plans to become a teacher or work in a government position, it is especially important that you look into taking out federal loans that could potentially be forgiven (wiped away) after ten years through a program called Student Loan Forgiveness. 

It’s kinda like:

Dating the first guy or gal you meet in college. Shop around, get whoever’s offerin’ up the best deal. The last thing you wanna do is end up tethered to the 9th-year senior who’s been working at the campus bar with no real plans for the future other than dragging your life down.

 6. Take a motherfucking personal finance class!!!

If you’re at college because someday you want to have your own money, I beg you *gets down on knees and clutches, kisses your hands* to please take a personal finance class, and learn that fucking shit. If you can enter the working world with a legit understanding of personal finance topics, you’re basically riding into your first job so far ahead of the pack you might as well be a queen, an old Hollywood Cleopatra, carried on a platform by four shirtless hunks.

I’m over here ripping my titties off trying to get this information to young people because people muck up their lives when they wait until they’re 30 or 40 to think about their money. Think you’ll wanna learn this stuff on your own and in your free time when you’re 25? NO! You’ll wanna be doing the same exact shit you are doing in college, but you’ll have less time ’cause you’ll have a full-time job.

Your school has a personal finance class, I’m almost certain of it. But it’s up to you to sign up for it. See if it’ll count for one of your general curriculum classes. And whatever you do, do not skip it because you’re a business or econ major. Learning about the hypothetical supply and demand of guns and butter or business marketing strategy is NOT the same as knowing how to manage your money.

It’s kinda like:

Waiting until the very last minute to start a project. We all know how much procrastination causes both our work and our mental health to suffer. Don’t pull this classic college stunt on something that’s so important to your “real life.” Every day, you are making money decisions that will affect your future. With money, your very happiness and freedom are on the line—don’t wait until it’s too late to get good at it.

 7. Take advantage of school in every way!

During college, you should definitely have the most fun in your life, but take the advice from someone now ten years out of college without the opportunity to ever learn like that again: Take advantage! I know that this is matronly advice that’ll probably be ignored, but due to the occasional night terror I get over the amazing educational opportunities I missed out on at my institution of higher learning, I have ta say it. I gots a couple degrees under the belt, sure, but there was so much more knowledge to be absorbed and brilliant people to learn from.

Never again will you be surrounded with such an amazing variety of interesting people in your life. Talk to everyone you can, create friendships with people of all different types—professors, students, whoever. The other day I read some advice that said, “have 1,000 LinkedIn connections by the time you graduate!” While this is probably great advice, I guess I just think there’s more to meeting people than simply converting them into online connections. I have loved watching the people I met in college—from my core group of friends/sorority sisters to fellow weirdos and academics I connected with—grow and accomplish great things over the last ten years. I’ve gotten support in my business endeavors from some of these long-lost connections, yes, but more importantly, it’s been a joy to observe and learn from old friends.

It’s kinda like:

Skipping a party to watch Netflix, even though you know your crush will be there…. And then you hear that they were open-mouth kissing with some other beezy/bro. That should have been you! Don’t let the opportunity of college slip through your fingertips. You don’t have to do it all—hell no!—but you should push your own personal comfort limits.

 8. Don’t beat yourself up over financial mistakes.

No one, I repeat no one, is perfect at money—especially college students! Don’t be hard on yourself for a financial mishap here or there, or the occasional spending peccadillo. Life happens. And while I want you to understand your personal student loan and money situation, I don’t want you to feel bad or stressed or guilty about it. Ultimately, you are investing in your very best, most important, and most valuable asset: You! This is a good thing, we just want to be certain that you really make it count 🙂

Enjoy your year, and please reach out to me, publicly or through direct message, on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook if you have any questions, concerns, or need to talk to someone about funding college. For reals, I’m here.