College may be about preparing for your career, but for many people, it's also about learning how to manage money for the first time. And unlike a lightweight elective, this practical, real–world financial education can stick with you long after you receive your diploma, as the college graduates below can attest. From creating a budget to building a credit history from scratch, here are the most valuable money management lessons they learned at school.
"I spent so much money on going out and meals during my freshman year that I ran out of funds before the end of the semester," says Sam Jeffries, 24, of Austin, TX. "Thanks to a summer job waiting tables, I returned to school that next fall with hard-earned money in the bank and a vow to be more careful with my money. With the help of a financial advisor on campus, I created a detailed budget, set up a savings account for emergencies, and began using a credit card to pay for meals. The credit card offered cash back on purchases, which helped offset my spending, and I made sure to pay off the balance every month.
"I also tracked my spending on a spreadsheet so I could see exactly where my money was going and where I could cut back. It was a great incentive for me to make the most of what I spent. Over time, I was even able to add to my emergency fund every few weeks, which helped pay for an amazing trip to Europe when I graduated."
Related: How Do Cash Back Credit Cards Work?
"My college roommate and I love to travel and decided to go on a six-month trip together after graduation," says Lara Coleman, 27, of New York, N.Y. "Saving for it became our goal. We even had a friendly competition over who could be the best saver and bargain hunter. We sold our old clothes online and saved on new ones by using our credit card rewards points to pay for store gift cards. We got jobs at local restaurants and had free meals when we were working — and discounted ones when we weren't. And instead of big nights out every week, we'd invite friends over and ask everyone to bring a dish or drink.
"We would still treat ourselves, of course, but we converted everything into travel costs and goals: Would we rather have Chinese takeout tonight or seafood on a beach in Thailand in a year's time? Did we need another pair of boots when, for the same amount of money, we would get a flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur?"
"I don't come from a very well–off background and knew college expenses would hit me pretty hard," says Daniel Barrack, 31, of Houston, TX. "I did a lot of research into how to make it more affordable and was surprised by how many options I uncovered. I applied for every grant and scholarship I could and made sure to let the relevant department know whenever my situation changed, like when my dad lost his job. Every year, I served as a student resident advisor in exchange for a significantly reduced rate on room and board, and I also worked part–time as a researcher. I took advantage of the free stuff on campus, like the gym and dorm dinners, and used student discounts on everything from buying a computer to travel.
"I also kept a very watchful eye on how much I was spending, mostly by using a credit card for my day-to-day living expenses and paying it off in full at the end of each month. Not only could I see exactly what I was spending, I was also able to prove myself as a responsible borrower to my bank and started to build credit history. In retrospect, figuring out the best way to pay for college took a lot of work up front, but it paid dividends in the long run. I came out of college with a fraction of the debt of many of my peers."
As these graduates discovered firsthand, money management shouldn't be an afterthought when you're in college. In fact, with some strategic planning and a little discipline, you can help to build up your financial health before you've even graduated. For more tips on how to lay the foundation for a solid credit history, read our guide on How to Help Build Credit.
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