For many students in college, this period of their lives is their first big step into financial independence, which comes with added responsibility and at times, difficult decisions.
Vanessa Perry, the vice dean for strategy, special adviser to the dean and professor at the George Washington University School of Business, said many people struggle with handling their finances. She explained it is a skill that needs to be practiced and by getting into good financial habits, students can set themselves up for success.
Her biggest advice to students is to gain knowledge by taking a class on personal finance either at GW or through online courses or seminars. She said everyone’s financial situation is different, and the best approach is to find a solution that fits your needs.
Perry also broke down areas that students should pay attention to when it comes to their finances to start building a solid foundation.
Budgeting will look different for everyone, Perry said, and while it’s an important skill to have, it can be difficult. “Thinking about when you're going to need money and for what is a challenging exercise,” Perry said.
Since there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting, she encourages students to utilize apps and free tools that analyze how their payments line up with their expenditures.
But creating a budget is only half the battle. The real difficulty is sticking to it.
“It is a lifelong challenge because throughout your school career and then your professional career, your expenses change and your income changes,” Perry said. “And with every one of those changes is a new need to kind of reconcile those things and think about the implications for budgeting and start thinking about things like retirement or saving for buying a house. The demands for responsible financial behavior get more and more extreme over time. So it is good to get as much practice as you can in college. But if you fail, it doesn't work perfectly, you shouldn't feel bad. It’s something lots of people struggle with.”
The key is to not get discouraged if you go over your budget, Perry said, but to continue trying to stick to your goals.
Perry said one mistake she sees a lot of college students make is incurring a great deal of credit card debt.
“Suddenly having access to more money than you might be able to afford in a given period, is often new for college students,” Perry said. “And it’s a challenge to manage it. It can be very compelling to make purchases on credit, not fully appreciating the implications that they may be paying for these purchases for years in the future.”
She said many college students are already in a position of having debt from student loans, so incurring high amounts of credit card debt on top of that is very risky. She advises students to spend within their means as much as possible.
Perry said it’s important for students to start building a healthy credit score. The good news, she said, is students don’t necessarily need credit cards to build a credit history.
“Many of the major companies that track payment history, like Equifax and TransUnion, have now integrated different measures of credit risk,” Perry said. “Many of them are based on rent or payments, utility and telecommunications payments. So, the good news is this opens up opportunities to build a credit history for people who don't use credit cards or traditional forms of credit.”
The caveat, Perry said, is the timeliness of payment on those bills is very important since it can impact your credit score.
She advises students to use digital tools like setting up automatic payments or calendar reminders to ensure they are paying their bills on time.
Perry said research shows that having separate accounts will help individuals stay consistent with their budgeting goals.
She recommends having a savings account separate from a regular checking or deposit account. Perry said by making those funds harder to access, people can reduce the likelihood of unnecessarily taking money from their savings goals.
“That's just sort of a psychological heuristic that, in this culture, we have about money. If you set things aside for different purposes,” Perry said, “you're much more likely to comply with those separate categories.”