It was a long time ago, but I remember my first few weeks of college. Twenty years ago last month, I left my home state of New Jersey to live on campus at a neighboring state and to pursue my education degree. I had been away from home before for extended periods of time, but attending college was a new hurdle for me.
I was nervous. But before long, I felt at home in my adopted-for-college state and adjusted to the new state of existence well. My financial situation left much to be desired, though, if I had even known that there was something to desire. I had had a bank account for a couple of years, and a few jobs here and there, but I didn’t have much of my own money. My college education was being funded by scholarships, grants, loans, and my parents. At the time, I had no assets to put towards my education, and I think my parents were more interested in seeing me spend my time focus on my studies than on pursuing a job.
As I’ve written recently, I did discover at college that I had a small entrepreneurial streak, but I never would have admitted that at the time. Earning some money here and there allowed me at least to come up with something to spend while I was an undergraduate.
It’s common to give new college advice that pertains to saving money. “Living like a college student,” when fully graduated adults take inspiration from their frugal years as a student, involves the ideas of eating cheap food (ramen noodles?), furnishing an apartment with inexpensive items (a cardboard box chair?), and taking on roommates to keep living costs down. This is all great ideas, and adopting this approach in college can lead to a money-saving philosophy that lasts until later in one’s career. And considering so many college graduates are unemployed, these are good habits to keep under one’s belt for as long as one can bear the restraint.
This is a one-dimensional approach. As a student living on campus, unless you have unlimited funding from your parents, you are probably frugal by default. So as a new college student, you might benefit from some ideas for giving yourself a financial advantage on the day you leave campus with your cap and gown.
1. Decide that you’re going to position yourself well for the future.
By deciding to make your finances a priority instead of an afterthought early during your college career, you have the opportunity to adjust to a new mindset. Envision the future you want to have, as hard as that might be when you’re just figuring out who you are and what’s important to you. Studies show that college freshmen like you are probably too young to know for sure who you are, who you want to be, and what’s important to you, but that isn’t really the case. These things change over time. Just thinking about long-term goals can put you in a better frame of mind for making good financial decisions, even if your goals change over the next decade.
When you picture your future, it makes it easier to see how the decisions you make can lead in the direction you want to go. And if you dedicate yourself to being smart about money, you have the potential to keep that in mind every day you have a choice pertaining to money.
2. Spend time with people who make good decisions.
As you determine what values are important to you, find people who share those values. Regardless of your course of study, you will have the opportunity to associate with other students. Choose your friends well. The idea is not to be strategic from a networking perspective. The value of a friendship is not what that friend could possibly do for you in the future. Do not be a user of people.
The more time you spend with people who share the same values as you, the more you will accentuate those positive qualities. If you are around people who are aware of their financial responsibilities, and maybe want to achieve financial independence some day, that approach to money will continue to influence how you make your own decisions.
3. Join campus organizations.
I was a member of a fraternity. I joined because the group was more like an honor society, and some of the best professionals in my field had been involved with the organization. I also started a collegiate branch of another professional organization at my university, and encouraged my fellow students to become members. Being a member of these organizations gave me instant connections with professionals outside of college, and even provided me opportunities I might not have received had I not shared those credentials.
Campus organizations give you the opportunity to be involved with something you’re passionate about while at the same time building important leadership skills. Even better than just joining an existing organization, start your own.
4. Make yourself valuable to staff.
When I was in my first years of college, there were very few people in the country who had the ability to build websites. I was one of these people. The university needed websites for its collegiate departments, and professors needed websites to share information about their research or their courses. I worked closely with professors to design their websites, and it helped me build deeper relationships with those I worked with.
Make yourself an expert in some kind of service that the college staff needs. You could turn this into an opportunity for income. And while most of the tips here focus on positioning yourself well for the world after college, nothing can help you more than leaving college with money in the bank.
5. Get involved beyond the campus.
One area for improvement during my time at college was my involvement outside of campus. I was not a local student, so I wasn’t too familiar with the community outside my college. Without a car, I couldn’t explore the area too often. I had to rely on my friends who live near campus and grew up in the state. As a result, I probably missed some opportunities because I didn’t focus on being present beyond my campus.
What I noticed is that my fellow students who were involved in their fields’ organizations outside of campus were always positioned well to find jobs in the community during breaks and after college. For example, as a student studying music, it wasn’t enough to play in as many university ensembles as possible. A musician who chooses to play in community ensembles, he or she would be exposed to a wider variety of people and possibly be positioned for success in that field after college.
And getting involves with national non-profits like Habitat for Humanity can further prepare you with attitudes and ethics that come in handy for succeeding in life and building wealth over the long-term.
6. Travel to locations different than where you grew up.
Nothing effects your view of the world more than actually viewing the world. When you live most of your life in one place, as many college freshmen have done, you aren’t often exposed to people who live significantly different than you. I wish I had done more traveling while in college, whether being involved with something like Semester at Sea, studying abroad, or traveling throughout the country.
Nothing gives you better perspective about your finances — and about the advantages you have — than seeing first-hand what it’s like to spend time in a variety of communities.
7. Focus on your studies, but foster any ideas you might have.
The college experience is about more than studying, writing research papers, taking exams, and making the honor roll. You want to do all of those things, and do them well, but you also want to take the years you have before major life responsibilities to explore. Spend time every day brainstorming about projects you can create that align with your passions. So many great stories start with projects that came out of an idea someone had in college.
While you have this cushion, use time to explore your hobbies or turn them into a business. Toss ideas off your friends. Put up a website, and see what sticks. It’s unlikely you’ll start the next Facebook, but give yourself a chance to follow your crazy ideas. They might lead to something amazing.
These above money ideas may not sound like money ideas at first. But they are all related to how you begin to live your life, and after college, how you to continue to reach for your goals. If you like some of these thoughts, Please share this with your favorite college students.
Published or updated September 2, 2014.