How To Manage Your Money in College
Don't end up living on ramen for four years.
By now, everyone's heard some version of the statement that college has gotten 200 percent more expensive in the last 20-30 years. No one knows how true this is better than college students today. It's rare for me to talk to my friends and not have some kind of conversation about money. Whether we discuss our credit score or choose a restaurant based on price, money is always on our minds. Here are some ways to make it less stressful.
1. Use a financial management app.
An app I use religiously is Mint, which allows you to connect all your bank accounts, loans, credit cards, and other assets and generates graph and charts telling you where your money is going. You can set monthly, bimonthly, or even yearly budgets for things to plan your spending and set goals for saving. It's one of the best developed financial management apps I've tried that don't charge you a monthly fee for access to their services. They will show you sponsored ads from banks and credit cards, but there's no pressure to follow through unless you're truly interested.
If you connect all your accounts to Mint, it will show you your total net worth, debts, income, and other fun statistics. It makes managing your money feel like a game while giving you a bigger picture of your financial health. I like seeing how my net worth changes over time (because it's been increasing) and challenging myself to increase it more.
Being able to see where your money is coming from and going to lets you set goals for spending accordingly. Over time, you gain a better understanding of how much money you truly have in a month. Even if you have a nontraditional job which may pay drastically differently month from month, you can get a vague average income and budget accordingly.
2. Save whatever (and whenever) possible.
If you have a job or a source of income, save anything you can spare, even if that's $5 a month. It'll add up over time and you'll thank yourself if something expensive comes up unexpectedly. As a rule, I try to save at least 10 percent of all the money I make, which means if you're paid weekly, to take 10 percent of your weekly paycheck and put it away. Usually, 10 percent is inconsequential enough not to have a huge impact, but is still enough to add up over time. Consider making a dedicated savings account, maybe even separate from your main bank, to motivate yourself to save and make it harder to spend the money you should be saving.
If your savings account is with a different bank, it puts a delay on how quickly you can have access to your saved money, which might make you reconsider whether you really need those new shoes. In addition, it lets you shop around for a great savings rate. Some of the biggest banks have the worst savings rates, while banks that are based online or are smaller sometimes have much better savings rates. The savings account I have right now gives you 5 percent back on your first $1000! Many credit unions that are based locally will offer better rates and benefits than big corporate banks, so make sure to do your research.
3. Get a side gig.
The gig economy has started booming in the last few years, with virtually everyone having worked for or knowing someone who has worked for a gig company, like Lyft, Uber, or TaskRabbit. There are so many side gigs out there that don't require a dedicated schedule, which makes it much easier for busy college students to do. My favorite side gig at the moment is Amazon Mechanical Turk. If you're over 18 and have an Amazon account, you can work small gigs that people post to the Mechanical Turk website. Rewards vary from a few cents to a few dollars and tasks usually take under an hour. There are so many tasks available you'll surely find some that you enjoy doing. Personally, I only complete tasks that pay more than $0.20 and take no longer than 10 minutes (they usually have a time estimate posted). I never set a schedule of when I turk, but if I have free time and nothing to do, I hop on for a bit. By doing this, I make $50-$100 extra dollars a month, but I have friends who have made $300+ in a month by doing it more often. Although this is by no means a sustainable full-time job, it's easy side money when you have nothing better to do.
4. Take out your weekly budget in cash.
If keeping a budget electronically is too hard for you, consider setting a weekly budget and taking it straight out of your bank account. Many people find it easier to manage their money in cash because spending it feels more "real" and forces them to be aware of every dollar they are physically spending. This can help curb mindless swiping that will only hit you when you look at your bank statement at the end of the month.
A more extreme version of this strategy is the envelope budget. If you want to designate a certain part of your weekly budget to certain things, such as food, use small mailing envelopes. Label each envelope with a different category and put a designated amount of cash inside. Only touch that envelope when you need money for that category and write the amount you take out on the envelope each time. Even better, leave all the envelopes at home and only take what you plan to spend out immediately before you leave. You can even designate an envelope for saving in case you have some extra money left over at the end of the week.
Another financial strategy growing in popularity is micro-investing. With apps like Acorns and Stash, people with as little as $5 can invest. These apps specialize in micro-investing the money you can spare so that you can take advantage of stock market growth without losing out on thousands of dollars. While both the apps charge a small fee ($1 a month), they offer automated investing and allow you to set up automatic deposits if you wish.
Acorns is my investing app of choice because they also offer round-ups. Round-ups involve rounding up every purchase on your card to the nearest dollar and investing these extra cents every few days. This way, you don't even have to consciously deposit money to invest! While these investments will be small, over time they'll add up, and you never know, maybe there will be a big stock boom! If you're interested in trying Acorns and want $5 to start, use this invite link.
6. Build your credit.
While not directly related to your current cash flow, building your credit is incredibly important. I got my first credit card the day I turned 18 and have been building my credit ever since. In today's world, it's hard to do anything without a good credit history; from buying a car to renting an apartment, everything relies on your credit. To get started, consider asking one of your parents to be a cosigner or get a secured credit card, to increase your chances of approval on your first card. Once you've had this card for a while, you can start applying for your own credit cards and increasing your credit limit. Use a credit tracking app that doesn't affect your credit score, like CreditSesame or the one that Mint offers to keep track of how your score is changing over time and what factors are affecting it the most. If possible, always make sure to pay your credit card off in full!