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For many students, college is the first time they are in control of the majority of their finances. You might now suddenly be responsible for paying your own bills, working a job that you need to make ends meet, and/or making the scholarship money you get in August last through December. Unfortunately, these new financial responsibilities come within a context where money is often unusually tight. So how can you avoid being stressed about your financial situation while in college?
Get a Job that Doesn't Stress You out
If the responsibilities at your job are making you stressed out, it's time to find another job. Make sure, of course, that your hourly wage is enough to help you meet your financial obligations. On that same note, however, your job shouldn't be providing a paycheck and causing you to seriously stress out. Look for a good on-campus job or one near campus that offer a relaxed work environment that is supportive and understanding of your life (and responsibilities) as a college student.
Make a Budget
The very idea of a budget often makes people think of having to sit down with a calculator, track every penny they spend, and go without the things they want the most. This, of course, is only true if that's what you want to make your budget look like. Set aside 30 minutes at the start of every semester to list what your expenses will be. Then figure out how much you'll need each month to cover these expenses and what sources of income you'll have (on-campus job, money from your parents, scholarship money, etc.). And then… voila! You have a budget. Knowing what your expenses will be ahead of time can help you figure out how much money you'll need and when. And knowing that kind of information will greatly reduce the financial stress in your life (not to mention having to bum off of your friends' meal plans at the end of each semester when yours gets low).
Stick to Your Budget
Having an awesome budget doesn't mean anything if you don't stick with it. So check in with your financial self every week about how your spending looks. Do you have enough in your account to still meet the expenses you'll have for the rest of the semester? Is your spending on track? If not, what do you need to cut down on, and where can you find some extra funds during your time in school?
Understand the Difference Between Wants and Needs
Do you need a winter jacket while in college? Of course. Do you need to have a brand-new, expensive winter jacket every year while in college? Definitely not. You may want to have a brand-new, expensive winter jacket each year, but you definitely don't need one. When it comes to looking at how you spend your money, make sure you differentiate between wants and needs. For example: Need coffee? Fair enough! Need coffee at $4 a cup at the coffee shop on campus? Nope! Consider brewing some at home and bringing it to campus in a travel mug that will keep it warm throughout your first class of the day. (Added bonus: You'll save your budget and the environment at the same time!)
Cut out Costs Wherever Possible
See how long you can go without spending any money, either with cash or through your debit and credit card(s). What were you able to live without? What kinds of things could be cut from your budget that you wouldn't miss too much but that would help you save money? What kinds of things could you easily do without? What kinds of things are expensive but not really worth what you have to pay for them? Saving money in college might be easier than you first think.
Keep Track of Where Your Money Goes
Your bank may offer something online or you can choose to use a website, like mint.com, that helps you see where your money goes each month. Even if you think you know where and how you spend your money, actually seeing it graphed out can be an eye-opening experience―and key for you to reduce your financial stress during your time in school.
Avoid Using Your Credit Cards
Sure, there can be times to use your credit card in college, but those times should be few and far between. If you think things are tight and stressful now, imagine what they'd be like if you racked up a lot of credit card debt, couldn't make your minimum payments, and had creditors calling to harass you all day long. While credit cards can be good in a pinch, they should definitely be a last resort.
Talk to the Financial Aid Office
If your financial situation in college is causing you significant stress, it may be because you're in a situation that is financial unsustainable. While most students experience tight budgets, they shouldn't be so tight that the stress they cause is overwhelming. Make an appointment to talk to a financial aid officer to discuss your financial aid package. Even if your school can't make any changes to your package, they might be able to suggest some external resources that can help you with your finances―and, consequently, with your stress levels.
Know Where to Get Money in an Emergency
Some of your financial stress may be coming from not having an answer to the "What will I do if something major happens?" question. For example, you might know you don't have the money to fly home if there's a family emergency, or you might not having the money to fix your car, which you need to get to school, if you were in an accident or needed a major repair. Spending a little time now to figure out where to get money in an emergency can help alleviate the stress that comes from feeling like you're walking on thin financial ice all of the time.
Be Honest With Your Parents or Sources of Financial Support
Your parents may think they're sending you enough money or that your taking an on-campus job will distract you from your academics, but the reality can sometimes be a little different. If you need to change something in your financial situation, be honest with those who are contributing to (or depending on) your college finances. Asking for help might be intimidating but it might also be a great way to ease up on the factors causing you stress day in and day out.
Make Time to Apply for More Scholarships
Every year, it's impossible to miss the news headlines that report on just how much money in scholarships goes unclaimed. No matter how tight your time is, you can always find a few minutes here and there to find and apply for more scholarships. Think about it: If that $10,000 scholarship only took you 4 hours to research and apply for, wasn't that a good way to spend your time? That's like earning $2,500 an hour! Spending half an hour here and there to find scholarships can be one of the best ways to spend your time and reduce, over the long-term, the financial stress in college. After all, aren't there more exciting things you'd like to be focusing on?