7 Don’ts for Fiscal Freshmen

(This is a guest article by Jack Busch*)

As a student, your financial picture is a bit unique. You have few assets and few hours to devote to a job, thus little income. You have little credit history (good or bad) but some limited access to revolving credit and other loans. Because of this, the years between matriculation and graduation are somewhat of a testing ground for your creditworthiness. Lenders give students just enough rope to hang themselves – and during those crucial four or so years, you can either establish a firm foothold on your way up to excellent lifelong credit or scar your credit rating for life with poor decisions. But by being an early adopter of responsible spending habits, you can save yourself from a lifetime of debt and sorrow. Your continued fiscal auspiciousness should be dictated by a series of don’ts. For example:

Don’t carry a balance.

If you have to use that emergency credit card, make sure you get it paid off ASAP. If that means no pizza or beer for a week, then so be it. If it means borrowing $50 from your pop, then do it. Believe me – it’s worth it to miss out on that one wild night in order to avoid the never-ending downward spiral of credit card debt. As long as you don’t flunk out, there’ll be plenty more wild nights to come. But that credit card debt will last far longer than a hangover if you let it get out of hand.

Don’t open multiple accounts.

If you’ve gone ahead and ignored the first don’t and maxed out your credit card, then don’t make things worse by getting another credit card. Instead, focus on paying down your current debt or, as a last resort, transfer your balance to a 0% interest card, such as the Discover More Card (but watch out for those fees!). I’m actually a bit hesitant to recommend the latter route, since two cards are always tougher to pay off than one, and you likely won’t qualify for a favorable credit with high debt to credit ratio. Opening another credit card count when cash is tight is akin to drilling a hole in a sinking boat to let the water out. It just doesn’t make sense.

If things are truly dire, you may want to consider credit counseling or a debt consolidation loan. But both of these open routes open an entirely different can of worms – do so with caution.

Don’t spend your salary before you’ve got it.

Yes, I know, you think you’re going to be a wheelin’ dealin’ lawyer or a snazzy corporate consultant when you graduate. But don’t bank on that bestselling novel or big banker’s bonus to pay for your credit card debt in college. First of all, your lucrative career is going to be four years down the road (or more, if the job market stinks) which gives all that debt plenty of time to accumulate interest. Plus, you’ll have an entirely new set of expenses once you’re living the urban professional lifestyle. Going into the post-grad world with a bunch of undergrad debt is like going straight from being a student to being a parent. Except that lousy ungrateful kid you’re paying for is yourself.

Don’t use your credit card to its full extent.

Ever notice how your car’s speedometer goes up to something like 140 miles per hour? Ever notice how driving that fast will get you killed or arrested? Your credit card is the same way. There are lots of neat features that come with your credit card, such as cash advance, convenience checks and deferred interest. But don’t use them and don’t use up all of your credit line. Cash advance (i.e. getting cash from an ATM using your credit card) comes with an astronomically higher interest rate and can’t be paid off until the rest of your balance is paid off. That means that $60 you pulled out can actually end up costing you twice that much in the long run. Use your credit card only for emergencies or only to rack up points, cashback and rewards and then pay it off in full each month.

Don’t forget to check your statement.

You’re already checking Facebook every 24 minutes, why not bookmark your bank’s website while you’re at it? Knowing what you’re spending and how much you’ve got to spend will save you from overdraft charges, over-the-limit fees, late fees and other unpleasant surprises. If that’s too boring for you, there are plenty of flashy tools that you can use to track your finances, such as Mint, Thrive and Wesabe.

Don’t let your parents write the check.

To get the full gravity of how much everything is costing you, arrange your finances so that the money for tuition, room and board, etc. comes out of your account. This can be necessary for tax purposes but it also instills a sense of how much everything is costing and how money should be budgeted.

When I was in college, my grandparents paid for much of my expenses. But instead of cutting the school a check whenever money was due, they just plunked all the money I was going to get from them into my checking account on day one. It was a daunting sum of cash to see on my bank statement, but I knew that if I blew it all, it’d be the end of my education. I was in charge of writing my rent check each month and arranging payments with the school’s registrar to make sure I was still signed up each semester and it taught me a lot about handling vital finances.

Of course, you don’t have to go it alone completely. It’s not a bad idea to become an authorized user on one of their credit cards strictly for emergencies. Especially since the credit cards for college students offered (for a limited time) on campus can often be riddled with pitfalls and traps designed to extract money from the uninitiated.

Don’t let your spending outstrip your income.

This is a pretty simple one. If you have no job, then you have no income. This should make budgeting easy. If all you have is some money you received as a gift for your high school graduation and a check for your birthday and Christmas, then it should be pretty easy to calculate how much you can spend before you’re broke. If this kind of lifestyle feels restricting, then get a part time job. Donate plasma. Wash dishes in the cafeteria or get a work-study position through the school. You can party all you want as long as you subsidize the expenses.

This last don’t is important , and if you can’t remember anything else from this article, remember this: don’t live beyond your means. Follow that one rule and you’ll be fine.

Let college be the time in your life when you forge a healthy relationship with credit. Because once you get out and payments on your student and federal loans become due and it comes time to finance a house, a car and a family, the rules will stay the same but stakes get much higher. Master these guidelines today and thank yourself for sidestepping crippling debt tomorrow.

*About the author: Jack blogs about personal finance, credit cards and debt management at Master Your Card and DebtLoans.com.au.

*Image Credit: Photograph by RBerteig [via Flickr Creative Commons]

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