The first year of college can be an incredible experience, as you're afforded far more freedom than you've enjoyed up to that point in your life. While that freedom can be exciting, it can also mean you have a lot of opportunities to make financial mistakes.
College is a journey full of financial land mines, and if you take the wrong step, you'll walk away after graduation with enormous student loans and often other debts as well. Those mistakes can begin as early as your first few weeks on campus.
Here are seven things you can do during your first year to save a ton of money without detracting anything from the college experience.
Wait until your first class before buying textbooks. Yes, it's tempting to head right to the bookstore and pick up the books you need for your classes, but wait a bit before you do that. Professors may make some expensive books optional or recommend specific used books. Sometimes, the books aren't entirely required for your class, and professors will instead rely on notes and documents posted online.
Wait until your class has met for the first time and you've had a chance to read through the syllabus and hear from your professor before buying your books. If no one else does, ask your professor about the textbook requirements. Are older versions of the textbook acceptable? Are the books all required?
When you do buy them, buy them used. If you find that you do need to buy textbooks, buy used ones. You can start at Amazon where there's an extensive selection of used textbooks, but other sites like Chegg also have a large offering of books. You might also want to peek at Craigslist, which has more used textbook listings at the start of new semesters.
Use city transportation. A car might feel like a symbol of freedom, but it adds a hefty expense to your college experience (even if mom and dad are paying for some of it). Payments, parking, insurance, fuel and maintenance add up to a lot of cash that you can't really afford.
Most college campuses are well served by a bus system that's usually integrated with the larger city. You can use it for almost everything you need to do -- going to class, shopping and heading out on the town. It's far, far cheaper to get a semester or yearlong bus pass than it is to maintain a car.
Go light on the meal plan. It can be tempting to sign up for the heavy meal plan. After all, you're going to be walking around campus all day -- you're going to be hungry.
Before you do that, however, consider that it can make a lot of sense to eat one or two meals a day and then just eat snacks between dining hall meals -- snacks you can sometimes grab while getting those meals. Plus, you can take advantage of inexpensive food options outside of your meal plan for one meal a day.
There's another really good source for meals you probably haven't thought about yet ...
Go to meetings of campus organizations you might be interested in. Not only do these organizations provide a great way to meet new people who are interested in the same things you are, many of those meetings involve free food. Campus organizations often order pizza or other food for the first meeting of the year, and some will offer food for every meeting.
Take advantage of this and go to lots of meetings, particularly in the first few weeks before schoolwork kicks into overdrive. You'll eat for free, make new friends and have lots of club options to consider.
Avoid credit card sign-ups like the plague. Credit card hawkers are often present on college campuses, offering freebies like T-shirts and other items to entice you to sign up for a credit card.
No matter how tempting a credit card is, just avoid those booths. If you decide that you do want a card, there are many, many better cards out there than the cards being pushed by the people standing around on campus trying to get you to sign up.
Rent your appliances. Whether you live in a dorm or an apartment, there are likely several items you're going to want -- a bed loft, a mini-fridge and so on. It can be tempting to buy them, but then you're stuck with those items after college when you won't have much use for them.
Many schools have low-cost rental programs for these items, so start there first. If your school doesn't offer them, there are a number of businesses like Bedloft that serve those schools.
Little steps like these can each save a few hundred dollars (or more) per year, and over the course of a college experience, that adds up to thousands.
Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website TheSimpleDollar.com, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.
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