50 money lessons you learn (or wish you’d learned) in college

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Managing Editor & Certified Financial Planner™

Hanna Horvath, CFP®, is a certified financial planner and former managing editor at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in NBC News, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Best Company, and HerMoney.

Published September 24, 2019 | 12 min read

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Featured Image 50 money lessons you learn (or wish you’d learned) in college

Once you’re out of college and living independently, you’ll be making your own choices, including how to handle your money. You’ll have big decisions to make, like how to budget your income, start saving for future money goals and paying back any student loans.

While personal finance isn’t a required course at most colleges, there are plenty of money lessons to learn during your time on campus, from managing a side hustle to taking advantage of student discounts. So whether you’re currently taking classes or you’ve graduated, there are plenty of valuable money lessons you learn (or wish you’d learned) in college. Here are 50.

1. Make (& actually stick to) a budget

While you may not be worried about things like a mortgage or retirement savings yet, you can still set money goals for yourself. The easiest way to stay on track? Budgeting. Try this simple downloadable budgeting spreadsheet to get started.

2. Take advantage of student freebies

Students get access to a whole host of discounts and deals, from clothes to technology to furniture, with a valid student ID. Check out the complete list of freebies here.

3. Get free advice where you can

Most people can’t afford the wisdom of a financial planner while also paying tuition. You can get some easy money moves sent right to your inbox thanks to the Easy Money newsletter.

4. Start building an emergency fund ASAP

Life happens, and if you don’t have money set aside, you may find yourself in debt after an emergency. Prepare ahead of time and start building an emergency fund — experts recommend having between 3-6 months of expenses set aside. Learn more here.

5. Find a part-time job that fits your schedule

Taking on a side hustle is the best way to make money while juggling courses. Whether you’re looking to pay down student loan debt, save some money or make extra cash for pizza, here are 11 side hustles for college students.

6. Learn what a good credit score is ...

A credit score of 700 or higher is generally considered “good.” You’ll need a good credit score to get an auto loan, personal loan, credit card and mortgage down the line.

7. ... & start building credit

You can build credit with a student credit card or by asking your parents to add you as an authorized user to one of their existing accounts. Pay your bills on time and pay off your debt each month. It’s also important to not close a credit card account just because you don’t use it anymore — keeping that line of credit open extends your credit history, which boosts your score.

8. Learn how to check your credit report

Checking your credit report regularly is a good way to spot whether your identity has been stolen or your financial information has been messed with. You can check a credit report from each of the three bureaus once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com.

9. Pay your bills on-time

Missed credit card payments will rack up late fees — and wreck your credit. Learn how to improve your credit score in 30 days or less.

10. Keep the rent under 30% of your budget

Once you move out of the dorms, you’ll have to find an apartment that fits your budget. Keeping your monthly rent under 30% of your monthly income is the generally accepted metric for housing affordability.

11. Health insurance is a must

You never know what could happen — and you definitely don’t want to be saddled with a giant medical bill. Whether you’re staying on your parents plan, shopping the exchange to get your own coverage or getting it through your university, it’s important to be covered.

12. Use an HSA

If you have a high-deductible health care plan, a tax-advantaged health savings account can help you save for and cover out-of-pocket medical expenses. Learn how to open an HSA.

13. Visit the health center

If your school has a campus health center, be sure to take advantage of it while you’re enrolled. The health center isn’t just a place to go when you think you might have strep throat — it’s a great resource. Most health centers offer free appointments, free or low-cost birth control, flu shots and even health workshops and counseling.

14. Health insurance isn’t enough

Health insurance can cover your medical bills, but what happens if you get so sick or injured that you can’t work at all? Disability insurance can help ensure you're finances don’t get wrecked if you have to stop working.

15. Don’t pay full price for insurance

There are lots of deals just for college students that go beyond discounts at restaurants and museums. For example, check out these car insurance discounts for students.

16. Consider renters insurance

If you’re renting, renters insurance is an effective and affordable way to ensure everything under your rented space (and outside of it) is protected. Some landlords may even require it — here are the best renters insurance companies out there.

