The Four Money Management Tips I Wish I Knew As A University Student

*This post was created by request on behalf of a UNI 101 class about financial literacy.* This post may contain links, please see my Disclaimer Policy.

I wasn’t always great with money. When I first started college, I went from a rural environment where the temptation to spend money was far and few to an environment where allllll the things I loved was right within walking distance. I spent way too much money on Starbucks that I eventually got a job there because my spending habits (and caffeine addiction) were out of control. After you get your first “out-on-your-own” job, which is likely different than the jobs you held when you lived with your family, you start to think about your money differently. These tips will help you stay on track so you use what money you have wisely…no matter what the amount.

Make a Budget:

If you haven’t already created a budget for yourself or your household, you need to do this as soon as possible.  Your future self will thank you. One of the most popular methods of budgeting is the 50/30/20 rule, which became more popular in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s book “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.” Through this budgeting method, you split your costs into three separate categories…needs, wants, and savings.


50% of your income after taxes goes to fixed costs like housing, utilities, car insurance payments, groceries, and minimum debt payments. This is a budget category that is used for your essentials or things you cannot do without. If you exceed the 50% category, you’re likely living above your means, and that means you can either reduce your necessary spending (like finding grocery store savings hacks), increase your income, or pull that income from your “wants” category, detailed below.


30% of your income after taxes goes toward your discretionary income. This means that you can have some fun with your money, whether that be for splurging on an iced coffee occasionally, buying new clothes, using streaming services like Netflix, and evenings out with your partner or friends. This category includes all those extra things that you can do without in the event of a money or budget shortfall.


20% of your income after taxes goes toward your financial future. I’m a big advocate of the “paying yourself first” method, so this needs to happen as soon as your paycheck hits your account and before the needs and wants categories are spent in your budget. When you get in the habit of paying yourself first—you set yourself up for a stellar financial future AND you force yourself to live within or below your means.

This category includes any financial goals you may be working on…whether that be building up your emergency fund, contributing to your ROTH IRA for retirement, or paying down your debts. Although making the minimum monthly payment on debts is part of your “needs” category—paying more than the minimum on those debts reduces the overall interest you’ll pay and therefore increase the amount of money you save. Save up your emergency fund first before working on any other financial goals.

Strategize to Reduce Overall Expenses:

Negotiate Your Phone Plan. Do you really need unlimited data? Regardless of your answer to that, compare plans and switch providers once your contract has ended if you can find a better deal. I only get 1 gig of data per month, which means that sometimes I run out before the end of my month—but I only pay $33/month. I use WIFI whenever possible and doing without data for a few days at times is such a huge savings that I’m okay doing without.

Lower your Internet speed. I have the lowest Internet speed plan available and can still stream on two televisions at any given time AND two people can be using their phones for social media or news scrolling. I went from paying $90/month to $40 by lowering my speed and not being afraid to tell the Internet provider that I would switch to another company (joke’s on them because I really wouldn’t have gone through the effort to do so).

Cut the Cable. If you live in a rural area, this one might not be possible—but with Netflix and Hulu—do you really need to be paying $80 on TV, too? If you’re living in an environment that provides cable for you (e.g. already included in your rent or in your dorm), then that’s the only time I’d advise ditching the streaming services.

Use Grocery Store Rebate Apps. If the grocery store you shop at has a rewards card, they likely have a phone app too. Download your grocery store app and load all the digital coupons to your card for the items you use…you’ll be surprised at how many additional coupons are available that you could never get access to directly in the store. You can also pair that with other reward apps like Ibotta, which is a grocery and online shopping rebate app you can use to earn a little additional money back.

You need to load your coupons on the app before you shop—and if your grocery store of choice is on there, you can even add your rewards card in some cases so it pulls your money back within a few hours for you. Right now, Ibotta is offering a $10 bonus to people who join and make a qualifying purchase. You can cash out at $20 to Paypal or Venmo, or get e-gift cards. When you refer friends, you’ll also earn $3 back—so full disclosure if you decide to join, use my link please! I started using Ibotta for my groceries and online shopping on October 1, 2018 and I’ve earned saved around $250.

