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Tips for Surviving College While Financially Independent

If you’re anything like me, you started paying bills when you were freshly 18 — arguably younger. 

When I was 18, I was working at McDonalds, earning a whopping eight dollars hourly and thought 300 dollars in my bank account was a fortune. I wish I still felt that way.

My freshman year of college made me realize how many expenses exist outside of what I was used to spending. I needed to budget for textbooks, dues for my club, my phone bill, insurance (because no, I wasn’t on my parents’ insurance), medication, feminine hygiene products, SOAP — the list goes on and on. 

Of course I had a job when I was a freshman, but my issue was that I couldn’t work full-time and be a full-time student. For some, it may be in the cards for them, but for me, I couldn’t handle the workload. I tried working 34 hours weekly, like I did in high school, but that led to a few breakdowns and a harsh burnout. 

My GPA was dropping, my finances were struggling and I was envious of my peers who had their parents’ credit card on standby. 

Eventually, I regrouped, did a ton of research and made a plan. For the past four years of college, I’ve been completely independent financially. I’ve never had a cosigner for any of my student loans, I’ve never had an allowance (I didn’t know college students got this?) and I’ve become incredibly self-sufficient. 

How did I do this? It took a lot of tears, research and trial and error. But nevertheless, here are some tips for surviving college if you are financially independent. 

Work in Food Service

I know what you’re thinking, you don’t want to do that, anything but that. But trust me, it’s going to be worth it. 

Not only do most food service jobs let you take home free or discounted food, which saves you money on groceries, but they’re also extremely flexible with your hours. If you’re a student who is heavily involved in clubs, they’ll allow you to be off for the days you need. 

Another bonus is food service jobs are always hiring. These jobs can also look great on a resume because they show future employers that you have a strong work ethic, work well with others and have great interpersonal skills. 

Currently I’m a server at a restaurant, where tips can be great, but there are different opportunities within restaurants if you do not want to work directly with people, such as a busser, dishwasher or line cook. Each of these options typically pay pretty well too. 

I could go on and on, but don’t knock it until you try it. 

Don’t live outside your means

If you know you make 800 dollars each month, don’t spend 1000 dollars monthly. 

At Penn State I’ve been surrounded since day one by peers that have their parents funding everything for them. It’s a tough pill to swallow that I’ll have to miss out on things because I can’t afford them. 

For instance, I’ve never bought Penn State Football tickets. I’ve only ever been to one game, where I was given the ticket because a friend of mine couldn’t make it. Could I have bought and sold tickets to make a profit? Possibly, but it was a gamble. If I had the tickets, I probably would have gone to the games and lost the profit, because I know myself. 

Instead, I worked every Saturday for all four years of college. I handled the football crowd rather than be part of it. Was it fun? No, it hurt my feelings.

Saving money isn’t always fun when you’re young. But it’s important if you need to survive. 

GET A credit card when you’re 18

I cannot stress this enough, get a credit card when you turn 18. I don’t mean one that is connected to your parent’s account, I mean your own. Get your own credit card and start building your credit. 

If you are truly financially independent, with no safety net like me, you’re going to need credit history when you get an apartment, a new car, a loan for graduate school and more.

Right now I have excellent credit because I’ve been building it since I was 18. You’d be surprised what decisions you make at 18 can do for you in four years. 

However, with a credit card comes great responsibility. Using a credit card correctly is another article entirely, so do your research. Only spend 30% of what your spending limit is and pay it off on-time. I’d recommend getting a credit card with no annual fee that maximizes cashback rewards.

Do your research and make informed decisions when getting your first credit card.

Make a budgeting list

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but make a list of every necessary expense you have for the month. For example, phone bill, rent, utilities, car insurance and groceries. Once you list them out, figure out what money you’ll have left to put into a savings account and what money you can spend on fun for the month. 

Budgeting is a tricky process to get into, because you need to have self-discipline. It’s easier said than done, but once you make it a habit you start to live by it. 

Look Into the Parent PLUS Loan

If you need extra loan money for college, but do not have a cosigner, listen to this one. 

To also qualify for this hack, your parent(s) must also have a bad credit history, or no credit at all. If this is the case for you, apply for the Parent Direct PLUS loan once you get your tuition statement in the summertime (I did mine in early August). 

If they get denied, your school will provide you with more loan money to accept or deny which offers the lowest possible interest rate. School loans through your school have the lowest interest rate, followed by federal loans.

Private loans vary — these are the ones you want to try to avoid if you can. Especially if you’re on your own. 

Look Into Medicaid

If you’re struggling to find health insurance, this one’s for you. 

I have a Pennsylvania version of Medicaid for my health insurance. I qualify for this because I have a low income — I make just less than $20,000 each year. 

I only have one parent and she was without health insurance for a period of time, which also meant I was too. I’ve gone through years in my life without it, and if you can relate you know how terrible it can be. 

You have to apply online, but you also have to go to an assistance office near you. Be firm with them, tell them your story, bring your most recent pay stub from your job and don’t leave until you get insurance. 

It’s absolutely free and you’ll have it until you solidify a job post-graduation with a position that offers you insurance.

Don’t Buy Your Textbooks Right Away

This one may surprise you, but hear me out: I rarely buy my textbooks. Considering that textbooks can be hundreds of dollars each semester, this savings tip is one you cannot ignore.

I typically wait until the first couple of weeks into a class before deciding if I truly need the textbook. Even if the book is for my major, I could definitely find what I need online or in the class notes most of the time.

If a professor says that a textbook is vital to the course, then I either search for a physical renting option or renting the e-textbook, which is usually the cheapest option. I’ve passed many classes without purchasing any books — I suggest waiting it out to see if it’s a necessary purchase!

Buy frozen food

Don’t get me wrong, I love fresh produce. But have you ever let it sit in the bottom drawer of your fridge and let it die? 

Yeah, me too. While you’re in college, you can have a healthy diet and also shop in the frozen section. I tend to buy packages of steamed vegetables at Aldi, canned vegetables, rice and I freeze my meat. Fresh produce is great, but make sure you’re planning out when you’re going to use it.

If you limit food waste, you’re also wasting less money. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, because you can always go back to the store for fresh vegetables. Don’t let them go to waste. 

Final thoughts

For years, I was angry at the people I go to college with who are supported financially by their parents. I was jealous, above all, because I was struggling to make ends meet while they were rocking their 4.0 GPA. 

It turns out, as a working student, you have less time to study. You have less time for self-care. You have less time to go out and have fun. You have less time.

You know what you will have though? Through being independent, you are building character, you’re persevering, you’re proving to yourself that you don’t need a safety net. At the end of the day, even if you only have yourself, that’s all you need; you’re stable, self-sufficient and strong. 

I am no longer envious or jealous, because my perspective has changed. I’ve thought about what kind of life I want for my children someday, and it’s a blend of both.

They’ll be working students, but they won’t miss out on football. They’ll buy their first car, but I will match them at half the price. They’ll pay for their phone bill, their groceries and Uber trips, but I’ll be their safety net if they need help. 

I’ll teach them to budget because I know how hard it was when no one taught me. 

I never thought I’d make it this far. But nevertheless, here I am, about to graduate, striving to succeed. I hope these tips help someone out there. 

Take care.

Alyssa is a Senior at Penn State University studying Psychology with a focus on life science. Following graduation, she plans to attend graduate school to pursue a career in counseling for adolescents. In her free time, Alyssa enjoys making a Spotify playlist for every occasion, binging thrillers on Netflix, and spending time with her kitten, Penny.
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