Finances: Money Management Tips from College Students

Family Modules

Module 6 Part 5



Objective: The student will select 3 money management tips from college students and reflect on how the tips can be applied to his or her own life.

Estimated time 20-30 minutes

Materials needed:

Curriculum Link:

This section corresponds with Module 6 Activity 2 in the STEPP Classroom Transition resources.

Learn About It

Tips about budgeting

Setting and sticking to a budget is the most commonly given piece of advice from current college students. Many students recommend having someone help you to determine reasonable amounts of money to spend in each category or for each type of expense, and then using that information to set a limit in each area. You can set your limits to be per day, per week, per month, or per semester. Regardless of the time frame, make sure you track how much you spend so you know when you’re getting close to your limit and need to stop spending.

Tips About Cash

Many students recommend only carrying a small amount of cash each day. Having a little is better than none because you never know when you might need a few dollars for something unexpected.

However, if you don’t carry much cash, you won’t be tempted to spend beyond your means. Carrying large amounts of money can also be a safety risk if you’re flashing it or making it known that you have it. Several students noted that about $20 covers anything they might need cash for on a normal day.

Some students find it harder to part with cash than to use a debit or credit card. They describe it as “feeling” more like the money is gone than if you use a card because it’s more tangible. The actual money leaves your hands instead of the abstract idea of money leaving your account. It’s also easier to tell when you’ve hit the limit of what you can spend: your wallet is empty!

Tips about Working

Some students recommend working either full-time or part-time during summer and winter breaks in order to save up money that you can spend during the school year. This gives you a reserve of money to get you through the semester without working while classes are in session.

Several students also recommend working part-time during the school year. Although it can be challenging to balance academics and work, many students can successfully work part-time and keep their grades up as well. Research also backs up students’ advice in this situation: College students who work part-time (<20 hours/week) benefit educationally as well as financially.


A campus job can also be an excellent option for many students. Campus jobs are often more convenient to get to than those off campus. In addition, most on-campus employers are well aware that academics need to be a student’s top priority and may therefore be more flexible in working around your courses and academic workload.

Tips abut Saving Money

College students can often find many ways to save money on both necessities and inessentials. Students recommend finding as many deals as possible to get more for your money.

For example, many places in college towns offer discounts to college students (e.g., movie theatres, restaurants, local shops and stores). You usually have to show your student ID to get the discount, so be sure to carry it with you whenever you go out.

If you look for them, there are lots of deals to be had even without a college ID. You might find out about promotions, bargains, or free offers online or in your college newspaper, the local newspaper, or elsewhere. Carry coupons in your wallet or someplace convenient so you’ll have them when you need them.

Many college campuses offer some kind of free or low-cost transportation, often a bus system. On some campuses, this transit system has routes accessing nearly every place a typical student would usually need to go. Students may find that they either don’t need a car during the first year or two on campus or that they can save money on gas and other car expenses by using their car sparingly. There may also be other options like a short-term rental car service (e.g., Zipcar) or ride sharing.

Understand how your meal plan works and all the options and perks associated with it. Many colleges offer meal plans that include some combination of meals that can be used at specific dining locations for specific items, along with funds that can be used more flexibly on a wider range of items or at a wider range of locations. Try not to use the flexible funds on items that you could use a meal allotment for, since the flexible funds tend to run out much faster.

For example, ECU meal plans include unlimited access to the 2 dining halls on campus plus a certain number of “Pirate Bucks” that can be used at other campus dining locations and on other food items. Many students run out of Pirate Bucks much earlier than they expected, sometimes because they use those instead of their dining hall meal allowance.

Tips about Banking

Even in college, it’s important to begin to save money for the future or for emergencies. Students recommend having a separate reserve of money that’s off limits except in true emergencies. Although building this reserve can be challenging during college, even depositing a little bit at a time adds up eventually. You may be able to earmark money you receive as a gift to go into this account, along with part of your summer job savings or other sources of income.

Regardless of how you keep track of your money, you should always know your approximate bank balance. Check your balance regularly using an ATM, online banking, or your bank’s automated phone system. Nothing puts a damper on your day like finding out you overdrew your account with a small purchase and that you could have avoided it if you’d just checked your balance beforehand!

Several students recommended being very cautious about either borrowing money from friends or loaning money to friends. Informal loans between people can create awkward situations. Save the “banking”-type activities for actual banks instead of friends and acquaintances.

Tips about Financial Aid

Many students recommend applying for financial aid even if you’re not sure that you need it or will accept it. You’re not obligated to accept any aid that is offered, and applying will at least let you know what your options are.

If you receive financial aid of any kind, it’s extremely important to be well informed about all aspects of the aid package. At minimum, you need to know:

  • How much money you’re getting: Some aid is tied to the exact dollar amount of your costs (tuition, fees, etc.), while other aid may be a fixed amount that is less or more than your expenses.
  • Where the money comes from: Financial aid can come from a wide array of sources, such as the Federal government, a private bank or loan company, your college or university, or an independent organization.
  • Terms and conditions attached to the funds: All financial aid comes with a detailed description of the aid package. You need to know what’s required to maintain your financial aid eligibility, whether the aid has to be paid back, how it will be paid out (directly to the school or directly to you), and what you can and can’t use the funds for. For loans or other aid that needs to be repaid, you also need to know the repayment terms: when repayments begin, how you will need to pay it back (money or service), how long you have to pay it all back, and what’s interest rates or fees are associated with the aid.

Tips about Making Financial Choices

Sometimes you can save yourself money just by avoiding impulse buys. If you see something that you want, don’t purchase it immediately. Instead, wait awhile. You can always go back for it later if you still want it, but you just may find that the item isn’t as tempting after the immediate impulse to buy it has passed. This can apply to larger purchases (e.g., a new sweatshirt at the campus bookstore) or small purchases (e.g., an extra snack between meals).

Some students prefer to avoid temptation entirely by staying out of situations where they know they’ll be tempted to buy items they can’t afford. For example, if some friends are going to the mall and you don’t want to be faced with the temptation of spending money there, suggest meeting up with them afterwards for a low-cost or free activity instead of going along with them.

Finally, a key to money management for college students (and adults as well!) is to learn to discern between your wants and needs. You can’t avoid spending money on your needs in college, such as tuition, books, housing, food, and clothing. However, you can make smart choices about things that aren’t necessities. It’s also easy to justify spending more than necessary on items that fulfill a need, but could be substituted with a lower-cost option. For example, you need to eat breakfast, but you don’t need to spend $7 on coffee and a muffin at Starbucks; you could instead use your meal plan. If you choosing carefully where to save money by sticking with the items that truly fulfill your needs, you’ll be better able to splurge occasionally on some “wants” as well.

Parents Chime In

  • Discuss the advice given above as it relates to what your student has learned in the other lessons in this module so far. Ask your student to give his or her impressions of the tips, which ones they believe are practical, which ones they would like to implement, and any anticipated obstacles to implementing this advice.
  • Work with your student to list and discuss his or her 3 favorite money management tips from this activity. After your discussion, ask your student to write a 1-2 paragraph reflection on how he or she can apply these 3 tips in his or her life. Place the reflection in your student’s transition notebook.

Objective Check

Have you accomplished today's objective?

Objective: The student will select 3 money management tips from college students and reflect on how the tips can be applied to his or her own life.

If so, congratulations!

If you don’t feel like your reflection is sufficient, read back over the tips in this activity and add more paragraphs.