A few tips to help you (mostly) avoid financial anguish

By Ashleigh Viveiros


The starving student sitting in a living room furnished with lawnchairs and upturned boxes, eating macaroni and cheese five nights of the week - it's a silly, popular stereotype, but one that does have roots in a bit of reality.

University and college students are generally pretty cash-strapped. Many start off the school year with a set amount of money available to them, and they have to find creative ways to make that money last - all the while walking the fine line between paying for the necessities and still finding ways to have some fun along the way. Here are a few tips to help you (mostly) avoid the cliché:

Plan a detailed budget and stick to it. Simply guessing, roughly, how much money you'll have and how much you think you'll need to spend isn't really enough. Sit down and crunch the numbers as accurately as possible to figure out exactly how much money will be left over after you cover your fixed costs - tuition, rent, utilities - for everything else - nights out, trips home, weekly groceries. Going into the school year knowing exactly where you stand financially is really the only way you'll make it through the next several months without unexpectedly running out of money.

Keep track of every penny you spend. Even with a planned budget, sometimes it may seem like chunks of your money are magically disappearing, and you have no clue where they're really going. While tracking your spending can be a tedious process, it will give you valuable insight into your spending habits. You might be surprised to realize just how much you spend on silly things like, say, mid-afternoon snacks (purchasing a muffin or chocolate bar a few times a week really does add up). Once you become more conscious of your spending habits - and your weaknesses - you'll be able to work towards changing them.

Re-evaluate your needs versus your wants. Rent, food - these are needs. Nights out with your friends, a slick new pair of pants - these are wants. While you don't want to spend the next four years depriving yourself of a social life or of any personal treats, you need to be aware that non-essential expenses can quickly add up. The key here is just being fiscally responsible - save your money for special events or goodies over the course of a few weeks rather than succumbing to the wiles of impulse buying, go the cheaper route for entertainment whenever possible (cheap night at the movie theatre, say), and really consider whether you can't live without some cool new toy.

Look for savings everywhere. When grocery shopping, clip coupons, buy bulk, check out cheaper no-name brands, and stock up on certain items only when they go on sale; when heading out for a night on the town, bring your student card with you and ask for the student discount at restaurants, movie theatres, and other events (there are also often discounts out there for travel, phone services, and many other expenses); and when shopping for clothing, furniture, and practically any other items, head to local thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets for huge savings.

Find ways to cut corners on necessary expenses. You need transportation to school each day, but does it really need to be in your own personal car? The costs of gas, maintenance, and parking quickly add up - what do they compare to the cost of taking the bus each day? If you're already taking the bus, can you find a cheaper way to get to school by carpooling or even biking?

Other corner-cutting ideas could be relying on e-mail or even snail mail to stay in touch with your family and friends back home, rather than expensive long-distance phone calls (or limit your calls to only once every week or two, and try to be on the receiving end of the call as often as possible); taking advantage of the student passes at your school's recreational/workout facilities, rather than spending a bundle on a public gym; buying used textbooks rather than new ones whenever possible; and using your school's internet access rather than paying for your own at home.

Leave room for unexpected expenses. Your car breaks down, a sick family member necessitates an unexpected trip home - life can throw curveballs at even the most financially prepared student, so when you're planning out your budget, try to leave in some wiggle room for any unforeseen expenses that might pop up.

Beware the evils of credit cards. Credit cards can be a great way to build up a credit rating so that when it comes time to buy a new car or even take out a mortgage on a house in a few years, you've already got a proven track record for paying back your debts. That said, credit cards can also be a student's worst enemy if used to help a person buy things they can't otherwise afford.

The smartest way to use a credit card is to use it only if you know you already have the money to pay off the bill when it comes, so you never have to pay interest. If you find yourself falling into the trap of only being able to pay of a portion of your credit card bill each month, STOP USING IT, because it means you are certainly living beyond your means.

Consider getting a job. If you can't handle a part-time job during the school year, at least keep an eye open for the casual job opportunities that may pop up on your school's job board over the course of the year. Spending one Saturday working - be it tutoring a fellow student or mowing lawns - won't take too much time away from studying, but will give you a little extra pocket change for the next few weeks.

You might also want to consider ways to fit a part-time job into your schedule - can you find a place that will be flexible with their hours throughout the year or during mid-term season? Again, having money coming in during the school year instead of just during the summer months will only help you in the long run.

When all is said and done, just remember - you are now the master of your finances. It's totally up to you whether you sink (being forced to drop out of school because of a lack of funds) or swim (successfully graduating with a minimum amount of debt on your back). Keep aware of your financial situation and be disciplined with your spending, and you'll keep afloat just fine.

Modified on April 23, 2009