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Freshman Finance for the College-Bound - 5/24/2012 -

As they receive their diplomas this month, thousands of area high school graduates are already gearing up for college life in the fall. With this next step in the transition to adulthood, comes a real set of real-world responsibilities, and chief among these are finances. If you’re college-bound, you’ve probably already gone through – or soon will -- orientation designed to introduce you to time management skills, dorm life, course requirement, campus layout and more. But in most cases, one of life’s most important lessons – how to manage your money – is left untouched.

Credit card companies and aggressive lenders are privy to the fact that young college students are prone to spend more freely than their parents, so they take action quickly. You’ll find that becoming a college freshman makes you a sought-after customer for "pre-approved” and "pre-qualified” offers. You may even receive a check in the mail that proves to be quick cash in your hands – at a cost, of course.

According to a recent study, 84 percent of undergraduates have at least one credit card, up from 76 percent in 2004. The research found that, on average, students have five credit cards, with half holding four or more. The average balance was more than $3,000.

"In most cases, one credit card is enough for a young college student. There is no magic number as to how many cards each consumer should hold, but a good rule is to only have credit cards that you can afford to pay off each month. If you find that you usually pay the minimum balance and all your cards are maxed out, that’s a red flag that you have too many. A new college student simply won’t have enough earning power to pay that balance down most of the time,” said Lyles McDaniel, Senior Vice President with Lakeside Bank.

McDaniel offers the following guide for college-bound freshmen as they begin to wade through financial responsibilities of adulthood:

  • Open a checking account at a local bank and learn how to balance your checkbook. McDaniel said some banks offer special accounts designed to help college students with the responsibilities of managing their own finances. If possible, open a savings account as well, and start developing the habit of saving a portion of what you earn.
  • Don’t be swayed by big-print credit offers that come in the mail. "Pay less attention to the big letters that promise zero-percent interest and pay more attention to the fine print, which is where the real information is,” McDaniel said. "Reading fine print should become a habit of anyone who applies for credit.”
  • Some financial lenders send legitimate checks in the mail, made out in your name. It’s understandably tempting to cash these checks, but "once again, look at the fine print,” stresses McDaniel. "These checks usually carry hefty interest rates that make cashing them less worthwhile.”
  • Use your credit card for emergencies only, and don’t carry more cards than you can afford.
  • Make sure you have a clear understanding of the interest rates on your lines of credit. If you can’t afford to pay more than the minimum balance, don’t have credit cards.
  • In addition to balancing your checkbook, make sure you keep track of your credit purchases. Sixty percent of students surveyed were surprised at how high their balance went and how quickly it skyrocketed. McDaniel says the same is true for debit card purchases – track and record your spending.
  • Save money by spending wisely. "One of the greatest benefits of college life is access to free or low-cost entertainment on campus. Pay attention to those opportunities as much as possible,” McDaniel said. If you’re fortunate enough to be on a meal plan, be sure to take advantage. Eat on campus instead of fast food. It may seem cheap to spend three bucks on a hamburger, but those three bucks add up quickly. Also, learn how to grocery shop wisely. Buy generic brands, use coupons, and comparison shop whenever possible.”
  • Have a budget, and stick to it. It’s easy to lose control of your finances, especially when you’re in college and busy with so many other things. Before you get in full semester swing, develop a budget with estimated costs in various categories, such as entertainment, supplies, and other expenses. Try to stay within that budget as much as possible. "Making a budget often requires a lot of guesswork, so it’s understandable that you may spend a little more than you planned from time to time, but usually you can get within a reasonable ballpark.” McDaniel said. Having a budget can greatly reduce stress because you have a general idea of what to expect financially each month.
  • Understand the consequences of poor financial choices. If you stick to minimum payments, open or apply for too many lines of credit, or don’t pay bills on time, your credit score will be affected. This determines what your interest rates will be on future purchases. "A low credit score costs you money and sometimes can prevent you from making future purchases, like a car or a home,” McDaniel said. "So any financial mistakes you make now, could have a big impact on your future financial situation. That’s why learning to manage your money is so important at this stage of your life.”

McDaniel says discipline is the key to financial management for consumers of any age, and is a lesson best learned sooner, rather than later.


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