Heading off to college is exciting. Really exciting. You finally have freedom! You’re out on your own for the very first time, managing your studies, managing your social life and… managing your finances.
Despite being a big part of your newfound independence, personal finance is a subject you probably won’t find on your course schedule. If you didn’t take a personal finance class in high school and never had money lessons from your parents, you may not know how to manage a checking account as a college student.
“College students have very different needs for their checking account than their parents or other adults,” says Tommy Martin, CEO of Clear Path Financial Planning and a finance blogger at TommyMartin.com. If you live in a different city during the school year than you do during winter and summer breaks, for example, you may be after a bank for which location doesn’t matter.
Ok, so how do I manage my checking account in college, you ask? First, don’t get overwhelmed. Learning how to manage money while in college and getting a handle on checking account basics is simpler than you might think (oh, and the skills will serve you for years to come). Second, you can kick off your checking account education with these tips for managing a checking account in college:
1. Compare checking accounts before signing up
While your college life may center around your school campus, you should consider venturing off-campus to pick the right checking account for your lifestyle.
“Students typically sign up with a bank that’s on campus or close to campus,” says Sahil Vakil, a financial planner and president of MYRA Wealth in New Jersey. However, the nearest bank might not be the one that best fits your needs, he adds.
Instead of picking a bank based solely on proximity, consider all of your options, including banks with off-campus locations and online-only banks.
Martin agrees, saying that learning how to manage money while in college means considering all of your banking options rather than “automatically enrolling or choosing the official school bank just because it has the school logo on it.” There are other ways to show your school pride, after all.
2. Learn about checking account fees and rewards
Vakil and Martin both say a tip for managing a checking account in college is to consider an account’s fees before signing up. Costly fees can eat into your savings and spending money, which can be a blow for students who are not working full-time. When you are choosing a checking account in college, consider fees for:
- Monthly maintenance (essentially keeping your account open)
- Minimum balance (not maintaining one)
- ATM usage
- New checks
- Wire transfers
- Online bill pay
- Replacement debit cards
Martin says a checking account with no minimum balance requirement or minimum number of transactions could be a good fit for students. “It allows them to focus on their education” instead of worrying about incurring penalties, he says. “Even a $5 fee on a checking account with $60 in it can be devastating.”
Costly fees can eat into your savings and spending money, which can be a blow for students who are not working full-time.
Martin also suggests finding an account that has a large network of no-fee ATMs located across the country to better manage your checking account as a college student. “Especially if you’re going to a school in a different state, the local bank from home might wind up costing you a lot in terms of ATM fees,” he says. If your parents plan to wire you money, find an account that doesn’t charge incoming wire fees, Martin adds.
While fees should be a focus when you are learning how to manage money while in college, don’t forget about incentives. You may be able to find a checking account that actually helps you grow your balance by paying interest or offering a cash back rewards program.
“If you have to pay for books or supplies, at least you can get some cash back and use it for a free dinner,” Martin says. Discover Cashback Debit, for example, offers 1% cash back on up to $3,000 in debit card purchases each month.1
3. Track your checking account balance
Luckily, you don’t need to take Banking 101 to figure out your funds, and tech makes tracking your balance and account activity easier than ever. Most banks let you log in to your account online (don’t get distracted in class!), and with a bank’s mobile app you can transfer money to friends, pay bills, deposit checks and check your balance—all while you’re on the go.
Knowing your balance at all times is a tip for managing a checking account in college because it can help you avoid overdrafts and insufficient funds fees. It can also help you forecast your income and expenses to ensure you’ll have enough money to cover future costs. Surprise—that’s budgeting!
There’s no one-size-fits-all budgeting program or system, though. You can go old-school and track your budget on a printed-out budget sheet, or you can go tech-savvy with a budgeting and spending app. “What’s best for you is the one you’re actually going to use,” Martin says.
If you learn how to manage money while in college and make a practice of maintaining your budget, the habit will follow you after graduation.
“College students have very different needs for their checking account than their parents or other adults.”
4. Secure your account
One of Vakil’s tips for managing a checking account in college is to make sure your account stays secure. Create a unique account name and password that you use only for your checking account, and never share your credentials.
Vakil says you can also enable two-factor authentication if your bank offers it and you’re looking for another way to improve the management of your checking account as a college student. “This additional layer of protection safeguards your sensitive financial data and strengthens the security of your account by requiring two methods of verifying your identity.”
For example, if you log in to your account from a new device, you may be sent a text message with a code that you’ll need to enter to access your account.
5. Keep an eye out for debit card holds
No matter where you bank, a merchant may place a hold on funds in your checking account when you use your debit card. Generally, a hold is placed for travel-related purchases—such as at rental car companies, hotels and gas stations—and used by merchants to protect against fraud and errors.
“Holds on a debit card can make it tricky for you to manage your finances,” Vakil says. For example, “when you rent a car, the car rental company might put a $500 hold on your account. If the balance in your account was $550, now you can only use another $50.”
Being aware of holds can be particularly important if you are managing a checking account as a college student and tend to have a low account balance.
If a merchant will be placing a hold, it will generally post a sign to notify customers. The hold will typically be removed after the funds are transferred to the merchant from your financial institution, typically within three to four days.
Knowing when a hold will be placed, the amount of the hold and how much money you have in your checking account can help you manage your checking account as a college student by avoiding overdrafts and missed bill payments due to insufficient funds.
6. Don’t let one mistake throw you off track
If you can learn how to manage a checking account as a college student, and more generally, how to manage money while in college, you can lay the groundwork for a solid financial future. Checking account mistakes may occasionally happen (oops, I didn’t budget enough for that spring break trip), but don’t let them discourage you to the point of apathy. Instead, try to continually expand your knowledge and practice healthy financial habits.
1 ATM transactions, the purchase of money orders or other cash equivalents, cash over portions of point-of-sale transactions, Peer-to-Peer (P2P) payments (such as Apple Pay Cash), and loan payments or account funding made with your debit card are not eligible for cash back rewards. In addition, purchases made using third-party payment accounts (services such as Venmo® and PayPal™, who also provide P2P payments) may not be eligible for cash back rewards. Apple, the Apple logo and Apple Pay are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.