As students across the country start college, they face new freedom and responsibility. College finance consultant Kathy Ruby tells CNBC Make It that for most students, starting college is a "first step towards financial independence."
Over 44 million Americans hold a total of $1.4 trillion in student loan debt and it takes them, on average, 20 years to pay off those loans. In order to master the transition and not fall into dangerous amounts of debt, students need to remain disciplined and organized.
These six steps can help any incoming student start college off on the right foot and prepare for their financial future.
"The first step, of course, is for kids to start to manage the money they have on their own," says Ruby. "Create a budget." It may be the first time a college freshman has seriously looked at the numbers.
The next part of creating your budget it to track your expenses, says Ruby. "What can be helpful, especially for kids who have never done this is before is to try tracking their expenses for the first 30 days to see, 'Where am I spending my money?'"
Contrary to popular belief, there are many ways college students can cut costs. Ruby tells students, "Even though your parents may be paying the bulk of the bill, there are also decisions that you can make that are going to make a difference in what they end up having to pay."
One of the biggest ways to save money is on transportation. "Don't take a car to college. It is one of the biggest expenses for students," says Ruby. "Most campuses have good public transportation systems, so if you can avoid taking a car, that's going to save money on insurance and the cost of parking."
Students can also save money by choosing affordable housing options offered by many colleges. "Many colleges have variable housing prices. A nicer, newer apartment-style living situation is going to be more expensive than the traditional two-person dorm," she says. "The more roommates you have, the better."
In order to save money on expensive text books, check the college library for copies that can be borrowed. If the library only allows you to check a book out for a portion of the semester, check other local libraries for the same book.
And instead of subsisting off of ramen noodles for weeks on end, try to make the most of an affordable meal plan. It will be better for the physical and financial health in the long run.
In Ruby's experience, most students pay for college with the help of a parent or family member.
"I worked in financial aid for 27 years, and when I think about the families that did this the most successfully, no matter how much money they make, it was the families who approached it as a team," she says.
Ruby tells parents, "You've got to be in conversation with your kid about what their responsibilities are." When students do not fulfill their responsibilities, it is important that they learn the hard way argues Ruby. "If your kids mess up, you have to let them mess up and not bail them out immediately, which can be really hard."
She tells students, "It's your college experience, but you want to be communicating with your parents and working with your parents to make decisions that are good for them and good for you."
In order to promote this communication and transparency, students will need to give their parents access to their financial records. "Students have to grant permission to their parents to see certain parts of their records," explains Ruby. "They want to give access to the bill so they are sure that their parents are seeing it and taking care of things."
Having a campus job is one way for students to cover personal expenses and help contribute financially to their degree. The type of job you can get depends on whether work-study is included in your financial aid package, but even students who aren't awarded work-study may be able to find paid work on campus.
In order to see what your options are, set a meeting with your college's student employment office and find what kind of jobs you are eligible to apply for. Networking with older students is also a great way to learn about the best opportunities on campus.
If finding campus work is proving challenging, Ruby says that there is one place that is always hiring: the cafeteria. "Sometimes you have to be willing to take the less glamorous job, but making some of your own money can really give you independence."
She also points to research from the National Center for Education Statistics that indicates that students who work have better grades. "There is research that shows that kids who work a reasonable amount do better academically, because it helps them structure their time and is a good non-academic way to connect with people on campus," she explains.
Companies and banks often see college students as impressionable consumers. When getting to campus, students should be careful about the products and services that are advertised to them.
In 2009, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act banned banks from aggressively marketing credit cards and financial products on college campuses. However, this regulation does not stop banks from actively pursuing college students.
"There are regulations that are still in effect but students still need to do a little bit of homework," says Suzanne Martindale, a consumer finance expert and attorney for Consumers Union. She explains, "A lot of times these companies have marketing deals with the campus that make them look like the 'school approved' product, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the school has made sure that those products are in fact the best products for their students."
Female college students are sometimes targeted by fertility clinics. These companies offer to pay students thousands of dollars in exchange for eggs. Before agreeing to this kind of medical procedure, students should educate themselves about the potential risks.
When it comes to deals that seem too good to be true, it's best to follow Martindale's golden rule: "Make sure that you are entering with full information before you sign up."
One of the most important financial steps that students must make is one of the hardest —establishing a credit history. "One of the factors in a credit score is the length of credit history," argues Ruby. "You want to get things started as soon as you can so that when you graduate, you already have some established credit."
It can be particularly difficult for students to get a credit card because they often have no previous financial record. Ruby says, "Unless students have really significant part-time job income, it can be difficult to get an actual credit card on their own."
Parents have the option of adding a student to an existing credit card as an authorized user. Not all banks will report authorized users as borrowers to the credit bureau, but if yours does, this can be a simple way to start building a credit history.
Another way for students to build their credit history is to open a secured credit card. With a secured credit card, "you might have to take $1,000 of your savings and put it in a [cash deposit] and the bank will use that as security," says Ruby.
Once you have a credit card, it is important to stay on top of all payments. Being responsible and consistent with your account is the only way to make sure that a credit card pays off. It is also a crucial lesson for all students as they begin the next stage of their adult lives.
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