Use Credit Wisely:

I personally didn’t get a credit card until I was 22, and it was honestly the best decision I ever made. I was always a frugal person, but throughout my years in college I was frugal out of necessity—not because I wanted to be. This actually set me up for success. If you decide to get a credit card, I cannot stress enough that you only use your credit card when you have the cash to pay it off immediately or in full at the end of the month.

Interest rates on credit cards, especially for people without a stable job or credit history, can be astronomical (we’re talking as much as 20-25%). Say you have a $500 balance and make only the minimum monthly payment of $25—it will take you 26 months to pay off that balance and you’ll pay $144 additionally in interest. It hardly seems worth it, right?

If you feel like you have to have a credit card now, which can help you later down the road when it comes to your credit score and history—I advise that you get one through the place where you do your regular banking. It may not have the best rewards or interest rate, but that way you can easily remember to pay your balance after each purchase or when payday rolls around because there’s no “forgetting about it”. Going through my bank for my first card is what worked for me to pay for large purchases and remain 100% credit card debt free. Here are some other tips:

  1. Pay off your balance as soon as you make a purchase—I mostly use my credit card for the points, so I only use my credit card when I have the money to pay it off immediately…
  2. If you’re in a small budget shortfall and are using your card to get by, pay off your balance in full on payday and before your due date. Careful though, it’s really easy to rely on your paycheck to pay off your card…and then you’re in a paycheck to paycheck cycle. This happened to me once, and it took a cash windfall for me to break that cycle.
  3. Turn on “automatic payments” on your account. In the event that you forget to pay your balance, signing up for automatic payments means that your bank makes your minimum monthly payment from your designated checking account for you, saving you your payments history in your credit score and in late fees per your credit card agreements…just make sure you have the minimum amount in your checking account.
  4. Don’t use more than 30% of your balance. That’s the sweet spot for maintaining a good credit score and a debt-to-income ratio. If you have a credit card with a $1,000 limit, stay below a $300 balance (even if you pay it off before the due date).
  5. Check your credit score every four months. That doesn’t include monitoring your score through your bank if they provide you with one. You are allowed one free credit report each year from each of the three credit agencies. When you space out your requests, you’re always on top of your credit score and any weird activity happening not done by you (such as someone opening a credit card under your name). You can access that via:
  6. The second you get your first card you may find yourself receiving a ton additional credit and loan offers. Opt out of those pesky credit card offers. You can do that for five years or indefinitely by going to this website:

Only Borrow What You Need:

As of 2018, there were roughly 44 million people who used student loans to pay for their living and educational expenses that equated to $1.52 trillion in debt. The average person from the class of 2016 had approximately $37,000 in student loan debt, according to Forbes.

When you receive your financial aid package, you may be surprised at the amount of student loan money that you’re offered. It may be tempting to take out the full amount –but let me tell you that doing that for your entire undergrad and/or graduate school experience would be a really bad idea in the long-run. I know students also use that student loan money to help pay for their living expenses, which is why I suggest lowering your living expenses as much as you can (see above or also see this post by me).

When you graduate you will likely be starting at a pretty low salary (respective to your colleagues who have already put in some years at your organization), and managing your household expenses, personal/social life, and any debts you have will really stretch yourself and your money pretty thin. Managing a bigger than you actually needed student loan balance when you’re ready to buy a house, rent your own place, or start a family may create more financial stress at a time where you’re ready to just adult.

If you don’t qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives your loans after 10 years of qualifying payments if you work in the public sector or non-profit realms, you’ll be on one of several other types of payment plans. If you have federal student loans, the list of payments plans can be found here. Basically, if you only make the minimum payment and you never miss a payment, you’ll be paying for your education for 10, 20, or 25 years. For clarification, mortgages are on 15 and 30-year plans, typically.

My advice is to only borrow what you need, and to make whatever payments you can while you’re in school, if you can afford to do so…even if it’s just $5 a month. I technically learned this rule as an early undergrad, and it pained me to borrow some for one of my grad degrees. The payments I made while I was in school saved me more than $1,000 in interest over the life of my loan.

The Takeaways:

  • Create a budget and pay yourself first
  • Reduce your overall living expenses
  • Pay off credit cards in full each month
  • Only borrow what you need
  • Make payments in school if you can
  • Be a mindful and responsible spender

Managing your money when you don’t feel like you make much money is a good thing to practice because it will be something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life. If you’ve come this far and follow this advice, you’ll set yourself up for a better financial future.

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