Learning the Hard WayApr 22, 2001 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Student budgeting is a challenge, but with creativity and determination (and a good safety net for when you mess up), it's doable.
The first time to really be "out on your own" for many people is when they head off to university. While some students have had the experience of paying their own bills back in high school (auto insurance, clothes and entertainment) from part time jobs, most have relied on "the folks" for support. Even in college, it is often a combination of student loans, part-time work, and parents who are paying for things. Here are a few tips for parents and students to help get started.
Before you go to university, sit down with mom and dad and discuss expenses. What do you expect to need for food each week? How much does laundry cost? Transportation? Entertainment? Work out some basic expenses. Nothing is locked in stone. If the student hasn't done so before, get him or her a checking account and teach him or her to write checks and balance a checkbook. (It is possible to still have checks left, and yet to be broke.) Leave one book of deposit slips with your parents. This way, if there is an emergency, they can get money into your account. (They can forge your signature on a deposit slip. The bank won't care if they're putting money in.) Another good resource if you have a trustworthy student is an emergency ATM card hooked into the parents' account. This is only for emergencies, and parents must be notified of its use, but it gives immediate access to funds if something goes really wrong. This is strictly a CYA (Cover Your Assets) situation. Parents will have to judge whether they want their child to have access to their accounts. Don't forget to discuss bank fees and ATM fees. It's better to take out $100 on Monday for the week, than $20 every day as you need it.
Now, onto specific items in the budget:
Books are one of the biggest expenses for students and the one which usually is most surprising when you get into college. Many university bookstores have on-line price lists. Take a look at the reading list for a couple of classes from the previous year (you may not be able to find for your current year yet) and price the books. This will give you a starting place. Some books can run more than $100. Some hints to help you save money here:
(1) Get your booklist as early as you can, and then get to your campus bookstore early! Look for "used" textbooks, but look carefully. You want one with minimal or no-underlining or marking. After all, you don't know what grade that other student got.
(2) Check out alternative sources. By San Diego State University there was a KB Bookstore and an FX bookstore both of which were less expensive than the campus bookstore. (Their selection was sometimes off, however.)
(3) If a literature teacher has you purchasing a classic, ask if you need the specific version s/he is requesting. Is it really necessary to get the Dell version of Hamlet if you have the Penguin version? Do not sell back copies of classic literature as you may need them later. (A side note, not budget related: if you have notes on a piece of classic literature you have read, make a copy and put them with the book. If you have to read it again, you'll have a headstart.)
(4) Ask the professor which books you will need right away and which you won't need till the end of term. It is worth checking with on-line sources to find better deals. varsitybooks.com and textbooks.com are two good sources. However, it can take a few weeks to get books this way, so you might not want to get all your books this way. Also check these sites for deals where you can RENT books.
(5) Never sell back a book in your major field of study, or a related field.
(6) Before you go off to university, read "The Richest Man In Babylon." This is a great book on money management. It is worth rereading every few years.
Food: Remember that the reason for food is to provide your body with nutrition. Many school cafeterias or food plans make achieving this goal nearly impossible. At San Diego State University, students can purchase in stores on campus a certain amount per diem at the campus stores. These stores are stocked with sugary, fatty, starchy foods from which much of the nutrition has been removed. Eating in the cafeteria can be better, but it is generally fatty and untasty and inconvenient. Discuss nutrition options with your student before they go away. What is healthy? (No honey, corn chips do not count as a vegetable.) Some suggestions on food:
(1) If your dorm doesn't provide you with a mini-fridge, get one. This will allow you more control of what and when you eat. It will also keep vegetables fresher.
(2) Bring a can opener and discover the joy of canned vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. These have a long shelf life. When you see a good buy on them, buy in bulk.
(3) Kick the soda habit. Sodas can run anywhere from fifty cents to a dollar. Not bad, unless you consider that your food budget for a day might only be $5-$8. If you must have soda, see if you can develop a taste for soda water which is better for you and often sells for less.
(4) Plan the times when you're going to eat out. You can't do this everyday and stay on a normal student budget. If your friends are going out to dinner and your budget doesn't allow for that, maybe you can come along and just have tea or coffee...or maybe that's the time for that soda.
(5) If you have a microwave, use it. This is a very healthy way to prepare vegetables.
Another food idea, though not necessarily a budget one, is to make up "sauce mixes" of your favorite foods before you go. I love curry and my mom makes a great one. Before I left for Israel, I made up several ziploc bags with all the dry ingredients in them (1 recipe per bag). Now, whenever I want mom's curry, I just add the wet ingredients to the dry mixes and I'm raring to go.
Another big expense is the phone. A good way to save money is to plan your calls. When are the cheap rates? What kind of deals does your phone company have? Is someone in a different time zone? If so, maybe the person in the more easterly time zone should call in the evening after his/her rate changes; maybe the person in the more westerly time zone should call in the morning before his/her rate changes. Do not call collect except in an emergency. Rather than reversing the charges, perhaps parents should agree to pay for the portion of the phone bill that involves calls to them.
How do you travel most of the time? It might pay to do more walking or get back into bike riding. (This saves money at the gym, too.) If you need a car, keep it tuned. Learn to check the fluids and change the oil yourself. Keep good records on maintenance. Remember that good grades will get you lower insurance rates. Have you cut down on your driving? This may lower your insurance rates, too.
How often do you plan to go home and by what method? Plan trips in advance. Talk to a travel agent (There are many on campuses today) long before you plan to go. A travel agent friend of mine said her favorite client (and the one for whom she consistently got the best deals) would fax her a school calendar with the dates marked that she wanted to travel. She would then send her a list of destinations. (I want to see Grandma in New York during winter break, I want to be with my parents in Phoenix for their anniversary on the 2nd weekend in February...etc.) This list, sent as early as June or July preceding the school year, allowed the travel agent to work at her leisure to get the best deals. Also, look for special travel deals. Amtrak has a deal for students, but you need to arrange it ahead of time. If you're going abroad, check into getting a youth pass.
(1) Learn to do it! If you don't know how yet, have someone show you before you get to school. This will help your clothes to last longer.
(2) If you have space (especially if you live where it is warm and have a balcony) invest in a solar dryer (clothesline). It's not elegant, but it's efficient.
(3) Don't cram the washer too full. Your clothes won't get clean, and then, what's the point?
(4) Do only full loads! While you don't want to cram your clothes in, you don't need to waste money on half-loads.
(5) This one is controversial, and I can see some people cringing, but in a pinch (and in private) it works. If your clothes are only moderately dirty/sweaty, take a shower with them on. Soap up well, and rinse. When you're done washing them, wring them out well to start drying and then hang them. It may seem silly, but it's a great way to get one more day out of clothes when you don't have money to wash.
(6) Another controversial one. Invest in a bottle of Fabreeze. Several waitresses I know don't have time to wash their uniforms everyday. A spritz of Fabreeze will make them seem fresher and give you a little more wear time.
(7) Learn to mend. Every adult should know enough about sewing to be able to put on a button, repair a small hole, or sew up a hem.
Finally, use your student i.d. There are student discounts all over. Some theaters have them. I have even seen students go into department stores and ask about student discounts. (They usually get shot down, but once in a while it works.)
In the end, recognize that there are some things you're going to learn the hard way. The day comes for most students when money runs short, when you find yourself counting how many spaghetti noodles you have to last until the end of the month. That's okay. You'll live. Don't forget to use your safety nets - mom and dad. They want you to be independent, but they're there for you.
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