Congratulations, you made it through high school. You cleared the first great hurdle and are ready to experience the most freedom you’ve ever had in your life. All of your older family and friends are equal parts jealous, excited and anxious for what this freedom might draw out of you.
It’s a beautiful thing, this freedom. The way you use it will help define who you are and who you will become in your personal, social and intellectual life (as you’ve probably heard repeated in the form of bad commencement speeches and Congrats Grad! Hallmark cards over the last two months). But this freedom will also begin to define your financial life as well.
You’ll be faced with a dangerous combination of limitless freedom and limited resources. The decisions you make at the beginning of your college career can help you establish behaviors that will either serve you well, or set you up for a life of overspending and scraping by.
So, no pressure.
Here’s a list of 10 tips that can help you start your college career off on the right financial foot.
1. Use your meal points! Go to club call outs! (Note the exclamation points)
Most schools have meal plans for the dining halls. Take advantage of these, and eat every meal there if possible. Because these plans are pre-paid and usually cover an entire semester, you’ll benefit from discounts associated with buying in bulk. Also, be smart about your points. Don’t buy that candy next to the register; you don’t need it.
Finally, attend as many club callouts as possible, even if you have no intention of joining. Club callouts often offer free food to attract as many students as possible. As an added bonus, you’ll also learn about student life options on campus.
2. If you have to eat out, be smart about it
If you have to eat out, don’t opt for lobster and steaks. Take advantage of cheap options like fast food dollar menus and sandwich shops. I recommend Jimmy John’s or your campus pizza place. A lot of restaurants offer huge discounts near finals; use those to your advantage, not as a reason to eat out.
3. Be smart about buying textbooks
You might have heard horror stories about escalating textbook costs. They’re all true. But there are some ways to be savvy about getting your textbooks without selling yourself short (or stealing). Ask friends who have taken the class if they needed the textbook. If they only used it sporadically, see if you can borrow the book from someone in class. If you do decide to buy the book, always buy used or see if you can set up an exchange with your friends. If you can shave a couple hundred dollars off your textbook budget each month, it will free up spending in other areas.
4. You don’t need a 42” 3D TV
Don’t splurge on dorm room items like TVs and sound systems; you’ll get by just fine without them. Chances are someone on your floor will have not read this column and will have purchased a behemoth television that becomes the envy of—and gathering place for—everyone on your floor. You can save all kinds of money by not being that person. Bring as many items from home as possible; you’ll fit in just fine.
5. Video games can be a black hole
It sounds like something your parents might tell you, but it’s true: Video games can be a dark place to go in college. Not only will you waste hundreds of dollars on systems and games, you’ll waste hours that can be used studying, going to class, being social, and generally being a real human being.
6. Student discounts are your best friend
Companies understand that college students are generally broke, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want your business. That’s why many stores offer discounts and deals if you show your student ID. Clothing stores offer percentages off and special deals; restaurants do “buy one get one free” promotions. Research what stores on and around campus offer these (second-year students will have figured out most of the best deals) and use them whenever needed. Also check back home when you return for holiday break—national chains sometimes offer them in all stores.
7. Keep an eye on your things
It may seem obvious, but students lose hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of items in college. When you’re running between classes and clubs, the gym and your residence hall, you’re bound to misplace something. Two items that often end up vanishing are student IDs and mail keys. The bad news is, replacements are always overly expensive, so be sure to keep a close eye on them.
8. Want something to do? Try the Union
Student unions often offer free or discounted entertainment for students ranging from movie screenings to bowling nights to touring bands and comedians. Why spend 15 bucks on a movie and popcorn when you can grab dinner at the dining hall (on your meal plan as discussed in our first point) and head to the union?
9. If you can’t make the game, sell your tickets.
If you buy tickets to your school’s sporting events but can’t make it, try your best to sell your tickets. There are always other students trying to find tickets, and you can really cut into the amount you lose or even make a profit on it, depending on the game. Market your for-sale tickets on student ticket exchanges or your class’s Facebook page to get the most exposure possible.
10. Don’t cause damages.
Another obvious one, but it happens more often than you think: Don’t punch holes in walls, trash the bathroom, or break your desk. If you need to let off some steam, go to the gym or call up a friend or play some video games (conflicting advice alert). Follow the rules and it will save you a lot of money and headaches. It’s not fun advice to follow, but then again, when is advice fun?
One last thing that should probably go without saying: Study hard and get involved, you are wasting 10s if not 100s of thousands of you and your parents dollars if you don’t take it seriously. Make the most of your newfound freedom, and be smart with your money. That is all.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.