5 Financial Things to Do Before Your Freshman Year of College

3. Open a credit card.

The idea of opening your own credit card can seem very scary and grown-up, but it can really save you if you’re in a pinch! Alexa Johnson, a rising senior at James Madison University, was extremely nervous about opening a credit card account for fear of being in debt, but she found that it was the right choice for her.

“I opened up (a credit card account) and set a manageable $500 limit,” she says. “I'm so glad I opened one up when I did. I don't know how I'd be able to manage my finances without it! For example, I pay about $100 a month in sorority dues and I always use my credit card for that because I am spending the money in my pocket on things I need right now, like food, gas, and outings.”

Credit cards also come in handy for big, academic purchases like textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars, and which you’ll usually need before class (and before your financial aid comes in).

Lauren Lyons Cole, a financial expert and certified financial planner, stresses the importance of moderation when it comes to dealing with your first credit card. “You should always pay the full balance every single month,” she says. “Leaving a balance on your card does not help your credit score!”

Cole also has several do’s and don’ts for your first credit card. “Try to use only 30 percent of your available credit limit,” she advises. “When you're first starting out, it’s helpful to use your credit card for one type of purchase, like gas for your car or groceries. Don't use it as ‘free money’ for shopping or going out. You'll find yourself in trouble later on if you overspend!”

Alyssa cautions collegiettes to research every available option if they want to get a credit card before their freshman year. “Make sure to do your research first and read the fine print,” she says. “For example, at some point you may see an offer for a credit card that offers a zero percent APR (annual percentage rate, or interest rate for the entire year). That sounds great, but pay attention to the details. Chances are that's the introductory rate for the first six to 18 months. That zero percent could become as high as 20 percent (or higher). Shopping around for a card that fits your needs and financial situation is key.”

Lastly, Alyssa reminds collegiettes that like anything else financial, it’s crucial to stay on top of your credit and debt. “It’s very important to remember that you get three free credit reports each year,” Alyssa says. “Pull one every four months and monitor your history, regardless of whether you have a credit card or not.”

4. Look for a job.

Once you have a bank account, you’re going to need to some money to put in that bank! Getting a job is not only important for professional skills, but it also helps you start gaining financial independence. The easiest place to start looking for jobs is on your own campus. Departments at your school are constantly trying to fill student jobs, and you can find anything from working in the dining hall to being an event staff usher to working as a social media assistant in the school’s public relations office. Another great source for your job hunt? Your surrounding college town. Check out local restaurants and stores for open positions.

Alexa got a job after she entered college and enjoyed the financial independence it gave her. “The trick is to find one in a field you enjoy doing, and for only about 10 to 12 hours a week,” she says. Why the limited job hours? It can be extremely overwhelming as a freshman to walk onto campus and try to juggle a college workload, more intense extracurricular activities, and a job that requires 20 to 30 hours. When starting out, tread lightly and figure out how many hours you can manage.

Alexa also felt like earning money made her more budget-conscious about other parts of her life. “I bought my own food instead of a meal plan to save money. I found the cheapest food stores (there was a discount one near my school!) and tried to cook a lot of my own things and make it last,” she says. “[I also] budgeted in money for going out to eat with friends, which I did a lot!”

One thing to be aware of when getting a job is to make sure your hours are not only manageable with your school work but are also enough to help sustain your budget and fulfill any student contributions you need to make for your financial aid package. Though the income and independence are great, balance becomes key.

5. Learn how to budget.

When there’s an awesome sale at the mall one weekend and a great concert near campus the next, it’s easy for your money to disappear a little too quickly if you don’t have a financial plan set in place. Cole suggests mapping out your budget in advance. “When it comes to budgeting, it's very important to understand how much money you have coming in as well as how much is going out,” she says. “If you get $8,000 in student loans for a 5-month time period, that means $1,600 a month.

“Subtract out your fixed expenses (consistent expenses) if you have any (like rent and car insurance) so you can figure out how much you have leftover for variable spending, like gas and food,” she says. Cole suggests creating target goals for fixed expenses wherever possible; for example, your rent should be less than 25 percent of your monthly income.

Cole cautions collegiettes to watch their spending habits carefully. “Whatever you do, don't spend more than you have in your account,” she says. “And if you can bulk up savings while you're in school, all the better! I applied for tons of scholarships while I was a student and left college with a few thousand dollars in savings as a result. It really helped me transition after graduation before my first paycheck arrived!”

Another tip from Cole is to set a limit on how much money you spend each week on all of smaller variable expenses (eating out with friends, shopping, and so on). “I highly recommend having a weekly allowance,” she says. “Depending on your income, that amount might be $100. It often helps to take out cash in that amount, and throughout the week, only spend that cash. If you know you have a friend's birthday party later that week, try to spend less on lunches or other little things so you have enough to spend on a gift or a special dinner. “

In addition, Cole has advice for how much a collegiette should save from each paycheck from a part-time job. “I would say as much as possible should be saved each month. 10 percent in a commonly quoted rule of thumb,” she says. “But more important than focusing on a percentage to save, I'd encourage college students to carefully track their spending. Being aware of how much money they are spending is the best way to get budgeting under control.”

Cole also recommends using mobile apps to keep you up-to-date on your financial situation. Check out Mint, a money management app that allows you to organize and categorize all of your expenses (so you know where all of your money is going!) and moneyStrands https://money.strands.com, which allows you to see all of your banking, checking, and credit card account expenses in one place.

You can also find websites to help you learn about budgeting as well! Check out the Bank of America’s partnership website with Khan Academy (an organization that provides anyone with an education through video learning), Better Money Habits bettermoneyhabits.com, which is specifically made for young people wanting to learn about how to create their first budget.

In the end, being a fiscally responsible collegiette is easier than you think! Make sure you thoroughly research all of your options, stay organized with calendars and budgeting apps, and remember to save up. You’ll be a financial rock star in no time!