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Before starting or returning to college, it’s important to prepare yourself for the year financially.
Understanding the financial implications of college is pivotal to your success during the school years and beyond. It involves more than just tuition: Living expenses, textbooks, meal plans, transportation and personal expenses are all costs you’ll have to learn to budget for.
Plus, you’ll need a solid grasp of the impact that student loan debt can have on your financial future and how you can fortify your finances against mounting debt.
Here are a few tips that will help ensure you’re not only academically ready, but financially prepared for college as well.
You’ll have enough distractions with class, your social life and potentially work — the last thing you’ll want to think about is opening a bank account. It’s something you’ll need, but won’t want to worry about when things get busy. Here are some things to look at when choosing a bank:
Location: Is it convenient for you at school? What about home?
ATMs: Are there any in the bank’s network nearby?
Minimum balance: Does the bank have a minimum balance requirement on its accounts?
Transfer options: Are there easy ways to transfer money between other bank accounts?
Mobile app: Are reviews of the bank’s mobile app positive?
Some bank accounts, called student checking accounts, are specifically designed for college students. They may offer lower or no fees and special benefits connected to your college campus ID.
If you’re going away to school, opening a bank account before leaving home is a good idea. One exception, though, is if you’re considering a credit union affiliated with your school that you won’t be near until classes start.
The ideal game plan might be to open an account at a bank that is the best of both worlds: close to your hometown and close to school.
It’s worth researching online banks, which can conveniently be managed on your computer or mobile phone. They’re increasingly popular among younger generations: About half of Gen Zers have an account with an online bank, Bankrate’s research found.
Features like ATM fee waivers, no minimum balance requirements and various digital budgeting tools make online banking an attractive option for college students.
Having one — or possibly both — of your parents on a bank account has pros and cons. It might be beneficial if you need money or need their help with the account. Depending on your relationship, a parent might be able to pass along valuable banking advice to you.
On the other hand, if you feel comfortable enough with your finances, leaving your parents off a bank account can be a good opportunity to learn crucial financial management skills. Managing your finances on your own, without the monitoring of parents, is one step toward financial independence.
Even if your parents aren’t on your account, they should be able to send you money in a pinch through platforms like Zelle and Venmo — the latter of which offers a handy and moderately rewarding debit card of its own.
College tuition is pricey enough on its own, but then add in additional costs such as food, extracurricular activities and potentially housing and it really starts to add up. You may not have a ton of money to budget, but starting the habit early on will help you build a foundation for a more stable financial future.
First, list all of your income sources, such as savings, parental support, part-time jobs or financial aid. Then, list your expenses, which will include tuition, books, housing, food, transportation, personal care and so on. Always budget for a little more than you think you’ll need for each expense category to account for unexpected costs.
Setting goals can help to guide your budgeting decisions. For example, you might want to save for a study abroad semester, spring break trips or pay off a certain amount of student loans.
Bankrate’s student budget calculator allows you to build a budget of your own by calculating your expenses and income.
If you’re interested in mobile budgeting options, consider using a free budgeting app like Mint or PocketGuard. These apps can link to your bank account to categorize your spending, track expenses and even set up account alerts when you’re nearing your budget limit.
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Keep in mind:If you're considering a budgeting app, make sure it syncs with your financial institution, look into how it protects your data and check to see if the app has a free version or trial period before it charges you a subscription fee.
Overdraft charges can make a cup of coffee, meal or any purchase more expensive. They’re fees charged for spending more than what’s available in your account.
“Don’t opt in to overdraft on debit and ATM transactions,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst. “That will at least put a ring around those small-dollar transactions, so that if you don’t have sufficient money in the account, the transaction will be declined. You won’t be incurring a $35 overdraft for a $5 cup of coffee.”
Not all banks charge overdraft fees, although 96 percent of those surveyed by Bankrate indicated that they still do as of 2022. And that fee, while lower than it was the previous year, is $29.80 per item on average.
Aside from finding an account that doesn’t charge for overdrafts, some ways you can avoid these fees include:
Set up low balance alerts, so you can transfer funds if needed to cover a purchase.
Link a savings account for overdraft protection. Just check to see if your bank charges a fee for this, too.
Monitor your account balance regularly through a mobile banking app.
When it comes to credit cards, each student is going to be different.
— Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate Chief Financial Analyst
A March poll found that 51 percent of Gen Zers have at least one rewards credit card. But students with no established credit history may have trouble even getting their first credit card.
Here are some strategies that could help:
Explore secured credit cards: Secured credit cards are perfect for students looking to build credit. If approved, you will have to put a certain amount of money down. This deposit is kept in a savings account that can’t be touched until the card is closed, or in some cases, if you graduate to the unsecured card.
