Did you or someone you know recently graduate from high school? Have you gotten so much advice your head will explode? Well, here’s some more in a list I’ll call Personal Finance 101 for College Freshman (but don’t replace this with an actual personal finance course… take one of those).

  1. Avoid Debt – Maybe this is obvious to you. Or maybe no one has told you this before. Student loans are often lumped into “good debt.” I would prefer to put them into a category I call “better than credit card debt” but that’s probably as far as I would go. It may be too late on picking an inexpensive school. And maybe you haven’t prepared yourself to avoid debt entirely, so you’ll have to take out a loan. In this situation, my advice would be: don’t treat it like your money. I have known many people take out student loans and use it for everything. They go on trips, they buy more stuff, and they live large. Only take out the MINIMUM AMOUNT you need to pay for school and then get to work. Try not to take out any more. Make it a game. Can you avoid debt entirely through all of school? Can you pay off that loan before graduating? If you can, you win!
  2. Make Money – This goes beyond just having a job in school. Don’t let your job take over your education. You’re there to learn and get a degree. Money making is the means to that end. It is not the most important thing. That being said, having a job while going to school is completely possible. I did it. Mr. T did it. In fact, we did it together for awhile. We cleaned up after the football players in the locker room at night. We knew way more about every player than we ever wanted to know. The trick for money making in college, however, is the summer. Working full time in the summer (and saving it!) can pay for the next year of college. Don’t be afraid to get creative. College is a great time to figure out what you’re good at and start earning money for that. I spent my summers hosting a drama camp for kids in my backyard complete with dances, scripts, and costumes. It was fun for everyone and I made way more money in a couple weeks than working full time at a regular job would have given me.
  3. Take advantage of FREE – Colleges and Universities have a ton of resources that you can only utilize free or cheaply as a student. Find out everything yours has. Entertainment? Health/Mental health services? Take advantage. Look in every department. Sometimes a department will offer free things to all students. Sometimes you get specific deals because of your major. Also, universities will often host “meet alumni” events or dinners where you can hook up with successful alumni and pick their brains. Once you graduate, a lot of these opportunities won’t be available to you at all. And the ones that remain will cost a whole lot more. This does not mean signing up for that credit card for the free pizza. Don’t do that.
  4. Start a budget – If you haven’t done this before college, now is a great time to practice spending less than you earn. You don’t have to use an excel sheet or fancy software. My first budget was a notepad on the fridge. I put an amount at the top (my earnings minus an allotted savings), and I would subtract from that as I spent. When I hit zero, I STOPPED SPENDING. Simple as that. Make sure to start with necessary expenses and bills you pay monthly like rent, utilities, and insurance.
  5. Understand Credit Cards – I am not advocating avoiding them entirely. You will want to use your college years to build up good credit. But understand them. Use them like debit cards. Track the spending. Pay them off in full every single month. If you pay interest on your credit cards I will PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE. Okay. I won’t. But someone should. Mr. T and I met way too many people in college that had credit card debt. Our neighbors spent an evening telling us the whole plan they had to pay off all their credit card debt that month. The following week they invited us over to see their new couch and TV. I asked if they had paid off the credit card debt. They said they put that off because the couch and TV were “such a good deal.” THIS IS NOT A GOOD DEAL. Credit card interest is ALWAYS WORSE than the deal you think you’re getting it on buying it now when you don’t have the money. And debt is bad. It is the worst. You want to end college ahead instead of way behind financially. Building good credit is showing you can be responsible and pay your bills and not spend money you don’t have.
  6. Apply for Grants – As a student, you can apply for grants to do something awesome. The key here is to pick some intriguing topic no one is studying and be specific. The nutritional habits of Filipino immigrants in Rome and their impact on chronic disease? That might work. Fashion in Paris? Probably not. Also, target it to your major. If you are a music major, the nutritional habits and chronic disease pitch probably won’t fly. If you are in graduate school, grants are often available if your master’s thesis requires travel (I’m not saying that I picked my topic based solely on this possibility… but it certainly was an influence).
  7. Get an Education – Yes, you should work hard and graduate in the field in which you choose, but get a well-rounded education. Look at the entire class catalog. Take advantage of this opportunity to take any class you want. Graduate with more than just a degree. Make sure you have skills. Take a programming class. Take a personal finance class. Take a humanities class. Take a research class. Those classes might be the things that help you stand out in your field. Every other graduate in your major took the same basic classes. But if you also know basic Tagalog, HTML, and the waltz, you might get the job because your resume is memorable. Or because they need someone on the company waltz team.
  8. Learn Time Management – If you can successfully juggle a job, your classes, extra-curriculars, and a social life while in college, these skills will serve you well upon graduation. You may find yourself in a high stress job with quick, firm deadlines. You will start giving yourself pep talks that include: “if I could work full time and go to school full time and still have a boyfriend, I can do this.” You may also find yourself as a stay at home parent working part time from home with three kids. Knowing how to prioritize, perform a job quickly, and not waste your time will be the only way to survive.
  9. You are not your parents – This is true for everyone, no matter where your parents are at financially. If your parents are terrible at finances and have credit card debt, an upside-down mortgage, and no savings, you are not them. Change now. The living-check-to-check mindset is a tough one to break. Educate yourself about healthy finances. Don’t start down the credit card debt road. Avoid debt. Save money. Start investing now. Even if it is just a few dollars a month, the power of compounding will catch up to you in an amazing way down the road. If your parents are good with money and have a large house, a nice car, nice furniture, and go on loads of vacations, you are not there yet. You are a poor college student that is just starting out. When you have the cash reserves necessary to buy those cars or go on those vacations without going into debt, you can do that if you so desire. But you can’t do that now. Embrace frugality or you will never get there.
  10. Be Future You – Remember the person you imagined yourself being growing up? Successful. Happy. Financially secure. Resourceful. Be that person now. (If your vision was not this positive, change it. Positive thinking is important.) It doesn’t matter what your friends are doing. You are going to succeed because you’re going to make it happen. You’re about to become a real adult. I’m going to wish you luck, but you got this. Because it’s up to you. Everyone can tell you what to do and what not to do. But no one can do it for you. Now’s your chance.