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Let’s be real: College life is expensive. But if we’re taking a glass-half-full view of it, that makes your college years a perfect time to hone your money management skills. Yes, it’s already difficult balancing classes, work, and a social life, but you’ll benefit a lot from taking a little time to get your finances in order.

Organizing your finances can reduce your stress, save you money, and make you feel more confident about your future. Nobody expects a college student to make perfect financial decisions, but you can get on the right overall financial path.

Whether you’re just looking for enough money to get by or trying to get on a path to early retirement, these financial tips for students can help.

Money Management Advice for College Students

teens students school college smartphone

The good news is: It doesn’t take much to make a big difference in your finances. Below are several simple tips that can set you up for financial success—even if you don’t implement every single one of them into your life right away.

1. Create a Budget

spreadsheet gsheet budget

The sooner you create a monthly budget, the better. While your college budget is likely tight, you might have some ways to loosen it up.

To create your budget, start by adding up all of your monthly income from jobs, student loans, parents, and any other source. Then add up all of your monthly living expenses, both fixed and variable. Fixed expenses are things like rent or a phone bill with a regular monthly plan. Variable expenses are things like gas, groceries, and dining out.

If you bring in more money than you spend, consider allocating some of that excess to a savings account each month. Then make sure to “pay yourself first” in future months by contributing money to savings before spending any on discretionary purchases like movie tickets or shopping. (It can help to have specific savings goals in place.)

Many people starting a budget for the first time try to organize it in a spreadsheet. But you don’t have to start from scratch—you can use our free budget template. Just sign up in the box below and it’ll land in your inbox shortly.

Related: How to Get Free Money Now [15 Ways to Earn Money]

2. Take Advantage of Student Discounts + Resources

You’re likely paying a substantial amount of money for your college tuition (as well as room and board). But chances are it comes with some cool amenities. Take advantage of them. Your college likely has included resources such as libraries, gyms, and recreational facilities, and it might even have free wellness services, peer mentoring, technology rentals, and more.

Fun doesn’t always have to cost money, either. Colleges often put on free dances and social events, and some sporting events might be free of charge.

As a college student, you likely also qualify for discounts on campus, off campus, and online.

Here are a few known student discounts, regardless of where you go to school.

  • FedEx sometimes offers student discounts of between 15%-30% for select shipping and packing services. (These offers often coincide with back-to-school season.)
  • Students can get Hulu’s ad-supported plan for $1.99 per month (75% off the regular price).
  • Apple offers discounts on Macs and iPads to current and newly accepted college students, as well as their parents, as well as “faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers of all grade levels.”

Students often are eligible for discounts on experiences. Museums, aquariums, and zoos frequently provide discounted rates, for instance.

So always have your student ID with you. You never know when it might save you money!

Related: 7 Best Round-Up Apps for Saving + Investing Money Instantly

3. Buy Used Textbooks (Sell Old Ones)

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average full-time, in-state undergraduate student at a four-year public university spends $1,226 on books and supplies in an academic year. About a quarter of students reported working additional hours to cover books and materials, and 11% skipped meals to afford them.

One way to save a chunk of money every semester? Buy used textbooks. Yes, some professors will require you to buy brand-new textbooks. But some won’t. Importantly: Even in cases where there’s a new edition of the same textbook, the changes between editions are often minimal, so you can get by using the previous year’s edition. (A special thanks to professors who let students know when this is the case. You’re the real heroes.)

And once you’re done: Sell your textbooks. Some university bookstores will buy your textbooks back. But if that’s not an option (or if you want to try to get a better price), post them for sale online.

Related: How to Invest Money: 5 Steps to Start Investing w/Little Money

4. Build an Emergency Fund

Even if you don’t have many expenses as a college student, it’s still wise to create an emergency fund.

Your major expenses—tuition and housing, for instance—might already be covered by scholarships, financial aid, student loans, and/or scholarships. But you might still end up with costly, unexpected expenses. For instance, you might lose or damage expensive technology (like a laptop) or textbooks, and fixing or replacing those items might not be in your college budget.

Emergency savings help you quickly get what you need without drastically altering your budget. Without emergency money, you might need to put the expense on a credit card (and rack up interest charges if you don’t pay it off) or go without what you need and risk harming your grades. With emergency money, you can fix the problem and move on.

