Money Questions: Tips for College Freshmen

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College student playing guitarQ: Our son has started the semester at Virginia Tech as a college freshman. We are not worried about his academics but when it comes to finances, he’s clueless. What financial advice should we share with him now that he has left the nest?


Losing Our Pumpkin


Dear Losing Our Pumpkin,

Like many parents, you have probably waited far too long to begin financial independence training. Untrained college students are sitting ducks for unscrupulous financial service companies and their own lack of financial sense. Here are several financial tips for your son before you send him off on his own.

1. Have a plan for graduating without any consumer debt, that is, without any credit card or car loan debt. Consumer debt is bad debt because it depreciates. In a matter of time, these items will have lost their value, but the payments and interest will continue on. So budget for travel, late-night snacks, and other miscellaneous lifestyle expenses. You should have an exact answer if I ask about your weekly spending limit. Try to earn enough over the summer that you can afford to skip the part-time job during the spring and fall semester.

2. ATM bank fees can quickly eat away your savings. Moving to a new city means your local debit card will likely be charged from $1.50 to $3.00 for every withdrawal from a foreign ATM. Consider an online bank account like Charles Schwab Bank that reimburses all ATM fees or a local bank with easy ATM access.

3. Overdraft fees do not need to be a rite of passage for new bank account holders. An overdraft occurs when money is withdrawn from a bank account and the available balance goes below zero. A recent Pew Foundation study found that the median overdraft penalty fee is $35; an additional $25 accrues if this overdraft is not repaid in seven business days. The average bank allows up to four of these overdrafts to occur in one day for a total fee of $140 or more per day. However, if you open a savings account in addition to your checking account, you can apply for overdraft transfer protection. This essential function will pull money from your savings account whenever your checking account is overdrawn.

4. One cell phone bill gone awry can swamp you. One call to a high school sweetie who is spending the semester abroad could be costly. Make sure you understand every detail of your phone plan because new routines in college will likely mean that your calling and texting habits will change. If you do not have an unlimited plan, make it a habit to review your account online in the middle of each billing cycle.

5. Avoid gimmick credit card offers. Trust me, I’ve “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” My first credit card was awarded at a college football game where so-called free T-shirts were being handed out. If you decide to bring a credit card to college, shop online for the best rates and terms. Had I done this, I could have purchased a dozen dress shirts with the money I would have saved by finding a card that had less onerous terms for interest rates and late fees. Focusing on the so-called “rewards” that credit card companies give you is a distraction in your financial life. Like a casino, credit card companies win most of the time which is why they stay in business.

Learning new skills takes practice and patience. Most college students would benefit from some assistance, but few will be willing to ask their parents. Share these tips with others and you may find a friend who shares your goals for financial prudence and can help keep you accountable. One college student I know takes a picture on her phone and sends it so a friend whenever she wants to purchase something significant. After talking this over or simply waiting a few days, the new item often loses its luster.

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Matthew Illian was a Wealth Manager at Marotta Wealth Management from 2007 to 2016. He specialized in small business consulting, college planning, and retirement plans.

One Response

  1. Robert Froelich

    Budget yourself a week at a time, draw that amount of cash from your bank in person (no charges) and pay cash for each item you buy. Keep $1 bills and pay with them to learn how much an item really costs. It now becomes an experience rather than some ink tracings on a piece of paper. If you have no cash, you do not buy.