Financial Stress and the College Student
Most people would agree that money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy Starbucks coffee, tickets to the movies, and lots of other things that college students enjoy. Money also buys food and books and a lot of other things that college students need. One challenge that students often face is navigating the distinction between what we want and what we really need, and this challenge is amplified when there is barely enough money in our budget for the essentials without those little luxuries that we would like to have.
In the current economic climate, many families are struggling with their finances and making the investment in their children’s university education. Frequently, students are expected to contribute substantially to their own educational costs through financial aid packages, summer jobs, part-time employment during the academic year, and taking out loans. In some cases, students are paying for their tuition and college expenses largely or completely on their own. For these students, the image of the “broke college student” living on ramen noodles can be uncomfortably close to reality at times.
Adding to the strain of limited personal finances can be social expectations around discretionary income, and differing perspectives on what it means to have enough money. For example, one student may feel financially pinched by chipping in for cab fare when their friends go off-campus frequently. Another student may be tightly budgeting money from paycheck to paycheck to the point of feeling obligated to pass when friends are going out for an occasional midafternoon treat. In both situations, the students may feel the economic stress of not having enough money to do the things that they would like and being concerned about others’ reactions to their efforts to save money. Instead of being proud of their work ethic or appreciating their strong money management skills, students may feel alone in this experience.
It is important to note that 72% of undergraduates receive financial aid, and 14% of Loyola students qualify for federal Pell grants, which are awarded to low-income families. Across campus, at least one out of every ten students come from a family struggling to make ends meet. Recognizing the economic diversity on our campus allows those on a tight budget to see they are not alone, and those who have less constraint on their personal spending to learn from different perspectives.
Tips for Navigating Personal Finances on Campus
- Make a budget for yourself. Start off by making a list of all your sources of income and all your expenses. Distinguish between those that are primarily at the start of the semester, like books and school supplies, to those that are monthly, like a cell phone bill or Netflix subscription. Don’t forget basic categories like food, toiletries, laundry, transportation, and entertainment.
- Entertainment expenses can be difficult to estimate, but try to realistically determine how much you typically spend on things when you are ‘going out’ – whatever that looks like for you and your friends. You may also decide to include a miscellaneous category for things that are infrequent yet important, like celebrating your best friend’s birthday or needing a haircut/style for a big occasion. Need help? Try an online budgeting calculator like the Mint app.
- Embrace student discounts, coupons, and other ways to save money! Textbooks can be much cheaper when purchased used or in electronic form. Same with clothing (used—not electronic!). From using coupons at the grocery store to catching an Orioles baseball game on Student Night, it’s possible to be creative with buying basics and having a little fun without breaking the budget.
- If you get a disbursement from a student loan at the start of the semester, that lump sum may look big on your bank balance statement but remember it is intended to last you the entire semester. Many new students aren’t thinking about running out of money in September and do not monitor their spending, so that “suddenly” it is the end of November and they realize that they don’t have much left in their account to get through to final exams.
- Be smart with credit cards. Historically, credit card companies were quick to offer college students a card with relatively high credit limits and even higher interest rates. Part of the reason they do this is that they realize the temptations of young adults living on their own for the first time and how alluring it can be to buy things immediately on credit. Outsmart the banks by not charging things you really can’t afford. Pay off your balances in full each month so that you build a good credit history. If you must charge more than you can pay off that month, make more than the minimum payment so that the interest charged each month doesn’t make you fall even further behind in your budget.
Social Considerations Regarding Spending
- Be clear with your roommate(s) up front about who will contribute what to the apartment, what will be shared, and what won’t. It might seem awkward when first getting settled in your new place to openly talk about these things, but it can save a lot of frustration and misunderstandings over time. Make a list of the things that will be communal property, think about how often it may need to be replaced and how much it costs, and try to develop an equitable arrangement to make sure you don’t run out of things and that the expense doesn’t fall unfairly on one person.
- There will likely be times during college when you are trying harder to save money, and your friends will likely also have those times. When friendship groups can be sensitive to the reality that some members of the group have less spending money than others at any given time, it makes it easier for anyone to point out a trend of going to more expensive places and suggest other options that would be easier on everyone’s wallet. If the goal is to spend time with friends, keeping costs down is a great way of making sure you don’t lose out on having fun with them or make anyone in your group feel excluded.
Money Saving Ideas for College Students
- Cooking at home is often cheaper than eating out. If you don’t have access to a car and need groceries, consider finding a group of roommates or friends who would like to split the cost of a grocery delivery service like Peapod. Farmers Markets can also be an affordable option.
- Look for student discounts whenever possible.
- Explore the many FREE things to do in Baltimore, including: visiting the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Museum, picking up a free novel or two at The Book Thing, enjoying nature at the Clyburn Arboretum, catching the Friday night star-gazing in the observatory at the Maryland Science Center, checking out Hamden for First Fridays, and exploring the Inner Harbor. Visit Baltimore has the details and lots more free ideas.
- Consider places that sell household products at lower prices than even Target or Walmart. For example, you can get trash bags and cleaning supplies at most dollar stores that are comparable to items that cost 2-3 times as much in other stores. They sell school supplies too. Local options include Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Five Below.
- Savvy shoppers know that they can help their communities while saving money. Did you know that The Wise Penny on York Rd. is owned and operated by the Junior League, raising over $2.5 million from sales of new and gently used clothing and household goods? Other area thrift stores that give back to the community include Savers, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army.
At the Counseling Center, we understand that personal and family finances can be major stressors for students. We offer support in a range of ways, from helping students navigate resources available on campus to providing a safe place to talk about feelings and ways to navigate sticky social situations. Our Relationships groups can also be another outlet for students to be able to share with each other how economic stress impacts them and to receive support from others who can relate to their experiences. If financial stress is ever an issue, we are here to help. Please call or stop by the Counseling Center to schedule an appointment.