As the school year kicks off again, a new wave of almost twenty-somethings will leave mom and dad to begin living on their own as they start college. This change comes with many new responsibilities and challenges. Whether it be shopping for groceries or washing their own clothes, these new freshman will be fending for themselves in many ways.
Here are my top 15 tips for college freshman as they begin their journey.
TIP #1: Don’t Take Out Extra Loan Money for College
This is extremely important. Unfortunately college today is so expensive that very few people get through it without some amount of student debt. Although you may have some student loans, there are many ways to mitigate how much debt you will need to borrow.
You need to figure out how much you will need and then make sure to not take out any more than that. There are many people I knew in college who took out more loans than they really needed and then used the extra cash for shopping, beer, eating out, new phones, and anything else they thought they needed. That’s ridiculous! Student loans are supposed to be used only for what you NEED and nothing more. The bottom line is don’t take out excess loans for living; instead, get a job.
TIP #2: Make a Plan for Groceries
If you’re living on campus, you are probably forced to purchase a meal plan of some kind. If your school is anything like mine was there’s no way you’re going to want to eat on campus three times a day, every day, for the entire year. But, you do want to make good use of your meal plan. You’ve paid for it already so you need to make sure you use it as much as possible. I knew people who just gave their meals away because they didn’t want to eat on campus and then they spent a ton of money on groceries.
Make a plan for how often you need to eat on campus and how often you plan to eat on your own. Then buy groceries accordingly. If there is a wholesale club near your college like Sam’s or Costco you may want to look into a membership at one of these places. Consider going in with a roommate to split the cost of the membership and both of you can share it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheaper option than a Walmart or wholesale store.
If you don’t live on campus there’s a good shot you don’t want to pay for a meal plan. I can almost guarantee that you will save a ton of money by packing your own lunch and eating at your own apartment. The bottom line is you want to make a plan for your groceries and decide early on how you’re going to do it. If you’re not careful, you will spend way more in this area than you want to.
TIP #3: Work With Your Roommates
Dealing with roommates can be one of the toughest things about going to college. From my experience, honesty is the best policy. Make sure you talk through how you want things to work. Are you all planning to split the grocery bill and then share the food in the room? Or will you be keeping everything separate and not sharing with each other? Come up with how you’re going to split the cleaning supplies and any other things you may all use like a toaster, TV, microwave, plates, and utensils. You need to talk about this stuff early on and work together. Just like any relationship you’re going to have to give in on some things and let them give on others. The worst thing you could do though is not talk about it at all. If you do that you might quickly find yourself paying for way more than your fair share.
TIP #4: Learn How to Cook
This is one of the most important things you need to learn if you don’t know how already. Being able to cook your own meals will save you a ton of money. It is almost always cheaper to cook your own meals and eat leftovers than it is to eat out. I could hardly cook when I first came to college, luckily I soon met a great girl (who is now my wife! oh yeah!) and she taught me how to cook. When you cook, plan to make lots of food at a time and freeze some to eat later. By doing this, you’ll save time and money since it is cheaper to cook in large quantities.
TIP #5: Get a Job
I cannot say this enough. One of the best things you can do for yourself in college is get a job. While there are numerous benefits to working during college I’ll just quickly highlight three.
- Getting a job will keep you focused and teach you valuable working skills that help you become a hard worker and more disciplined person all around. It has been shown that students who work part-time while going to school actually maintain higher GPAs than students who do not work. See Table 3 here for details. This is because getting a job helps you with time management and forces you to become more responsible.
- Having a job while going through college looks great on your resume. When you get out of school employers care about your degree, GPA, and work experience. If you were able to maintain a good GPA while holding down a part-time job this puts you head and shoulders above your fellow graduates who just went to school. Even if your job is totally unrelated to your intended career field, any sort of job will show that you are disciplined and understand the value of working hard.
- You’ll have more money! I know this is totally crazy. But if you work while going to college, you’ll actually have more money than if you didn’t. Shocker, I know. But seriously, I know so many people that didn’t work while we were going to school because they “wanted to enjoy their college years.” This is stupid. College is not supposed to be a 4-year retreat where you get to just hang out and do nothing. Those same people that did that because they wanted to enjoy those years are now drowning in debt up to their eyeballs and are paying for that 4-year retreat. Don’t do that to yourself. Work as much as you can handle while still doing well in school so that you can offset the high cost of education. Trust me, you’ll be thankful that you did when it’s all said and done.