Look into becoming an authorized user: If a parent is fine with adding you as an authorized user on their card, this may help you establish credit — assuming this is reported to the three credit bureaus. Check your credit reports after a few months to confirm you’re building credit as an authorized user.
Compare student credit cards: Research whether a student credit card is the right fit for them. These cards may have less-stringent income and credit requirements.
Give Experian Boost a try: This is a great option for those with a limited credit history, but a track record of on-time bill payments. It allows consumers to boost their credit score by rewarding a record of on-time payments, and it’s free.
The number one rule every credit cardholder should follow is to always pay the balance in-full and on-time. That means you should only spend what you can pay back. Payment history makes up for 35 percent of your FICO score, the highest-scoring category, so making late payments can significantly diminish your credit score.
Signing up for text, email or app alerts to remind you before your credit card payment is due can be a helpful tactic to avoid late payments.
There’s no rush to get a credit card if you don’t feel ready for one. Using a debit card responsibly can be a great first step. However, you won’t build credit with a debit card, and you usually don’t earn rewards or cash back.
As a student, it might be tough to save as much as you would like. But there are steps you can take to boost your savings.
“If you’re now able to continue living at home instead of packing up and moving off to college, this could defray your housing and meal expenses, resulting in fewer student loans,” McBride says. “You also might be able to put money aside from your part-time work to build up a savings cushion that you’ll need later.”
If you’re working while in school, set up a split deposit to automatically transfer a portion of your paycheck to savings or a recurring transfer from checking to savings. You may be able to set up the latter transfer with your bank.
Side hustles are a popular way to earn additional income, which can be put toward savings. According to Bankrate’s side hustle survey, 53 percent of Gen Zers have a side hustle. That extra income could come from anything from freelance work to hands-on gigs, like pet-sitting or local gardening.
You’ll want to keep those extra earnings in a top savings account, too. Search for a savings account with a low or no minimum balance requirement.
There are a number of high-yield savings accounts with a minimum balance requirement of $100 or less.
It pays to be a savvy shopper — especially when you’re a college student on a lean budget. Retailers are pretty aware of this predicament and many offer a student discount of some sort. It’s just a matter of asking or looking for them.
Some of the top student discounts you don’t want to miss out on include:
Spotify Premium with access to Hulu and Showtime for just $5.99 a month (saves about $13 a month).
Amazon Prime offers a free 6-month trial, followed by half off the annual subscription fee for students.
Apple offers a discount to students and educators with various deals on select products. Students also currently get a $150 Apple gift card with the purchase of any Mac or iPad.
There are also websites out there like UNiDAYS, Honey and Rakuten that will do the discount searching for you.
When asked what they consider to be a part of the American Dream, 64 percent of Gen Z (ages 18 to 26) said having a successful career, 63 percent said owning a home and 46 percent said owning a car. (Bankrate homeownership survey)
Almost a third (32 percent) of Gen Zers think people should start paying student loans between the ages of 22 and 25. (Bankrate financial independence survey)
Many Gen Zers are job-hunters: 27 percent are unemployed and looking for a new job. (Bankrate job seekers survey)
Of those who are employed or seeking employment, 61 percent of Gen Zers say they are likely to ask for more flexibility at their workplace. (Bankrate job seekers survey)
Many — 46 percent — of Gen Z say that increasing their emergency savings is a high priority right now. (Bankrate emergency savings report)
There are a number of additional ways you can use your status as a student to save money on expenses.
Traveling can be an enriching and essential part of the student experience, whether it’s flying home for the holidays or exploring new places during breaks. But it can also be expensive. One area to save on traveling is by finding discounted airline tickets. Some airlines, like American Airlines, offer discounts to students at selected universities, while others, such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer discounts to students within a particular age range.
Online platforms like StudentUniverse also specialize in discounted travel for students. Before booking your flight, it’s worth checking if a student discount is available.
Technology is more and more intertwined with learning, and as a student, you can also get an array of deals on tech products. Microsoft, for example, offers 50 percent off Microsoft 365 Personal, which comes with premium versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Meanwhile, Adobe offers savings of over 60 percent on the Creative Cloud All Apps plan for students.
If you’re a student who drives, look into getting discounted car insurance. Companies like State Farm, GEICO and Allstate offer “good student” discounts for those who maintain a certain grade point average, which can sometimes save you up to 25 percent on your policy.
By integrating these cost-saving practices into your routine, you’re not just easing their financial strain, but also preparing yourself for a more financially secure future. Whether it’s spotting a good deal, comparing bank accounts or assessing whether a particular cost fits with your budget, the savings strategies you’re learning will remain relevant throughout your life.
— Liz Hund wrote a previous version of this story.
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