Financial Aid, TuitionStudents

How to be Financially Responsible in College

For many students, college is their first time juggling financial responsibilities on their own. Poor planning and budgeting can lead to severe and stressful consequences that can be long-term. With proper planning and preparation, however, college can be an essential stepping stone in a student’s journey to becoming financially wise and independent. Here are a few key things to consider before moving out and becoming financially responsible.

finances comic

Costs of college beyond tuition

After researching what college tuition will be for schools you are interested in attending, it’s important to understand the expenses outside of tuition you will be responsible for while you are in college. The article “College: Considering the Cost Beyond Tuition” covers many of these expenses, and will prepare you for the reality of what to expect. To get a big picture perspective of what your total costs will be, figure out your total expenses using a college expense worksheet.

Where will your money come from?

This is perhaps the most important question you answer before you leave for college. For most students, funds will come from multiple sources. It’s important to educate yourself on the available options, and to have a plan for which of those you will utilize.

Part- or full-time work

Working during college will not only provide an income to help minimize the amount of debt you might accrue, it will also teach you how to manage your time and deal with stress. Every college student’s situation is different, but working at least part-time can be very financially beneficial. Check with your college or university to see what student positions are available, or plan a visit your campus career center to take advantage of the resources there when looking for work. Also, websites like and are great resources designed for students to get you started in your job search.

Student loans

Student loans are a very common way to subsidize the cost of a college education. If you plan to utilize student loans, it’s crucial to understand how these loans work and the different types of loans out there. The Federal Trade Commission explains the difference between public and private loans, and how to spot deceptive private student loan practices.

Student loans are a huge responsibility, and payments typically begin only six months after graduation. They should not be taken lightly. The best way to prevent unexpected surprises is to know exactly what you are getting yourself into before you sign up.

Other financial aid

Luckily there are other financial aid options, including scholarships, that you aren’t required to pay back. Familiarize yourself with types of scholarship programs out there, and which scholarships you may be qualified for. There are also many government grants available that are often need-based.

Credit cards

Credit cards typically have much higher interest rates than student loans, and aren’t an ideal resource for paying tuition because most colleges add a convenience charge of 2-3% for payments. However, responsible use of credit cards for day-to-day expenses can be an excellent way to establish and build credit as well as earn bonus points/miles that can be redeemed for various rewards including travel. Be sure to plan for your monthly expenses and avoid racking up a large balance. has a great list of the best credit cards for students, including those with decent rewards and without an annual fee.

Family support

If your family has offered to pay for part of your college costs, it would be a good idea to sit down with them and outline how much support they are willing to provide. It will help you plan your budget so you know how much you will need to acquire from other sources.

Make sure you let your family know how much you appreciate their support!

Live within your means

Part of making a realistic budget and having the money to cover your life in college with as little debt as possible is to understand how to live within your means. After you identify what your monthly costs will be and estimate your total income, including support, you might find you have to cut back in some ways in order to stay within a budget that you can realistically afford.

You can easily cut your monthly expenses by figuring out what you spend money on that isn’t entirely necessary for you to live and be successful in college. For example, having a car on campus can be convenient, but it in many cases it is not a necessity. Not having a car while in college and alternatively using public transportation, walking, riding a bike, or signing up for car sharing services (e.g. Zipcar and Car2Go) might save some students a considerable amount of money in the long term.

It can be very difficult to cut back on unnecessary expenses, especially things you enjoy. But being financially responsible in college usually means making sacrifices. Often times students expect a certain standard of living that they were accustomed to before they moved out on their own, but don’t consider the financial consequences of not cutting back. Taking out loans or accruing credit card debt to make up for the lack of income to cover an unrealistic budget is not wise, and something you should do your best to avoid.

Photo Credit: xkcd

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.