6 Financial Planning Tips for High School Students Heading to College

Well before you earn a paycheck from your first full-time job, you can start building the skills you need to become a smart money manager. 

Even if you don’t have much money in your pocket today, it is important to have some financial know-how as you start living more independently.

The college experience will likely help you learn how to live within your means, but a little financial wisdom can make that transition much easier. Here are six money tips for high school students to consider as you look ahead to college.

1. Don’t live off of your student loans.

Student loans can feel like free money, but make no mistake: Whatever you borrow now, you’ll pay back in the future with a heavy dose of interest. Don’t use student loans to pay for living expenses, if you can afford it. 

Instead, take out only what you need to cover your tuition and necessary schooling costs. Then, get a job to cover any extra spending. Or, if you prefer not to work during school, use holidays and summer breaks to work part-time and save up money that can help you get through the school year and focus on your classwork.

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2. Open a checking and savings account.

A checking account with a debit card is a must for any college student. But you should also open a savings account and make an effort to contribute to this account on a regular basis. Use these savings as an emergency fund if you face unexpected expenses or lose a source of income during school.

Whether or not you need those savings in the future, the practice of saving regularly will help build a habit that will come in handy later in life.

3. Set a budget to keep your spending in check.

Even if you aren’t making or spending a lot of money during the year, you still have every reason to establish a budget. 

With less money to manage, your margin for error is small—so use a Budget Calculator or other money management tool to make sure those late-night food outings and impulse college buys don’t put you in a financial hole.

4. Don’t use credit cards for emergency relief.

Facing a sudden expense or financial emergency? Credit cards may offer relief, but that relief comes at a significant cost. 

Other, better options may exist, whether it means dipping into your savings, asking for help from your family, or even using student loan money—which is far from ideal, but carries a much lower interest rate and will save you more in the long run.

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5. Rent textbooks when possible, or buy used instead of new.

The cost of textbooks can add up in college, but there are easy ways to save. Textbook rentals continue to grow in popularity, and they can offer significant savings to cash-strapped college students.

When renting isn’t possible, buy used copies of your books when available. The books might not be in pristine condition, but they’ll offer the same information as a new copy, and the savings can be significant.

6. Protect your credit score.

Blowing off bills and racking up credit card charges might allow you to temporarily alleviate financial burdens, but this can have serious consequences if those actions wind up on a credit report.

If you have accounts that go into collections or other serious financial oversights, these mistakes can stick to your credit report for seven years, hurting your ability to get credit. The errors of your college years can plague you well into your professional life, so do yourself a favor and do whatever it takes to keep your credit report blemish-free.

College is a learning experience, and that almost always includes financial lessons as well as the education you receive in the classroom. But the more you know about (and use) money management tips as you head off to school, the better prepared you’ll be to handle the challenges that come your way.

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*Originally published May 2020. Updated September 2021.

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