Personal Finance

Money skills to survive college

Millennials and their money
Millennials and their money

You know when Bed, Bath & Beyond is bursting with neon desk accessories and extra long sheets that another college year is just around the corner, but room decor is not all your student needs.

Experts recommend that teens heading for college have several key financial skills under their belts: budgeting, safe practices, and an understanding of needs and wants. They may be using apps and social media to manage their finances, but these old-fashioned priorities still apply.

"These kids can be smart, but they just need to learn a little common sense and real world experience," said Travis Sollinger, director of financial planning at Fort Pitt Capital Group.

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Budgeting may never have been a priority for some lucky students arriving on campuses, but even if they do not have to stretch financial aid checks and work-study paychecks, they will have to make their dining hall money last. The same goes for money they have for books, travel and socializing.

Unfortunately, only 39 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges have a budget, according to a 2015 survey of 42,000 first year students by education technology company EverFi on behalf of Higher One, which provides payment, refund disbursement and data analytics to colleges and universities. (Students at two-year colleges, who are more likely to be older, attending part time, and holding down a job, display more adult financial habits, with 60 percent having a budget.) (Tweet This)

There are plenty of online resources from organizations like the National Endowment for Financial Education to help students develop money management habits. Students can also use apps like Lefttospend to track how much they have, and others, like Mint, a product from Intuit, for more elaborate budgeting.

Sollinger, who works with parents more than students, recommends that parents who are helping their children with college expenses break down the budgeting process: Dole out money month by month rather than handing them a check to last a semester.

Credit cards, which too often are hazardous to novices' budgeting health, have become rarer on campus since the passage of the Card Act, which restricted marketing to minors without incomes. But prepaid cards are ubiquitous, not least because a number of colleges have their student ID cards double as prepaid cards, and they can trip up students who are not careful about monitoring their balances.

But the EverFi/Higher One survey found that only 25 percent of first-year students at four-year colleges, and 53 percent of those at two-year colleges, keep their receipts. Students may want to shop for bank accounts and cards that limit the fees they charge for overdrafts and cash withdrawals.

Financial security on campus

Shelley Dennis | Getty Images

Security is another part of money management that can trip up teens and college students. College may be the first time students live communally, and they may be dangerously careless with their financial information.

Leaving a credit card or bank account information on a desk may seem like a fine idea if a roommate is trustworthy, but roommates have friends, too, and a card on a desk is just as visible to them.

"I don't think you have to go as far as getting a safe, but say 'Don't leave it sitting out on a desktop. Don't be irresponsible,'" said Sollinger. "It would stink if they had to learn a hard lesson from somebody stealing their debit card number."

The same goes for using financial apps like Venmo, a peer-to-peer payment system owned by PayPal that is ubiquitous on many campuses. Venmo includes a social component that makes payments an opportunity for fun: "You can rib your friend at the same time you are paying him back for lunch," said Anuj Nayar, senior director of global initiatives at PayPal.

But Venmo uses real money, and like any payment system, it is not foolproof. The company has added security features in recent months, but students should monitor their Venmo balances as carefully as their bank accounts.

One of the most important concepts in money management—distinguishing between needs and wants—may be foreign to some new students in the so called affluenza era. (Earlier this year, a 22-year-old famously called a radio show to complain that after she blew the $90,000 her grandparents saved for her college education in three years, her parents were not bailing her out.)

If students want their money to last, they will need to learn to make that distinction.

"They need to learn that everything that you may want is not within their reach necessarily," said Sollinger. "You have to start setting priorities:' Do I really need that pizza or do I go to the cafeteria?'"

A college education clearly pays off in higher lifetime earnings. But it will pay even more for students who get smart about managing their money in college.