Updated: May 17, 2023
When I graduated college, I knew the career I wanted, the places I wanted to live, how to write a check, and how to open a bank account.
But what I didn't know could fill a book: How to negotiate a salary, balance my checkbook, or how to create a budget and, more importantly, to stick to it. I was a saver in high school. I also had few expenses, so saving was easy. When I had to pay for food and rent after college and I could still go out or indulge in a bit of retail therapy, I felt financially complete. I knew I should be saving—and I did, for vacations—but I didn't really have long-term goals. Own a house? That seemed eons away.
Most schools don't teach college budgeting tips. Not all parents think of it either, even though those parental lessons are often the last chance to impart some financial know-how before their children move into the dorm and out of their homes forever.
Here are things that I wish I knew before I walked across the stage and flipped my tassel, as well as expert money-saving tips for university students.
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It doesn't matter exactly what format your information comes in, as long as you make the effort to learn. Most basic college budgeting tips don't require a business degree. But until "Personal Finance 101" becomes a standard college requirement, most students and new graduates are on their own.
For me, it took about a year into the workforce to realize I was in over my head. I hit the local bookstore for "Personal Finance for Dummies" to start. I still have that book, dog eared and worn from how often I referred to it.
Simply put, the longer you put off paying toward your student loans, the higher your payments will be. So if you have student loans, understanding your accruing interest, your monthly payment amount, how long your grace periods are, and when repayment starts is important for figuring out your budget.
Determine how much money you'll need to earn to afford your monthly payment, and consider making in-school payments to offset accruing interest. Even small payments of $25 a month while you're in school can help save money over the life of the loan.
For example, instead of spending everything you earn during your grace period, you can consider making full or partial payments to cut down on interest. You could also consider putting the amount of your monthly payment into a savings account so you're used to budgeting without that money. The bonus is that you'll have a cushion of savings to rely on should you have a month where funds are tight.
Armed with this information, you can make better decisions about paying for school, and know how to plan for those first years in the working world.
In my early 20s, I had a credit card with airline miles that I paid off every month. I racked up points for trips I wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford. It's when I used it for cash flow hiccups and to compensate for not budgeting well, that I hit turbulence. If you're new to credit, the most important thing you can do to help build and maintain good credit is to pay your bills on time.
If you are using a credit card, consider making purchases under your credit limit and try to pay off your bill each month to avoid finance charges. Making sure you're using your credit card for things you need and paying your bills on time may help you create healthy habits for a successful financial future.
I was lucky to have parents who taught me to value hard work and understand the link between working and the ability to pay bills and live a certain lifestyle. I grew up in a family that owned its own retail business, so I saw first-hand how work happened, starting in preschool, when I'd sit by an accounting clerk and help stamp envelopes. But my parents didn't teach me about cash flow, late fees, or tracking expenses.
They did give me an allowance, and didn't buy everything I wanted. Let's be honest—I was a Type A, goal-oriented kid, a natural-born saver. But what works with $5 a week for paperback novels doesn't always translate into adult finances. When I started tracking my spending, I did so by making lists of what I spent, what I earned, and how that matched up. When my landlord raised my rent 30%, for example, I had enough information to know that I couldn't afford that, my social life, and my retirement fund. So I found a new apartment.
But I stumbled into the math on my own, instead of proactively making a budget. If I had, I might not have moved into an apartment building so close to the top end of my affordability in the first place.
The goal, experts say, is to have three months of expenses in the bank. Say you take home about $4,500 after taxes. Set aside $500 for savings after bills, rent, groceries, and student loans are paid. That means you live on $4,000 a month, so ideally you'd have three times that, or $12,000, in your emergency savings account.
Yes it's hard to sock away that much. But it's also hard when your car engine conks out and you don't have the money to fix it or get a new car. Or, if you're like me, you move apartments five times in three years during your first job. That's a lot of U-Hauls and moving boxes.
When I started my professional life, free of dependents and many fixed expenses, I was able to spend more freely on things like dinners out with friends. But when I moved apartments so many times in such a short period, I began to realize how important it is to have a cushion. That's when I started making changes. There were still some dinners out, but to put money into my emergency fund, I often suggested cheaper restaurants or invited friends over for dinner parties at my house instead.
You work hard for your money, and it's important to know exactly where it goes. I didn't figure this out until well into adulthood, married, with a child. When things got tight, my husband and I weren't always sure where we could trim. No one taught us how to track everything.
One year, I expected to have about $2,000 more in savings than I had at the end of December. I reviewed my expenditures over the past six months, and realized that I had given myself too many little permissions—oh, just one coffee drink here, one bonus pair of jeans there—that quickly added up to a large sum. The next year, I doubled down on tracking our savings and kept those little permissions in check. By summer, I was already ahead. Now, I wonder how much more I could have saved, or how many more adventures I could have had, if I'd tracked my budget so carefully years ago.
Ultimately, looking back on those few years right after college, I wish I'd known how to balance a checkbook, spend money while still following a budget, and better manage my finances for my future. Nevertheless, with the college budgeting tips I'd learned from my parents and the studying-up I did on my own, I managed to come out of my early 20s with no debt, some savings, and a very full closet (clothes were my spending weakness). So I guess I didn't do too badly. Thanks, Mom and Dad.