How To Not Suck… At First Year College Budgets

Welcome to “How To Not Suck,” a new, weekly series in which personal finance writer and consumer advocate Karin Price Mueller gives you the essential information to avoid being foolish with your finances.

We all know it happens. The dreaded Freshman 15. Sure, a ring around your gut and those snug jeans aren’t pleasant, but they’re not the worst challenges you may encounter during your freshman year. If you’re not careful, you could end up broke by the December — and it’s not all beer and pizza. Heck, beer and pizza are a bargain compared to a semester’s worth of textbooks.

Here are the Consumerist Freshman 15: money-related topics to think about in order to make sure you don’t suck at being a financially responsible college student.

1. Buying new books
There’s nothing like the scent of a freshly-cracked open new book, but college textbooks can crack your bank account. In most cases, there’s no need to buy new. Take “Chemistry: The Central Science,” for example. Prices for a new copy range from $140 to $246, while used copies go for as low as $68. Rentals for a semester are in the $60 range, while the e-book version costs around $100. To comparison shop, you may want to check out sites like BookRenter.com, CourseSmart.com, CampusBooks.com, DealOz.com and BigWords.com. Then there are always the bigger booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Also ask your school if it offers a book rental program — the latest rage on some campuses.

[NOTE: Consumerist does not endorse any of the sites, sellers, or services, referenced in this or any story. Any brands mentioned are merely provided as available options for consumers. See full Disclaimer at bottom of page.]

2. All those supplies
In the days leading up to the start of classes, it’s easy to get caught up in the college spirit and you might splurge on unneeded or impulsive items. Wait until after your first class to hit the local office supply store or campus bookstore for goodies. You may find you don’t need all that much to get your work done. You may even be able to recycle some folders, binders and more from your high school career. If you have to buy, don’t forget to check the dollar store. And remember — the Cadillac of pens really does the same job as the freebie from the doctor’s office.

3. Rah, rah, an $80 sweatshirt?
There’s nothing like fitting in and showing support for your college, but keep it under control. Cool hats and apparel sporting your college’s name are “wants” and not “needs.” Consider adding them to your holiday or birthday gift list so someone else forks over the dough.

4. Bank smart
ATM fees, minimum balance fees and money transfer fees can eat away at your checking account, and fast. Truly free checking accounts are still out there, but you have to shop around. BankRate.com is one site that lists accounts specifically tailored to students. Also make sure the bank you do business with offers an ATM nearby. Ask about opting out of overdraft protection, which would allow your balance to fall into negative territory rather than declining a withdrawal or a purchase — for a hefty fee. Also see if your parents have an account that can be linked to your new one to keep fees low.

If you go the debit route, make sure you know what you’re getting into — especially the fees associated with cards onto which colleges put your financial aid, or which are combined with your student ID card. These accounts can come loaded with high costs and restrictions that will chip away at the typically low-running college student’s bank balance.

For more on the new, burgeoning love affair between colleges and banks, read these stories:
*CFPB Looking Into Very Cozy Relationship Between Colleges & Banks Marketing To Students
*Millions Of College Students Pushed Into Receiving Financial Aid On Fee-Laden Cards
*Financial Aid Debit Cards Force Some Students To Travel If They Want To Avoid ATM Fees
*Lawmakers Suddenly Care About Those Fee-Laden College Cards That Are Now In The News

5. Food, glorious food
Look closely at your campus meal plan and your eating habits. For example, if you’re not a breakfast eater and you hit the local fast food shop for lunch, you’re wasting your meal plan money and paying for food you never eat. If you’re required by your school to have a meal plan, don’t give in to the temptation of fast-food just because McDonald’s is closer. Every meal you eat using the meal plan is more money in your pocket. For the extras, invest in a coffee pot to avoid those $3 coffees you “need” every morning. (Three bucks four times a week adds up to $180 over a 15-week semester.)