TIP #6: Make a Plan for Spending Money
One of the quickest ways to lose a lot of money in college is to let your friends influence you. Without your parents eyes you pretty soon become accustomed to going out often and spending a lot of money doing things with your friends. You need to make a plan early on for spending money and stick to it. Decide how much you can afford to spend each week (or month) and make sure you stay on track.
Your friends will want to go shopping and eat out often, especially now that they don’t have a curfew. But remember there’s only so much money, and you need to be wise. It could even be more difficult if some of your friends have parents who send them money regularly. They will be able to spend money all the time because it’s not their money; don’t let them drag you along. (And if you are that person, consider yourself blessed and be mindful about not pressuring your friends to spend their hard-earned cash). Bottom line: set aside a certain amount each month for spending and be diligent to not go over, this will help you for the rest of your life.
TIP #7: Invest If At All Possible
I know this might be hard, and I won’t spend long on this point, but this could be huge for you. Any amount that you can invest now will help you so much in the long run. For every extra $1,000 you can invest now, in 40 yrs at 7% annual compound interest that $1,000 will grow to $15,000. That’s 15 times the original amount! If you could invest an extra $1,000 every year for the 4 years you’re in college you’ll have an extra $50,000 in retirement!
Any little amount you can put back now will only help you later on. That little $4,000 grew to almost 13 times that amount by retirement age!
TIP #8: Buy Your Books Used
Whatever you do, don’t purchase your books from the college book store. You’re almost always guaranteed to save money by getting your books used online. There are many great places to buy your used books online, but the one place I almost always ended up getting mine was Amazon. I simply put in the ISBN number exactly as marked on the book and Amazon almost always had it cheaper than the University book store was offering. If you can befriend students ahead of you in your major it is also wise to check with them and see if you can purchase the books from them at a lower cost. I was able to do this a couple of times when I was in college and I saved quite a bit of money.
TIP #9: Re-sell Any Books You Don’t Need
At the end of the semester, you should immediately sell any books that you won’t need for future classes or expect to need in your career. I talked to quite a number of people in my field before I got out of school and every one of them said they never opened their textbooks up after they graduated. They said the information they needed to do their jobs was found in other reference books or on the internet. So take that word of advice and google a little bit about your intended career field to see if it is common to refer to your books during your career. If not, sell any books possible. You want to make sure you do this as soon as the semester is over because that is your best shot to get the most money back. If you wait until a new edition of that book comes out you will have a hard time selling it.
The best places to sell you used books are other lower level students, local bookstores, Amazon, and other online bookstores. I had a lot of luck selling to students who were a year behind me, that is probably your best bet for getting the most out of your books. The next place to look is Amazon; I have had a lot of luck selling my books to Amazon for Amazon store credit, which I then used to purchase books for the next semester.
TIP #10: Don’t Compare Yourself To Your Friends
This is absolutely huge. One of the biggest pitfalls whether college-aged or not is comparing yourself and your stuff to the people around you. This is known as “keeping up with the Joneses,” and that is something you want to avoid at all costs. There is no reason to try and keep up with the people around you. They have different wants and needs than you, they have different incomes than you, and they are in different situations than you. Not to mention, most of the stuff that they have was bought on borrowed money; so they don’t own it anyways. You want to make sure that you get out of this habit now while you are in college. Learn to realize that life isn’t about how much you have and where you go on vacation. Comparing yourself to your roommates, your friends, and your family will only bring you ruin. Finance is not a place to be competitive; focus on what you can do to better your situation and tune out all the other noise.
TIP #11: Think Long Term Even Though No One Else Is
When I used to talk about saving for retirement to my buddies in college they all looked at me like I was crazy. Why in the world was I thinking about retirement when I don’t even have a full-time job yet, they would ask. And my answer was always because I want to retire early and comfortably. The days of pensions are gone and now we have to be prepared to provide our own retirements. If you want to be able to retire comfortably you need to be thinking about it as early as possible.
Don’t listen to your friends and family who tell you not to worry about that stuff. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to smile and relax when you’re kicking back in your beach chair in early retirement and your friends are going to be working until their 75 because they didn’t start saving until 40. Work hard now so that you can let your money work hard for you later.
TIP #12: Be Careful What Clubs and Groups You Join
Every time you turn around you’re going to be bombarded with clubs, social groups, fraternities, sororities, and other organizations that are all battling for your time and money. I’m not saying don’t join them. I’m just saying choose wisely. Many of these groups have required dues and specific clothing that you are required to purchase. They’ll also require you to give money for parties, events, and other on-campus activities. Before you know it you’ll be sinking a lot of money into these organizations; not to mention all of the time required that you could be using to work, study, or hang out with friends without spending all of your hard-earned cash. However, some of these groups are great and totally worth every penny. Just give it a lot of thought before you sign up for every organization that gives you a free cup and a t-shirt.