And if you never need those emergency savings in college? Great! Now you have a head start on the emergency savings you’ll need as an adult.

You could store your emergency funds in a traditional savings account. But a high-yield savings account or money market account are better places to store your money, as they can help you earn a decent amount of interest while still keeping your funds safe.

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Related: 18 Passive Income Apps that Give & Make You Money

5. Avoid High-Interest Debt

One thing you should avoid at all costs is high-interest debt.

Let’s say you need a laptop that costs $500. If you save up for it and pay for it up front, you’ll spend $500 on that laptop. But if you put it on a credit card with a high interest rate (let’s say 18%), even if you pay off 5% of the balance each month, you’ll end up $645—that’s an additional $145 thanks to interest!

This might involve a big change in your spending habits, to saving up for items rather than putting them on cards and paying them off. But when you minimize your credit card debt, you maximize your purchasing power.

Related: Is It Better to Pay Off Your Credit Card or Keep a Balance?

6. Automate Your Savings

Even if you don’t have much money to spare, even small amounts can add up over time, so save money whenever you can, regardless of how little those sums might be.

One way to make this process easier, especially with smaller dollar amounts, is to automate your savings.

Automating your savings is pretty easy. For instance, you can set up recurring transfers from your checking account into a savings account each month. Or your employer might be able to split your paycheck between both your checking and saving accounts.

Automatic savings apps (commonly also referred to as microsavings apps) are extremely useful. Many of them help you save every time you spend money through features such as round-ups, where purchases are rounded up to the nearest dollar and the “spare change” is saved or invested for you. Features also often include savings matches, cash-back rewards, interest on account balances, and more.

Related: 7 Best Round-Up Apps for Saving + Investing Money Instantly

7. Invest (It’s Never Too Early!)

Many college students have two common misconceptions about investing:

  1. “I’m too young too invest.”
  2. “I need a lot of money to invest.”

If you’re in college, you’re probably 18, which means you’re old enough to open your own brokerage account. Heck, we even review investing apps that are best for college students.

And thanks to the growing popularity of fractional shares, you can often get started with just one dollar.

If you’re a college student and you don’t have much money to invest, we typically suggest beginner investing apps (or novice-focused investment apps) with fractional investing, educational resources, and simple, user-friendly interfaces.

Robinhood (Best Simple Stock Trading App for Beginners)

robinhood signup new2

  • Available: Web, mobile app (Apple iOS, Android)
  • Price: Free trades
  • Sign up here

Robinhood is a pioneer of commission-free trading, jumping into the investing public’s consciousness in 2013 when they rolled out commission-free trading. They remain a standout option for cost-minded investors thanks to their continued $0 commissions on stocks, ETFs, and options, as well as for its fractional trading, which allows people to invest with as little as $1.

More importantly, though, Robinhood has evolved from a bare-bones app appealing to mostly beginner investors to a fuller-featured account suitable for a wider range of experience levels.

For instance, Robinhood now offers individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and Roth IRAs via Robinhood Retirement. Functionally, it comes up short compared to many other IRA providers because of its investment options. It offers just stocks and ETFs; like with its brokerage account, mutual funds aren’t available. Options aren’t currently available, though Robinhood has explicitly stated that options will be made available soon.

However, Robinhood Retirement still stands out from the pack because it’s the only IRA provider that offers matching funds. If you open up an IRA with Robinhood Retirement, Robinhood will match 1% of any IRA transfers, 401(k) rollovers, and annual contributions to your account—and 3% if you pay for the Robinhood Gold service ($5 per month)—typically almost immediately after you make your contribution. Better still: Any matches made on annual contributions don’t count toward your contribution limit.

(Friendly message from your WealthUp tax expert: The reason the IRA match doesn’t count toward your annual IRA contribution limit is because Robinhood treats it as interest income in your IRA.)

Sign up for a Robinhood brokerage account or Robinhood retirement account today.

Related: 11 Best Fractional Share Brokerages

8. Get a Part-Time Job

Academics should always be your top priority. But many college students find they can manage a part-time job, working at least a few hours a week to keep their bank accounts happy. If you’re earning money, you won’t have to feel as guilty when you need (or want) to spend money. It’ll allow you to set money aside for the future. And it obviously makes managing your budget easier.

