It’s the end of August, and students nationwide are headed to campus. If you’re a freshman, for most of you, it’s your first time away from home. The independence is exciting, and sometimes overwhelming. This year is the foundation for the rest of the college experience, and for the rest of your life.
That’s right, the rest of your life. You may not have much money now, but you can start building habits that will put you in a great situation to be happy, successful, and in as little debt as possible four years from now.
Food. At my small, private, liberal arts college, every freshman and sophomore was required to have a meal plan. It was definitely overpriced (I just looked up today’s prices, and it comes out to $545/month (over three times what I spend on groceries now), or $7/meal – and that’s if you eat every single meal in the dining hall), but there’s no getting around it.
If your situation is similar, do yourself a favor and use your meal plan as often as possible. Going to Chipotle or hitting up the hip new restaurant downtown might be appealing, but the cost of that isn’t just the $8 burrito or the $20 meal. It’s that, plus the cost of the meal in the dining hall that you (or your parents) already paid for.
Going to the dining hall with your new friends is just as fun as going to a fancy restaurant – it’s about the people you’re with. You can even get creative – my friends and I once made an entire apple pie out of ingredients “liberated” from our dining hall.
Of course, you can certainly go out to eat a few times a year – just make sure you know how much it’s really costing you.
(And if you have a kitchen and not a meal plan, cook! It’s not hard! It’s a great life skill! Take turns with your roommates and make it fun! You will save so much money!)
Housing. As a freshman and sophomore, I was also required to live on campus. You can’t do much about housing costs in this situation, but do check out the pricing for various dorms – sometimes the completely serviceable older buildings with cinder block walls are much cheaper than the fancy new residence halls painted in trendy colors.
As an upperclassman, I had more housing options. I could’ve chosen to live in an on-campus apartment – $685/month this year. Instead, I chose to live off-campus in a nearby house with six housemates. It was a blast (you’re never bored when six of your best friends live with you). The house was kind of falling apart, but who cares? It was $210/month – and I could live there over the summer while I worked in town.
That $475/month difference, over the course of the 21 months I lived there, adds up to $9,975 worth of debt that I don’t have.
Check out niche programs. At my school, full-time tuition entitled you to take 18 credits per semester. Additional credits cost $1,055 – and most classes are three credits.
I ended up taking an average of 21 credits per semester, allowing me to add a second major within the standard four years. I did this by being part of a campus program – for me, it was the “Honors” program, but the “Leadership” program, “Entrepreneurial” program, and probably a few others also had similar benefits – where you could take up to 24/credits per semester for the same fee.
That benefit saved me $25,320 ($1,055*3*8). Or, more accurately, since I probably wouldn’t have paid that extra fee, it allowed me to double major. Don’t assume there aren’t ways around the “rules”.
Work. Don’t say you don’t have time. You do. As an upperclassman, I worked 30+ hours a week (I loved my jobs), while in school full time, participating in extra-curriculars, and having plenty of fun. That might be a little extreme, but almost every student has plenty of time for a 15 hour/week job.
This has two benefits:
One, you’ll gain work experience that will help you get a better job post-graduation. My current boss has actually told me she hired me mostly based on my college work experience and the skills I developed there. Not my degree.
Two, you’ll have some income! It’ll be small (at minimum wage, 15 hours a week is only $435/month) but it’ll make a huge difference. If you work those 15 hours every week all four years, that’s over $22,000 total. (Sure, that doesn’t count vacations or anything, but it’s just an estimate). For me, I was able to cover all my living costs – rent, groceries, bills, travel, fun – out of my paychecks. I’m extremely grateful not to be paying off groceries from three years ago today.
Transportation. You almost certainly don’t need a car. If you have one, you’ll be constantly begged for rides – and your broke freshman friends probably won’t pay for gas and definitely won’t pay for oil changes and other maintenance. Campuses are small – walk or bike.
Shopping is not a hobby. This goes for everyone, not just students, but I was always shocked by the numbers of girls who would spend their weekends at the mall. You don’t need new clothes every week. If shopping is your friends’ favorite thing to do, they’re boring and you need new friends.
Entertainment. There are tons of free activities on every campus! I went to countless free trivia nights, concerts, sporting events, lectures, intramural games, and tons of other events. Make a habit of checking your school’s calendar to find unique things to do, there’s no reason to be bored.
– – – – –
Taking the above advice, plus generous scholarships and a moderate contribution from my parents (they told me when I was 15 what they could afford and ended up paying less than that) resulted in me graduating debt-free. It’s impossible to overstate how much easier that made the years immediately post-graduation. Smart choices now can set you up for a happier life down the road, without taking anything away from your college experience.
My education would have been cheaper had I attended community college and transferred, or gone to the local state school and lived at home, and those are very reasonable suggestions to give college applicants. I wanted that stereotypical four-year liberal-arts away-from-home experience, and it ended up being even more amazing than I had hoped. However, it wouldn’t have been worth the six figures of debt some of my peers graduated with. Live cheap, have fun, graduate in a good position.
What financial advice would you give an incoming freshman?