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Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College?

Are you entering the student years of your life? Or are you still deciding where to go to "college" as graduation approaches? In addition to the looming exams, there may be some expenses that are putting wrinkles on your forehead. But don't stress, we've put together a few tips that will make the stereotype of the financially ruined student a stranger to you.

Šimon Pekar | Personal finance | 3. March 2023

Apart from the rush of new learning and homesickness, going away to college is also accompanied by the frequently mentioned shock of 'adult life'. It involves paying for expenses we couldn't even imagine until then. Rent must be paid every month, food no longer waits ready for a small fee in the school canteen, and we have to buy our books for every subject.

Add to that the tuition fees themselves, public transport tickets, and the occasional trip to the cinema after the premiere of a new film. Economics textbooks would also point out that, unlike some of your peers, you can't work full-time, which limits your income and savings opportunities.

So there is some chance that you will walk away from your student years with high debt and zero in your bank account, which is not exactly an ideal start in life. According to a survey conducted in the United States, as many as 73% of people between the ages of 23 and 38 have had to postpone at least one life or financial milestone due to student loan repayment problems. These included saving for emergency expenses, buying their own home, or getting married.

Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College? |


In the chart above, you can see what those who were overburdened by debt would retroactively change. But there's no need to panic; tuition fees and student loans are far from creating such a crisis in Europe.

However, many Europeans are still struggling to get their own lives off the ground. More than 3rd of Europeans aged 25 to 34 are living with their parents even at an older age and are unable to become independent.

In this article, we give you several tips on how to manage your personal finances when you start university.

Step 1: Consider whether college is worth attending to begin with

In Slovakia, higher education is often perceived as a compulsory formality. Since diplomas have almost been handed out in recent years, not having a degree in front of your name can feel demeaning. However, we shouldn't be pushed into college at any cost just to have one. After all, it's an investment like any other.

Its yield is something economists call human capital. These are the skills acquired through learning that enable us to perform more complex jobs. These will reward us with a higher salary or the opportunity to do work that fulfills us. So unless the return in the form of marketable skills comes, it is not worth spending thousands of euros on a degree.

Right from the start, it should be noted that in most cases this is a worthwhile investment. In the United States, university graduates earn an average of a million dollars more over their lifetime than their peers with a high school diploma. Although they will lose a few hundred thousand on the sacrificed opportunity to work and the cost of the school itself, it is still well worth it.

Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College? |

However, this return is not guaranteed. Around 9% of students in the EU dropped out of their universities and many go on to work in a field for which they do not need their degree. In the United States, this figure is 40% of graduates. We do not have data for Europe, but experts estimate that the problem is similarly serious here.

For some schools, quality may also be an issue. If they have an outdated teaching style, companies won't look at education when hiring. They are more interested in practical projects. So if an IT candidate presents capable code, no one will care that they didn't go to school and learned it from YouTube. If you can single-handedly get into such a company after high school, it could give you more to your life than years at a low-quality school.

So don't look in only one direction when deciding what to do after graduation. Consider life without a college degree, or with only a bachelor's degree. Also, check out the statistics on graduate employability and make sure that you will actually find working in the field fulfilling. You can do that today with a summer internship alongside high school.

There's no shame in it and you can save money. In fact, the combined cost of living and tuition fees in most countries cost 30-40 thousand euros for 3 years of study. In case you decide to study in the UK even after Brexit, the threshold would approach 100 thousand euros.

Step 2: Beware of over-indebtedness

In 2017, the British Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that the average student at local universities leaves school with a debt of 44,000 pounds. On top of that, they're paying high interest rates, which in that year were as high as 6.1%. The report claims that most students will therefore not be able to repay the entire loan, but will bear the burden of repayments for 30 years, at which point the remainder will be forgiven.

Although this is far from meaning that students will be chased by bailiffs because of the loan, the high repayments can be restrictive. They make it impossible to put much aside and make us look bad to banks, who are then more hesitant to offer us mortgages for housing, for example.

Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College? |

Source: UCAS, German, Danish, and Dutch governments

So if you have to borrow to finance your studies, do proper research on interest rates and estimates of how much income you can earn with your degree. If the repayments seem like too much of a burden, consider studying at a similarly rated university with cheaper tuition fees (you can look for quality education in the Czech Republic, Germany, or the Netherlands). You can also cover some of the costs by working part-time or fundraising.

Step 3: Make a budget

While this may sound like generic and somewhat "nerdy" advice, a summary of income and expenses in the form of a simple Excel spreadsheet is a useful tool that has helped me a lot, too. Just add up all of your monthly income (support from parents, part-time jobs, grants from the state or school, etc.) in one column and the necessary expenses you'll need to pay each month (rent, utilities, wi-fi, transportation, textbooks, etc.) in the other.

Ideally, you'll still have some money left over for optional expenses like Friday nights out or trips to the clothes shops. The first thing we recommend doing with this surplus is to save at least some of it, even if it should only be 25€.

You can do several things with the amount you have gradually saved. You should definitely put some of it in a savings account as a reserve. You can read about why it is important in life after getting your degree in the blog post: Emergency fund – the first checkpoint on your savings journey, which several of my colleagues have contributed to.

In it, you'll learn that the reserve is used to cover unexpected expenses. Believe me, if you move to a new city, the bill at your new dentist may surprise you unpleasantly.

You should put money aside even if you already have such a reserve. In fact, you can passively invest the amount you have saved over the long term to start building your wealth. Time is your greatest asset when it comes to investing.

Even if the sums involved are not large, the goal is to learn to spend less than you earn. This is a basic habit of people who have managed to build great wealth in adulthood. You can read more about the benefits of long-term investing in this blog.

Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College? |

Step 4: What if my budget is in the red?

If, after making a spreadsheet, you find that you can't even pay for necessary expenses with your earnings, you need to increase your income and cut back on consumption. Below are some tips on how to save.

The first way to increase your income is to search the university website, write an email or ask older classmates if there are any forms of grantsUniversities often provide help for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, the Dutch government will give you a cheap loan for living costs if you work at least 56 hours a month in their country.

Another option is to find a part-time job, ideally a student internship in the field you want to pursue later. Not only will you earn enough to cover your student expenses, but you will also learn practical skills that will give you a significant advantage when applying for jobs later on. Just don't give up and write enough emails.

However, if you need to devote all your time to your studies, there are plenty of ways to save on expenses. Don't buy a bagel at the grocery store or a menu at an Asian bistro every day. Cook your own food and save it for the next 2-3 days, it's much cheaper.

Do you find 70 euros for a textbook too much? Buy used ones. Some schools have student organizations for this, elsewhere you can just post in the school's Facebook group.

Take advantage of student discounts. Many shops will give them to you for the ISIC student card, just check the discounts section of the website. In Amsterdam, the school offered us a discount code that got us a free fitness center for half a year. So it's good to ask about similar opportunities.

Things You Learn When You're Young... How to Handle Finances in College? |

You can also save money on transport. In addition to using the student tram pass, consider walking or cycling, especially if it's not for long distances. You'll save money and you might enjoy a bit of regular morning exercise.

Without sounding all too negative, I want to conclude by emphasizing the fact that investing in your education is a great decision and well worth the money. Many will often tell you about their student days as one of the best times of their lives. We hope that our advice will help you enjoy it with even greater comfort of financial security. Good luck with your next exams!

If you're reading this article as a parent who wants to help your children, we have one more recommendation for you. Think about their studies in advance and regularly set aside a portion of your earnings for them.

Start investing today 

With a longer horizon and compound interest, you'll pay less for college and future costs won't burden your family budget as significantly. We've devoted an article to college prices and preparing for them, which also offers tips on the easiest way to save for your children's college education.

Šimon Pekar
Šimon Pekar
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