Upperclassmen Share Money Advice for College Freshmen

Heading off to college? We have some tips to help you make the best money moves your first year.

OK, you may not want to hear ancient advice from this writer (Bowling Green State University class of 1998), so we asked some upperclassmen and a grad who’s perhaps closer to graduation than retirement.

Those upperclassmen bring first-hand knowledge to the table: When the now-senior class started college in 2017-18, 86% were awarded financial aid, and among those who went to public institutions, 46% took out student loans.

Many of our respondents admitted they might not have listened to their own advice when they were freshmen — but heeding these words of wisdom could save you money and help you avoid debt long after you’ve finished your final exams.

Advice I’d Give My College Freshman Self

College kids are busy. So when we say we “spoke” with them, we talked on the phone, we emailed, we Zoomed and we texted with them.

Here’s their advice to avoid a freshman financial fallout (almost as dreaded as the freshman 15 — but that’s another story).

1. Don’t Buy All the Textbooks Right Away

Typically, we’re big fans of finishing before a due date — particularly when it comes to homework or a student loan payment. So consider this the exception: Don’t buy all the required texts listed on your course schedule before the class starts.

“I wish I could tell my freshman year self to always wait the first week to see if you truly need your textbooks,” Isabelle Poole, a junior at the University of North Florida, wrote in a text. “What I found was that a teacher will list a textbook, but you’ll never touch it. Wait a week, unless it’s clear you need it the first day.”

University of Georgia senior Melanie Jean Robertson said she learned more about necessary reading from students who took the class before her.

She suggested seeking out Facebook groups for your class or major, then asking upperclassmen in the group if you really need to shell out money for the text.

Bonus: If you do need to buy the textbooks, Robertson said the Facebook group is also a good place to sell your books to the next round of newbies.

2. Apply for Scholarships… When You’re in College

This is a side by side photo of a college student from her freshmen year to her senior year

Remember waaay back in high school and all the time you spent applying for scholarships?

Glad that’s finished, right? But wait: There’s more scholarship money to be had.

As a high school senior, Robertson earned a state scholarship that covered her tuition, but it didn’t occur to her to apply for additional scholarships after she started college.

“I personally thought the only scholarships you can receive were the ones when you were a high school senior going into college,” she said.

After hearing from a friend who won a departmental scholarship, Robertson applied for one this past spring — and ended up winning it.

“I just wish I had known about it a little bit sooner,” she said. “I could have been applying for scholarships right from the get-go.”

In addition to money that’s available within your department, Robertson suggested searching national and state scholarship databases by your major and year in school.

3. Budgets Are Your Friends!

A side by side portrait of a college student from freshmen year to senior year.

Don’t freak out: We’re not telling you to create a ledger of debits and credits (you’ll get enough of that in Accounting 101).

Budgeting doesn’t need to be overly complicated — just remember to include the essentials, Poole noted.

“If you have a job, always budget for gas,” she said. “It will help so much in the long run.”

And while she might not suggest a spreadsheet, Poole did recommend doing a little mental math when it comes to using your meal plan your first year.

“Use it wisely — don’t stock up on snacks,” Poole wrote, adding that using the meal plan for, you know, actual meals is a better use of the funds and helps reduce the amount you’ll spend on groceries and dining out.

Pro Tip

Go to the head of the class with this guide to budgeting for college students.

If you receive a financial aid package, also budget that money, said Emma Jacobs, a senior at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. And put aside at least some for an emergency fund — especially this year.

“With really uncertain situations like Covid, my work hours are lessening and I have fewer opportunities to earn more money,” she said. “We get our next financial aid package in either late August or early September, and I think it’s going to be pretty tight from now until then. I wish I had planned a little bit of a budget for then.”

4. Use One of Your Electives to Take a Financial Literacy Course

This is a side by side photo of a college student from his freshmen year to his senior year.

We get it. Beach volleyball probably sounds like a lot more fun than financial literacy when you’re choosing freshman year electives.

But if you have the chance, use your first year as an opportunity to learn financial lessons you can use throughout your college career, advised Jake Schweizer, a 2020 graduate of the University of Central Florida. (He’s also the younger brother of The Penny Hoarder’s Email Content Writer Grace Schweizer.)

“Everyone (including me) always says that they wish they taught things like how to budget, how to fill out taxes, how to invest,” he wrote in a text. “That’s something I wish I had thought of in my freshman year.”

Even if it isn’t a class, your college likely has resources for learning about personal finance — take advantage of them. Jacobs noted that her campus offers a financial literacy program called AFLOAT that has taught her about managing money after graduation.

“We’ve [covered] credit cards, credit scores, student loans,” she said. “It provides the basic knowledge you need to know as a college student.”

5. There Is Life After the Dorm

A side by side portrait of a college student from freshmen year to senior year.

For many of you, freshman year is the first (extended) time away from home, so if financial aid covers your room and board — aka dorm and meal plan — that’s one less financial stress. Yay!

And if you receive more financial aid than you end up needing to cover expenses in a semester, you’ll receive a check for the difference. Double yay!

Your future self will thank you for saving that money, but Jacobs said she understands the temptation to spend. After her first year, Jacobs received a refund that felt like “free money” since it was for a grant that she didn’t have to pay it back.

“I had never had that large of an amount of money before in my life,” she said. “I was like, oh look, I have all this money, and I still have my three years left. I’ll be fine, I’ll get more.

“I spent all of my refund, and I really wish I had saved it.”

Pro Tip

College expenses extend beyond what’s listed in your financial award letter. Plan ahead so you’re not left scrambling to cover these five hidden costs of college.

It turns out, college — and life — gets more expensive after you move off campus.

“Now I have a car, and I have to replace my tires, and I’m getting a new apartment,” Jacobs said. “I really wish I had saved at least some of that to provide a little bit of cushion.”

The same goes for money you earn from a part-time job — don’t let the figure on your paycheck lull you into believing you have that much money to spend, Robertson warned.

“I’m really kicking myself because I feel like all that money I made my freshman year I could have saved,” she said. “It could have helped me buy one more text book or helped me buy more clothes for interviews.

“But my freshman year self definitely would not have listened to that advice.”

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Advice she would have given her freshman year self: Keep your part-time job at the bursar’s office because that newspaper gig won’t pay the bills. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that empowers millions of readers nationwide to make smart decisions with their money through actionable and inspirational advice, and resources about how to make, save and manage money.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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