College students typically don’t have much disposable income, so it’s important for undergrads to be wise about how they spend moneya. With student loans ballooning, credit card debt piling up, and the unanticipated costs of life after graduating (such as relocating, buying clothes for work, transportation) — college students can easily find themselves deep in debt before they even apply to a single job.
According to a recent survey of 750 college graduates by Fidelity, the graduating class of 2013 owed an average of $35,200 in college-related debt. The bulk of that debt is in the form of government loans — owing $26,000 on average. But the class of 2013 also owed an average of $3,000 in credit card debt. Many of the graduates surveyed were shocked by the amount of debt they racked up during college.
“The number of graduates reporting surprise by the level of student debt they have accumulated is a big concern and shows that there is a considerable need for families to better understand the total cost of college,” said Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning at Fidelity Investments.
Time and again, college graduates say they wish they had saved more and spent less in college. To prevent yourself — or your college-aged son or daughter — from piling on large amounts of debt, be wise about spending. Avoid these wasteful spending habits:
1. Buying new textbooks
Do you really need to buy new English, psychology, or biology books? Save money by buying old book, renting, or going digital. These days, some universities even offer rental programs for textbooks so that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to buy new ones. If your school doesn’t have a rental program, search local bookstores or online. Make sure to comparison shop to get the best deal.
2. Choosing the wrong credit card or bank
If you’re going to sign up for a credit card, choose wisely. Sit down with your parents and look at the terms and conditions of each card you’re considering. Understand that having a credit card is not an open invitation to start spending recklessly. You’ll have to pay off that debt — with interest.
If you’re opening an account at a bank, choose a branch that has a location close to campus and coverage nationwide. You don’t want to rack up unnecessary ATM withdrawal fees for using an out-of-network ATMs. Also, if you plan to do a lot of mobile banking, choose a bank that has a reliable app. You might want to compare what it costs to transfer funds as well. If your parent wants to transfer funds to you online, you don’t want to pay a large fee.
3. Eating out too much
With parents not around to whip up home-cooked meals, college students often get pizza delivered, order takeout, hit up a fast-food joint, or eat out at a restaurant. Even if these meals only cost $10, they add up over time if you eat out three or four times a week. That’s about $30-$40 each week that you could spend elsewhere. Moreover, eating poorly can take a toll on your health. If you’ve got a meal plan, use it. You’re paying for each of those meals whether you use them or not (downgrade to a smaller meal plan if you’re not eating on campus enough). And head to the grocery store to pick up some healthy snacks and food. It’s about time you learned how to cook. The savings will definitely add up over time.
4. Taking fancy Spring Break trips
Do you really need to go to Mexico or Hawaii during your Spring Break? Both locations are great destinations to visit — when you have the money. Spring Break is a time to relax and unwind, which you can accomplish without breaking the bank. Consider camping, traveling locally, or spending break back home with your family (or your friend’s family).
5. Not taking advantage of student deals
Whipping out your student ID card can save you a bunch of money when you purchase a computer, clothes, food, or go to the movies. You can also get discounts on travel. Before you buy something, research to see whether being a student makes you eligible to receive a discount. Take advantage of these savings while you can. In addition, consider signing up for something like Amazon Student or Student Advantage, programs through which you can get exclusive offers, discounts and deals.
6. Overspending on dorm decor
You want your dorm to feel like home, but you don’t have to spend a ton of money to make that happen. Realistically, your dorm furniture isn’t going to be anything you’ll want to keep for years, so there’s no reason to spend a ton buying new things. That said, if you want to purchase a few items for your dorm be sure to shop around, buy things on sale, and take some of the stuff you already have at home with you. Putting up pictures, bringing along a sentimental stuffed animal or toy, or doing a DIY project are ways you can save on spending for dorm stuff.
7. Purchasing a high-end computer
Do you really need the latest Apple laptop that costs upwards of $1,000? Having the latest top-of-the-line computer is nice, but not a necessity. You may want a computer that’s technologically advanced, but you don’t need one. Comparison shop and choose a computer that fits your budget and that you can depend on because you’ll be using it for at least four years. And don’t forget that you might be able to score a deal if you use your student ID when purchasing a computer at some retailers.
Room and board is one of the most costly expenses for college students. According to the College Board, room and board at a public, four-year university during the 2013-14 school year will cost undergraduates on average $9,498. That’s $327 more than the previous school year. Reducing your spending on rent — by sharing a room, living off campus, or welcoming more roommates — is one surefire way to save big on costs.
9. Spending too much on entertainment
College isn’t all about studying and achievement in the classroom. To get the full college experience, you should go out and explore the culture in your local town. But you shouldn’t waste a lot of money doing so. Consider attending campus events or joining a club. Some colleges host free movie screenings. Instead of purchasing cable, cut costs by streaming TV programs on your computer. Bring a gaming console from home with you. And pack up a few DVDs or games to keep you entertained — for free.
10. Wasting tuition money
Yes, you can waste tuition money by not attending classes or taking advantage of campus opportunities. Your tuition money pays for many of the services offered on campus, so utilize them. Visit the resource center, participate in clubs, and make sure that you’re getting the most out of your college experience.
Another way you might be wasting your tuition dollars is by taking classes aimlessly. While it’s normal for college students to not know what they will major in during their first semester in school, if you’ve spent a few semesters or quarters taking a sampling of classes without a concrete plan then you’ve wasted thousands of dollars. If you’re really not sure what you want to major in, consider enrolling in a community college for a semester or two. You can take a wide variety of classes at a fraction of the cost of what you might pay while in college. Also, take advantage of Advanced Placement tests while in high school to possibly receive credit for a general education course in college.
Daryl is a staff writer at MyBankTracker.com who specializes in consumer spending, student finances and debt.