6. Credit card debt
A 2013 Sallie Mae survey found undergrads had an average credit card debt of $787, while freshmen carried the highest balances of $1,007. While the 2009 CARD Act has helped to curb the once-rampant marketing of credit cards to college students (Sorry, no more free Visa T-shirts at orientation), it’s still not difficult for you to get your name on some plastic. Responsibly use a debit card first, and if/when you decide to delve into the world of credit, you can research cards on sites like BankRate.com, CreditCards.com, Cardhub.com, and Credit.com for the best terms, and never opt in to things like overlimit protection or credit-monitoring, as these programs will cost you money and rarely provide any useful services.

7. Look for freebies
While your friends are paying big moolah for movies, concerts and other entertainment, look for freebies and discounted tickets. From museums to theaters, you’ll find most offer a discount for those who can present a valid college ID, and many have free college nights. Also look in your school newspaper for campus offerings, which are usually cheap or cost nothing at all.

8. The home entertainment money pit
You might think cable TV is a must, but you can cut expenses by getting creative. Lots of television networks offer free programming online, and there’s plenty of technology that will allow you to stream programs for a far lower cost than traditional cable programming. Consider services like Netflix and Hulu, and remember that you can even watch some sports live and for free at ESPN.com. Amazon Student is half the price of Amazon Prime, but still gives you free two-day shipping and access to the Prime streaming video library at no additional charge.

9. Can you hear me now?
Yes, people say the latest iPhone is cool, as are many other smartphones and tablets. But wanting the latest and greatest is not the same thing as “needing.” If you’re paying for your own wireless service, look carefully at your phone and your options for data and calling plans. You could end up caught in a steeply-priced two-year contract that offers way more than you need. Or crunch the numbers on a prepaid phone. A recent New York Times piece found a two-year contract with AT&T for an iPhone would cost $200 for the device and as much as $90 a month for the data plan, adding up to at least $2,360 over two years. For a prepaid plan with Virgin Mobile, you’d spend $650 for the iPhone but only $30 a month for unlimited data, costing $1,370 over two years.

Even if your parents or a loved one is footing the bill for your wireless, it’s still worth looking to see where money can be saved. After all, the money saved by switching plans or providers is now freed up to be spent on much more fun things, like food.

10. Computers
Unless you’re in a pre-Luddite track at your college, you’ll need a computer, but you probably don’t need one with a video card that costs more than a good used car, or two 36-inch LED monitors. With so many services and applications being cloud-based, all that really matters for most liberal arts students is that the computer has dependable WiFi access and enough storage memory to download some movies (legally, of course). You also won’t feel as bad if you accidentally sit on your $250 Chromebook compared to the loss of a $2,200 MacBook Pro.

11. Printers
More and more professors are happy to accept e-mailed assignments, but you will probably need to print something before the semester is out. Rather than buy a printer and take on the costs for paper and printer ink (one of the most expensive products, per ounce, on the market), dump your assignments on a thumb drive or e-mail them to yourself, and print at your college library or computer lab. A lot of schools build the costs for these services into students’ fees, so you should use what you’ve already paid for rather than screaming “Nooooooooo!” at 3 a.m. when your inkjet runs dry with two pages to still print out.

12. Plan ahead
The B-word. Budget. Rather than spend as expenses come up, think ahead and create a spending plan. Estimate your costs for supplies, food, entertainment and even long-term outlays, like that spring break trip you’re hoping to score. Using a budget will help you plan for the bigger expenses, and it will show you when you’re spending more than you planned on the little things so can reign yourself in before your bank account is empty.

13. There’s an app for that
Consider a budgeting app that will allow you to enter your purchases as you go. It’s a great way to keep track of your spending. Research services like Mint.com, iReconcile, DollarBird and BUDGT to see if any of them are to your liking.

14. Ask for practical gifts
While toiletries and textbooks may not be sexy, you’d much rather be spending your pocket cash on fun stuff than on shampoo and toothpaste. For the holidays or your birthday, ask for gift cards for stores that sell the items you need, or ask for the items outright. You could also ask for luxury items: gift cards to the restaurants you covet or the clothing stores you’ve been avoiding for fear of going bankrupt.

15. You’re not too old to qualify for a scholarship
You may have started college, but there are plenty of scholarships available for upperclassmen. It’s free money that will loosen up your budget for other items. Monster’s FastWeb.com and Sallie Mae’s CollegeAnswer.com offer free scholarship searches.

You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

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