It’s not Accounting 101. It’s not Finance 101. It’s Money 101, a class you probably won’t find on your school’s course list, but one that’s as important to your financial future as your degree.
I never took Money 101 when I entered college in the 80s and, as a result, I made mistakes. I overdrafted my checking freshman year and signed up for a credit card at the campus store in exchange for a tee shirt. When I left for a study abroad trip to Mexico, I figured that because my credit card bill was sent to my parents’ house they’d just have to pay it – right? Wrong, I learned as I came home to a dinged credit score.
My parents used this freshman mistake as an opportunity to teach me Money 101 – and it helped me take control of my wallet for the rest of my college career and beyond. Still, I wish I’d known more before college. At U.S. Bank, our research shows that students look to their parents as the primary teacher, but at the same time very few parents actively teach money management. Although they say they’re comfortable talking to their kids about topics like piggy-bank saving and budgeting, they tend to shy away from more complicated topics like credit and investing. As a result, students are too often forced to learn the hard way.
Curious if things had changed at all since I was in college, the other day I asked my kids’ babysitter, a junior at Florida State University, about her experience. She said that first and foremost, she wished she knew more about budgeting. She’d also made mistakes her freshman year with over-drafting and had to learn quickly through trial and error. Having never learned Money 101 at home or in the classroom, she asked me, “Why do schools teach the details of how to calculate the curve of a line but offer no classes on taxes, budgeting or savings?” That’s the exact question I had when I was in school; decades later the conversation is the same.
You’re not alone if you’ve made similar mistakes. The thing is, you probably haven’t learned much about money in school. Now, with back-to-school season in full swing, here are some tips to help you:
Knowledge is the first step to feeling comfortable managing your money. Use the tools available to you – through your bank, trustworthy blogs or your financial aid office – to become financially literate. Female students have told us that they’re less confident and comfortable with their finances than male students, but they also solidly outperformed their male counterparts when quizzed about topics like credit and investing. You may be underestimating how much you already know.
Create a budget and revisit it monthly as you track your spending.
Living on a budget doesn’t have to mean existing on a diet of ramen noodles. Using credit and debit cards makes it easy to track and categorize your monthly expenses. Even if you’re living off of student loans disbursed twice a year or trying to stretch summer job earnings throughout the school year, breaking up your spending in a monthly budget will give you peace of mind and prepare you for post-grad life (when you may also have to add dreaded student loans to the mix). Setting priorities is key, and here’s how:
- Track what is coming in from jobs, student loans or your parents.
- Track what is going out by estimating what you spend on necessities (and don’t forget to include paying yourself first by setting aside 10% for savings or emergencies).
- Budget how you spend the rest of your discretionary money (and be sure to put your budget down in writing using Excel or online budgeting tools).
- Update your budget as you go along to incorporate lessons learned.
Understand how to avoid over-drafting to save money and prevent stress.
According to a Pew study, more than a third of today’s “heavy over-drafters” are millennials, but it’s not too late to change this trend. Over-drafting is when you withdraw more money from your account than you have in the account, and the available balance goes below zero. A couple ways to prevent this include: asking your bank about the order in which they process your transactions, and checking with your bank to see if you have standard overdraft coverage or if you can get overdraft protection. This information will provide you with a better understanding of how much of your money is available and when, as well as what your options are if there’s not enough money to cover a purchase.
Protect yourself from identity theft.
Today is much more of a digital age than when I was in college, and the bad news is that you’re increasingly susceptible to identity theft. Be proactive in defending yourself: check your bank account activity daily; don’t share your passwords; keep your general and anti-virus software up to date; don’t click on suspicious links; don’t give personal information over the phone; don’t do sensitive transactions on public Wi-Fi or shared computers; keep passwords in a secure place; and use different passwords (i.e., they shouldn’t all be “Longhorns1995,” no matter how much school spirit you have). The good news is that it’s easier than ever to track account activity through mobile or online banking; plus, your bank may even have text or email alerts you can sign up to receive every time a transaction goes through your account.
Use your credit card to set yourself up for the future.
College can be such an insulated environment; it’s difficult to think about your post-grad future and financial goals. This is especially true when, according to our research, the majority of college students say they’re “just managing” or “barely keeping up” with day-to-day finances as it is. However, using a credit card responsibly during college is easy, and can build up your credit score to set yourself up for major purchases – such as a car, and later, a home – once you’re in the working world. What does it mean to use a credit card responsibly? Use it to pay bills and make everyday purchases, then pay off the balance in full each month. Make sure you don’t spend beyond your means.
Robyn Gilson is the Vice President and Customer Experience Director at U.S. Bank, managing the bank’s voice of the customer, customer strategies, action planning and student financial education programs e.g. Student Union. She grew up in Texas, earning a bachelor’s degree from Southwestern University and a master’s from University of Texas.