We asked college grads for budget advice they could offer incoming freshmen.
Go local. If you have a public university near you, you can live at home. Dorms and apartments are costly. If you go away to school, live in the cheapest dorm. This is usually the one with the small rooms and the common bathroom down the hall. The lack of privacy can be a good thing - you certainly get to know the people around you. Because they were likely the first built on campus, they are located closer to the classroom buildings. This cuts down on transportation costs.
If you choose a meal plan, be realistic. Your parents want you to have a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner, so they will choose the 21 meal/week plan. You, on the other hand, may choose to eat in the dining hall only 10 times each week. Switch your plan as soon as you can. If you have money or meals left over at the end of the plan period, spend it on snacks or fruit at the campus store. Use it or lose it.
If your school offers only a debit card for you to use with meals, be sure to keep track of each expense. Especially on campus, it is very easy to overspend at the coffee shop and the vending machines.
Get a job in the dining hall. Employees usually eat for free during their shifts. You can eat and earn money!
If you live on or near campus, a car is likely not necessary. Sure, it's a great convenience, but you will pay for gas, maintenance, a parking permit and parking fines when you inevitably park in the wrong places. Our grads noted that there is usually someone going where you want to go, and all you have to do is offer to help with the gas.
The message from the graduates was "buy used." It's much cheaper and the used copies sometimes include beneficial notes from the previous owner. If you miss the used books at the campus bookstore, try half.com, amazon.com, craigslist.org or other online vendors. If you belong to campus organizations, ask the other members if they've taken the course you will be taking and then offer to buy or borrow their book.
The consensus was to take at least one summer course. There were lots of good reasons, but the financial reason is that it might get you out a semester early, or it will reduce your load during your last semester or two for the all-important job hunt. That lighter load might also help you boost your g.p.a. just in time for the labor market scrutiny. Some of those summer courses can be taken at the community college, a cheaper alternative. A good alternative is a paid internship, which helps you gain college credit, work experience and great references.
Get only one credit card and use it only in an emergency. Be careful with the debit card, too. Use cash. Don't be tempted by the vending machines and the coffee shop. Save money whenever you can.