Freshman Finance 101: Money management skills for college students

Don't wait until your college freshman heads off to school to teach them how to manage money. The Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants (VSCPA) says that parents can prepare their children for the rigors of managing a college budget by discussing monetary issues openly and teaching them the basics of personal finance. Here are some guidelines to help you get started.

Have a plan in place

To avoid misunderstandings with your soon-to-be college freshman, be up front about which college expenses you will cover and which you'll expect your child to pay. Once you're in agreement, decide on a plan for disbursing those funds.

Monthly payments typically work best. Students given a large lump sum at the beginning of the semester may be tempted to use the entire amount in the first few months. Be clear that when the money runs out, unless it's an emergency, you won't cover the shortfall. Otherwise, your child will never learn to live on a budget.

Focus on budgeting

College life is full of opportunities to spend. Encouraging your child to develop a budget will help them maintain control of their money and limit spending. Have your child list all sources of monthly income — job earnings, savings, and parental support — and then develop a list of estimated expenses for the same time period.

Realistically identifying your student's college living expenses in advance can be tricky. For starters, have your child consider the cost of books and school supplies, meals not covered by a meal plan, entertainment, personal care items, laundry, telephone and Internet service, cab rides or car expenses, and clothes. Remember, budgets need to be flexible and can be revised after the first month or two.

The next step is to total income and expenses. If expenses outpace income, your son or daughter needs to find ways to increase the income stream, perhaps by taking on a part-time job or by reducing spending.

Discuss the dangers of credit cards

With credit card companies aggressively targeting college students, credit cards can be a major pitfall for your child. Discuss the pros and cons of using a credit card. For example, having a credit card for emergencies and for building a credit history is not necessarily a bad idea. But for some students, access to credit is an invitation to overspend.

If you decide it makes sense for your child to have a credit card, be sure he or she understands how credit works and the importance of charging no more than the amount they can comfortably afford to pay each month.

Want to be on the safe side? Have your child use a debit card for everyday expenses and reserve the credit card for true emergencies. Debit cards give kids all the convenience they need but are limited to the amount of money in the student's bank account.

Open a checking account

It's usually a good idea for a student to open a checking account in the area where the school is located. Help your child locate a bank that offers free or low-fee checking for students and has several convenient automated teller machine (ATM) locations. This reduces out-of-network ATM fees.

Every college student should know how to balance a checkbook. It's a tedious job, but it's cheaper than bouncing checks. Take the time to show your student how to manage a checkbook so the process is familiar. Also, be sure your child realizes that out-of-state check deposits take a few days to clear.

Encourage smart spending

Remind your child that he or she can keep their spending under control by looking for low-cost entertainment on campus. Universities and college towns are infamous for having excellent entertainment at lower prices. Also, joining clubs and organizations ensures that a college student will have something to do and someone to do it with, and the expenses are far less than what could be incurred on a weekend shopping spree.

College students also need to learn to comparison shop and economize. Clipping coupons, purchasing used textbooks, sharing cab rides, buying generic brands, and renting videos instead of going to the movies are just some of the ways a savvy scholar can save money.

CPAs point out that learning to manage money is an important part of your child's educational experience and one that is typically not taught in school. Budgeting, smart spending, and limiting credit card use are excellent lessons that will help lead your child toward a healthy financial future.

The VSCPA offers additional money management tips and free resources on its Financial Fitness Web site.

About the VSCPA

The Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants is dedicated to enhancing the success of CPAs. Founded in 1909, the VSCPA has approximately 8,300 members who work in public accounting, industry, government, and education. For more information, you can e-mail or call (800) 733-8272. To search for a CPA in your geographic region, visit www.FinancialFitness.org and click on "Find a CPA."

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