17. Look for scholarships throughout the year

The scholarship search doesn’t end just because you’ve paid this semester's tuition. Every dollar you won’t have to pay back via scholarships will really make a difference come graduation day.

18. Know how much your student loans will cost

Most college students will be paying back student loans for decades. While you’re in college, estimate your monthly student loan bill for after your graduation. Knowing how much you’ll spend will help you plan better for the future. Not sure how student loans even work? Start with this guide.

19. ... & get a head start on repaying them

Many students have unsubsidized loans, which accrue interest while you’re in school. While you don’t have to start repayment until you graduate, paying off the interest — even in small amounts — can save you thousands over the course of your loan.

20. Start saving for retirement now

It’ll be difficult to save enough for retirement if you wait too long. Even putting just a little bit of money into a retirement account, like a Roth IRA, while you’re in your 20s could leave you with thousands more when you retire, thanks to compounding interest.

21. Understand the basic process of filing your federal income tax return

You will probably have to pay income taxes for the rest of your life, so it’s helpful to understand the basics of how they work. Start with this simple guide to filing a tax return.

22. If you must invest, do it smartly

Don’t burn off your work-study job income trying to beat the stock market. You’re better off putting it in a high-yield savings account. But if you just want to invest for fun, there’s no harm in buying a few stocks and tracking their performance. Check out our guide on how to pick stocks.

23. Close your childhood bank account & get your own

When you were a kid, you probably had a joint bank account with your parents so you could learn about savings. Now that you’re an adult, consider closing that account and opening up a student bank account on your own. Many banks and credit unions offer compelling incentives for young people, such as high interest rates and no-fee checking.

24. Learn to read the fine print 

If you do decide you need a credit card, make sure you know what you’re signing up for. While some student cards are legit, many companies target students with sign-up bonuses and low intro APRs only to hit you with high fees and rate jumps later. Read your credit card agreement before you sign anything. 

25. Pay off small debts now

If you owe a bunch of debt, the best method for paying it off is to start with the smallest debts owed and work your way up. It will make you feel better about your debt situation, and you’ll see that credit score go up slowly but surely.

26. Automate your savings

When it comes time to choose between new sneakers or a contribution to your savings account, let’s face it: You’re going to pick the sneakers. So take the decision out of your hands and set up automatic deposits from your paycheck. You’ll never forget to save.

27. Pay with cash

If you have good credit and your pain point is savings, leave your credit card at home, take a $100 or $200 out of the ATM on a Monday morning and make that your spending money for the week. In general, using cash instead of plastic can help you spend within your means and avoid unnecessary purchases that cause you to dip into your savings. Here’s how to go cash-only this fall.

28. Cut out extra streaming services

Streaming is getting pricier. While catching up on your favorite Netflix show is a great way to relieve stress, students don’t need to sign up for every service available. Choose the ones you frequent the most, and cut ties with the others. Can’t give up Netflix? You can still save money by ...

29. ... splitting it with roommates

If you’re living with other people but you’re only splitting the rent, you’re missing out on a lot of other savings opportunities. Those streaming subscriptions add up over time and if you’re all hanging out and watching TV together, you might as well see if they are willing to chip in.

30. Skip the pricey takeout

Most freshmen eat at the dining hall, but when that gets boring and you can’t drive or walk yourself over the grocery store, take-out is the next best option. Unfortunately, delivery fees add up quickly and your spending money will quickly be depleted. Instead ...

31. ... prep your food for the week

Because what else are you spending that lazy Sunday doing? Prepare lunch for the upcoming week while you’re watching NFL Sunday or binging on that new Netflix show. Don’t have a kitchen yet?

32. Cook in your dorm — & not just Cup Noodles

Instant ramen may be the reigning champion of cheap dorm food, but if you have enough dorm space, you actually have several tasty options for dining in without breaking the bank. Check out our recipe for a nutritious and delicious 45-cent vegetable soup. All you need is an Instant Pot.

33. Rent your textbooks or buy them used

Everyone knows that textbooks make up a significant part of your college expenses. But did you know that you can rent textbooks for a fraction of the price? There are several textbook rental services available, like Chegg or CampusBooks, and even Amazon lets you choose between buying new, buying used and renting.