Some college students also enjoy working because they can make friends or even professional connections. And where it’s connected to your major, that employment history might even look good on your resume.

If you’re like many college students, you might not have a car on campus. No worries. You can also consider online jobs and side hustles to make a few extra bucks.

Related: 50 Best Money-Making Apps That Pay You Real Money

9. Build Credit

Building credit takes time; there are no real shortcuts. But it’s worth the effort. Establishing a positive credit history as a college student will make it easier to be approved for things such as car loans, mortgages, and other big-ticket purchases—and it’ll help you get better rates on those loans as well.

Most college students start building credit by opening a credit card. However, you might not be approved for an unsecured credit card right away. A secured credit card is easier to obtain, and it can be a great stepping stone.

Step Visa Card

Step savings signup

The free Step Visa Card is a unique “hybrid” secured credit card that offers the safety of a debit card, but it functions like a Visa credit card—including the ability to build your credit history.

Simply add money to this FDIC-insured account and you can use your card anywhere Visa is accepted. You can also use your card to withdraw money from more than 30,000 ATMs for free.

And you needn’t fear that you’ll overdraft—you can’t spend any money you don’t have.

One of the most unique and powerful features of the Step card is its ability to build your credit history. With this optional feature, Step will report the past two years’ worth of information—transactions, payment history, and more—to the credit bureaus. (Children using the card with parental permission can even enjoy this benefit once the child turns 18.) That can greatly improve your chances of building a better credit score, which can help lower the cost of things like student loans and auto insurance.

Other benefits include Visa’s Fraud Protection and Zero Liability guarantee; a competitive APY on Savings Goals; Savings Roundups; the ability to earn, buy, and sell Bitcoin; and much more.

Lastly, Step is absolutely free: No monthly fees, no subscription fees, no account minimum fees, and no ATM fees within Step’s network of 30,000-plus ATMs.

Check out our Step review to learn more, or sign up today.

Related: 14 Best Apps That Give You Money for Signing Up [Free Money]

Finances for Students: FAQs

What is the 50/30/20 rule?

The 50/30/20 rule is a budgeting guideline for how to spend your after-tax income. According to the rule …

  • 50% of your take-home pay should be spent on your needs.
  • 20% should go toward savings.
  • The remaining 30% is spending money that you can use on whatever you want.

This rule works for some people, but not for all. You might require less optional spending money and want to save more. For those in high-cost-of-living areas, you might need to spend more than half of your take-home pay on essentials. So consider trying out the 50/30/20 rule, but feel free to ditch it if it doesn’t work with your particular personal finances.

What should a college student know about finances?

College is an excellent time to learn more about managing money and other personal finance skills. Students should know how to create a college budget, start funding an emergency savings account, and learn the risks of taking on high-interest debt. Ideally, a college student should also eventually know how to establish credit and manage a credit card, and they should also start learning the basics of investing if they haven’t already.

What is the hardest part of managing your finances as a student?

The hardest part about money management as a student is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You might not know the importance of good credit and what affects credit scores. You probably know saving is important, but you might not know how to save with a very limited income. You might think you can’t invest without large sums of money. The list goes on.

To improve your finances as a student, you need to improve your financial literacy first. While college students usually don’t have a lot of money to work with, they can always learn the optimal ways to manage the money they do have.


About the Author

Riley Adams is the Founder and CEO of Young and the Invested. He is a licensed CPA who worked at Google as a Senior Financial Analyst overseeing advertising incentive programs for the company’s largest advertising partners and agencies. Previously, he worked as a utility regulatory strategy analyst at Entergy Corporation for six years in New Orleans.

His work has appeared in major publications like Kiplinger, MarketWatch, MSN, TurboTax, Nasdaq, Yahoo! Finance, The Globe and Mail, and CNBC’s Acorns. Riley currently holds areas of expertise in investing, taxes, real estate, cryptocurrencies and personal finance where he has been cited as an authoritative source in outlets like CNBC, Time, NBC News, APM’s Marketplace, HuffPost, Business Insider, Slate, NerdWallet, Investopedia, The Balance and Fast Company.

Riley holds a Masters of Science in Applied Economics and Demography from Pennsylvania State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Finance from Centenary College of Louisiana.