Published August 19, 2011
The first year of college brings sudden freedom, and students don't always handle it wisely. Bad eating habits, for instance, can lead to weight gain -- the infamous "freshman 15."
Bad money habits can also creep in, leaving students saddled with debt. Call it the "freshman $15,000."
The sheer newness of college leads freshmen to misstep with money, says Joe Templin, managing director at The Unique Minds Consulting Group, a financial advising firm in Ballston Spa, N.Y. "You don't have mom and dad to say 'No, you can't do that!'" Keeping up with wealthier classmates, impulse buying and inexperience handling money also lead to financial goofs.
Here, college students and recent grads share their money mistakes, plus their advice on how this year's freshman class avoid them.
Mistake: Going crazy with a credit card
Scotty Libby, 20, got a credit card when he was 18, and during his freshman year at the University of Georgia in Athens, he used it for everything from groceries to $5 impulse buys. He reached his $2,000 credit limit in a year. "I wasn't paying it off like I should have," he recalls, "just the minimum amount."
Frightened by the debt, he persuaded his parents to bail him out, and they did. Libby quickly rang up another $2,000 in debt. His parents bailed him out for half, and then told their son he was on his own.
These days, he's finishing up his senior thesis. He's also working, and devoting 25 percent of each paycheck to paying off his debt. He got rid of the credit card, and now uses a debit card for purchases.
Libby advises first-year students to have a credit card -- it can come in handy for emergencies -- "but treat the money as it if were coming out of your bank account," he says.
Mistake: Neglecting your checkbook
Gabe Albarian, 28, still smarts from a mistake he made as a UCLA freshman: A bounced check that cost him $65 in bank charges.
"I was horrified," says Albarian, now a graduate student at the University of Southern California. "I was budgeting myself $5 a meal so that literally cost me 13 meals."
To correct his mistake, Albarian set up overdraft protection, something he'd been meaning to do, but had neglected. In a bold move, he asked the bank to refund the $65 charge, and it did.
He advises new college students to keep up with their finances just as they keep up with classwork. And, he adds, use cash. "It's the easiest way to know how much you have."
Mistake: Attending a school that costs too much
David Watson began college at Trinity International University, a Christian college in Deerfield, Ill. Because his father is a pastor, Watson got a 50 percent scholarship, which made the $32,000 yearly tuition look like a bargain.
It wasn't. Watson left Trinity after his freshman year because his family moved to Texas. When he enrolled in a community college, he discovered that none of the 30 hours he racked up at Trinity would be credited toward his business degree. He was left with $16,000 in student loan debt and 30 useless credit hours. "I wasted all that money for nothing," he says.
Watson, 22, is now a senior at the University of Texas in San Antonio and will finish his business degree in December. His advice? "Know what you're getting into," he says. And, he adds, don't overlook oft-maligned community colleges to get core credits out of the way. His community college classes cost $75 per credit hour, and they all transferred to the state school.
Mistake: Misunderstanding a financial package
Four years ago, Tiffany Jackson fell in love with Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. "The scenery was beautiful, and I thought a private college would be best for me," says Jackson, now 22 and working as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the Bronx outpost of Lift, a national social services agency.
To cover the $40,000 annual tuition, Jackson had a financial aid package that she thought was a mix of repayable loans and grants. She was wrong. The package was mostly high-interest private loans.
Junior year, Jackson transferred to a state school with lower tuition. She graduated in 2009 with degrees in biology and English -- and $60,000 worth of debt from her two years at Franklin Pierce.
Her AmeriCorps stint will help her repay $10,000 in loans from her alma mater. As for the rest, "Sallie Mae said they could put me on a 25-year payment plan," Jackson says ruefully.
She urges current college students to make sure they understand, to the dollar, what they'll owe when they graduate. "Don't just sign off on things," she says.
Mistake: Not having a budget
Her first year at the University of California at Irvine, Stephania Andrade spent wildly, including dropping $2,000 on dorm room "necessities," using her own money and her parents' credit card.
"You want to have the college experience, have fun with friends," says Andrade, now 23 and an offsite search engine optimization manager for Flank Marketing in San Diego.
The fun changed during her sophomore year, when Andrade's parents put her on a strict budget. She also worked more hours and cut her socializing in half, to two or three nights a week. She also began to shop daily-deal sites and spend nights in with friends, rather than at a bar or restaurant.
Andrade's advice: "Definitely stick to a budget, and don't think that if you don't have the income, you can do it."
Mistake: Overestimating the value of money
John Antokas thought the $3,000 he received in high school graduation gifts would last his entire college career.
He discovered otherwise late in his freshman year. Antokas tried to pay for a dinner date with a debit card and was astonished when the waiter told him the card wasn't accepted.
"I was scared to death," says Antokas, now 21 and a senior at American University in Washington, D.C.
Antokas turned to his parents, who put him on a $40-per-week allowance. He also found an internship at CapitalWise Educational Services, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that helps college students manage their finances.
The job has given him spending money, plus the skills to create a budget. These days, "I feel a lot more responsible, like I kind of grew up," Antokas says. "My money's not flying out of my pocket."
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