34. If you commute to campus, buy a used car

You don’t need a shiny new car to make it to your classes. A used car will do the job just fine for a fraction of the cost. You can save money if you figure out how much car you can afford before you shop.

35. Take advantage of a free gym membership

Regular exercise will help you stay healthy. Gym memberships get expensive, so take advantage if you have a free membership to a school fitness center. Many schools offer free exercise classes, free club or intramural sports and open gym hours.

36. Look into rewards programs & loyalty cards

Can’t resist the local bubble tea shop near your Tuesday afternoon class? You might want to check if they have an app or loyalty card. Lots of retail and food joints offer incentives for repeat customers.

37. Look for free events on campus

If you’re only heading to campus for class, you’re missing out on a lot of free entertainment. Keep an eye out for flyers, Facebook groups and event calendars to find out when the next free concert, lecture, yoga class or open mic night is happening.

38. Always be on the lookout for free food

Free events aren’t just a welcome source of entertainment, they can also mean a free meal. Check your college paper or blog for upcoming events that include free food. In addition to attending a cool talk or show you’ll also save on groceries that week.

39. Raid the curb on move-out day

Come graduation time, tons of seniors will be moving out of their student housing and off-campus apartments — and most of them aren’t going to take all their stuff. If you’re savvy, you can pick up good quality furniture, clothes and books that new grads leave out for the taking.

40. Skip the bar, drink at home

Drinking is by no means an essential part of the college experience, but it is a common collegiate pastime. Treat your local bars as a treat, not a weekend must. Save money by brushing up on your bartending skills and having friends over to your place on weekend nights instead — assuming you’re of legal drinking age, of course.

41. Sign up for a tutor

College is one of the only times in your adult life you can get free help with your work and assignments, so take advantage of it while you can. Most schools have peer tutoring programs that match you with another student who can help you with a class you’re struggling in, copy-edit your papers or help you outline a schedule to keep you on track over the course of the semester. Even if you’re a standout student, signing up for a tutor can be a good way to hold yourself accountable.

42. Use the campus shuttle

Many schools have free shuttles that transport students around campus. If you’re looking to save money, delete your Uber or Lyft app off your phone and wait for the shuttle instead. Take advantage of any free bike-sharing program for students at your school.

43. Don’t rack up fines ...

Living on campus can be a really fun part of the college experience, but it also means you’re subject to the school’s rules. If your school has a fire safety rule about candles in dorm rooms and you’re busted with candles, it could mean a pricey fine. Same with damaging school property, hosting a party with too many people or other types of common violations. Brush up on the dorm rules to avoid paying unnecessary fines.

44. ... & those other pesky fees

Some fees — like ATMs, late payments, foreign transactions — are inconvenient and unnecessary. Here’s a complete list of fees you should never pay and how to avoid them.

45. Sell your clothes

If you need to refresh your closet, try selling your clothes before buying a new wardrobe. Try a local consignment shop, Ebay, or apps like Poshmark and Tradesy. Learn how to monetize your old junk here.

46. Avoid lifestyle creep

Once you leave college, you’re going to start making money, probably more than you ever have, depending on your degree. A common mistake is to start spending more than you ever have to. Your long-term finances will fare better if you keep your spending at the same level it was in school.

47. Get a password manager

College is the first time a lot of people have to fend for themselves. Bank accounts, student accounts, social media — there are a lot of opportunities out there for scammers to steal your identity, which can have huge financial repercussions. Use a password manager to keep your passwords safe and unique.

48. Loyalty is overrated

No one works at the same job for 40 years anymore. The data show people who quit tend to earn more than people who stay, especially in a strong economy.

49. Flex your networking muscles

There are lots of opportunities on college campuses to pick up networking skills and prepare for the real world. Make it a goal to attend events like conferences and symposiums with alumni, professors and other students regularly, and brush up on these networking tips before you go.

50. Set long-term financial goals now

You’re in college and that’s a pretty big milestone — but it is just the beginning. If you want to own a car or a house someday, for example, setting even a basic plan now will help you stay on track for the future.

Image: Pekic