TIP #13: Scholarships, Work Study, and Assistantships
There are lots of ways to help get school cost paid for, but the kicker is, you’ve got to be early! One of the most important things is to be early for everything you apply for. Scholarships may be hard to come by, but there are a lot out there.
A mistake that most people make is that they stop applying for scholarships after their freshman year because they think that the only scholarships out there are the ones you get at the beginning and last all the way through school. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I picked up more than $30,000 in extra scholarships between my sophomore and senior year of college from outside sources. I tell you this not to brag, but to encourage you. Scholarships are out there, you’ve just got to find them.
I spent a lot of time every fall semester googling and applying for scholarships related to my major because the majority of those scholarships had deadlines in early January. What’s even crazier is often times a lot of these scholarships only have a few people apply for them because most people are too lazy! I had a couple of local scholarships where I was only competing against less than 10 people. There are lots of places like fastweb that have a large database of scholarships. But I’ve found that the best place to start is Google. Search for anything that is unique to you, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, handicaps, sports, musical instruments, or college major. Make sure to check out any professional organizations in your field; many of these organizations offer scholarships. But I can’t stress this enough, start now, and get on the ball!
There are also ways to help get part of school covered by working on campus. Work study is a great opportunity to allow students to get part of their tuition covered by working a few hours a week on campus. Be sure to check the options your college offers ASAP.
Assistantships are another way to work on campus and typically take the form of helping a professor out with his or her research for 5 to 15 hours a week. You need to talk to someone at your college as soon as possible to ask about possible assistantships in your major. My wife was able to get part of her undergraduate school paid for with an assistantship and she has gotten about 3/4 of her graduate school paid for with an assistantship. These can be very lucrative ways to cut the cost of school down, plus they offer the huge benefit of getting great experience in your field!
TIP #14: Plan Ahead For Internships and/or Co-Ops
Finding a good internship or co-op can be instrumental to your long-term success. Not only can it provide a good income while you’re in college, it will also give you good experience in your field and possibly open up doors to jobs after you graduate. You need to get on top of this and start looking now for what type of internships the juniors and seniors in your major are getting.
Start thinking about what type jobs you might like to try out and see what companies in your area offer internships. Even though you probably won’t be applying your freshman year, it’s important to get an idea of the type of companies to look for. Internships are extremely beneficial and as someone who ended up getting a job after college at the place I interned, I can vouch for the importance of an internship.
TIP #15: If You Have No Idea What You are Doing, Get Out
I know this may sound tough to hear, and counter to what you’ve been told, but college is not a place to find out who you are. What?!? I know, it’s shocking. Maybe it used to be that way, but it isn’t anymore. Our society tells us that everyone needs to go to college. While I don’t believe that’s true, I think the reason we are told that is because in today’s world college is a business. They charge you money and in return they teach you things that hopefully will help you make more money. When people start to realize that universities are set up like businesses they will be better off. Just like a business you don’t want to pay money if you’re not getting a quality product. And if you are taking random classes across six different majors with no idea what you want to do, you’re NOT getting a quality product.
When done correctly college is an investment because you put money in now and later you make more money because of it. But this only works if you know what you want to do. I know guys who spent 8 years or more to get a 4-year degree! That’s insane! What a huge waste of time and money. They would have been better off working at a retail store or flipping burgers for the first 4 years while they figured out what they want to do with their life.
College is an EXTREMELY expensive place to find out what you want to do. And I don’t recommend going into debt to try and find out what you like. But you will be told that college is a place to find out who you are and that it is perfectly normal to change majors 7 times. You need to ignore this; I know lots of people who are drowning in debt and can’t get a good job all because they thought college was a place to “find out who they really are.”
There are plenty of ways to shadow people who work in the career fields you think that you would be interested in, I encourage this actually. Try to meet some local people who work in fields you think you might be interested in. Then go shadow them for a day and see what they actually do on a day-to-day basis. There are more people now than ever before who go to college, graduate, and still don’t know what they want to do; then they wind up back in mom and dad’s basement working a job they could have gotten without the expensive degree. If you have no idea what you want to do, go get a job and seek out as many different careers as you can. College is extremely expensive and time-consuming, avoid it if you have no idea what you’re doing.
College is tough and there is a lot to learn when you first start. Try to take it one step at a time and focus on trying to think through your decisions. If you can get some good money management skills under your belt now the 40-year-old you will be extremely grateful.
Good luck as you start this school year; leave a comment and let me know what your #1 college tip is!