Borrowing makes sense when it buys something that will pay you back. In other words, don’t use a loan to buy pizza.
Lots of new high school graduates will soon be heading off to college. It will be their first time managing money on their own, and most will do just fine.
Some, however, will dig themselves into a deep financial hole.
So, let’s look for ways to keep your 18-year-old out of money trouble when he’s finally cut loose.
For help, we’ll turn to two people who know a lot about students and financial messes. Rob Weagley is chairman emeritus of the personal financial planning department at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Angela Whitlow counsels low-income students bound for college at Boys
Hope Girls Hope in suburban St. Louis.
By now, families have their student aid packages, and they figure they can afford the school they’ve chosen. But a clueless teen can still foul things up.
The first step is to hand the student a paper and pencil. “You’ve got to have a budget,” says Weagley.
Break the budget into two parts — needs and wants. The needs are food, shelter, tuition, books, transport and a phone. Everything else is a want. Holes in your jeans are a fashion statement. So is a head in need of a haircut.
Add up the needs, and compare it to the amount of money available for the year. Anything left is pizza, jeans and haircut money.
Some colleges offer help with this. Mizzou has a one-credit online course called “Financial Survival,” designed for students managing their own money for the first time. It goes beyond paying for college into things such as apartment leases and credit. Webster University has a similar “Money Talks” program.
Low-income students should ask if there’s a “TRiO” program on campus, says Whitlow. It provides counseling and academic help, along with the chance of a scholarship for the sophomore year.
For your first few weeks on campus, try to spend only on things you really need, says Weagley, just to make sure you can cover them within your budget. Learn to cook — it can save you plenty.
This is tough for some new students to handle. They often start the year with fat bank accounts stuffed with money from student loans. They see richer — or dumber — students wearing fancier clothes and hitting the burger joints.
That is peer pressure. “Spending money for status is a seriously bad idea,” says Weagley. “That’s where everybody loses it.”
The temptation is to borrow more money, and that gets us to perhaps the most important lesson about credit. Borrowing makes sense when it buys something that will pay you back. An education is the best example: It brings bigger paychecks for life.
“Don’t take out a loan for a piece of pizza!” says Whitlow. You’ll be paying for it, plus interest, until you spot your first wrinkle. The idea is to keep student loans to an absolute minimum.
Parents, listen up. There is a grand debate over whether students should have credit cards, and parents usually get to make the choice. Federal law says that people under age 21 must have either a parent’s permission, or sufficient income, to get a card.
On the plus side, a credit card is instant money in an emergency. If the jalopy breaks down on a lonely road, the kid can get a hotel room for the night. That’s why Weagley let his own children use credit cards in college.
Credit cards also establish a credit record, and a good record makes it easier to get a car loan or an apartment after graduation.
On the other hand, a credit card is like magical money. It’s a terrible temptation in the hands of an 18-year-old. Even adults lose track of their plastic spending, and jaws drop when the bill arrives.
So, parents should peer deeply into the soul of their young genius. If she forgot her homework in high school, will she remember to pay the credit card bill on time? If the boy parties hardy now, will he turn responsible come September?
Skipping card payments turns a credit record rotten, which can sabotage a job search.
Banks love to get cards in student hands, trusting that Mom and Pop will pay the bill if students get in trouble. Banks have cards designed just for students, and some come with booby traps.
Take the Journey Student Rewards Card from Capital One. It offers 1 percent cash-back on purchases, boosted to 1.25 percent if the student pays the bill on time. However, it charges horrific 20-percent interest on balances not paid in full each month. That’s an express lane to financial hell for a feckless student.
The alternative is a debit card that sucks payments directly from a bank checking account. Debit cards don’t help establish credit, but they can limit spending to the amount in the account.
Just don’t sign up for overdraft protection. That protection means the bank will cover your debit card overdrafts at a cost of $30-plus for each. It enables irresponsibility and charges big for it.
If you’re short on pizza money, get a job instead. Weagley, a professor who has spent 32 years observing students at Mizzou, thinks a part-time job can actually improve a student’s academic performance. Students working 10 or 15 hours a week learn to budget time better. They buckle down and study. “I’ve seen students do better — but only if they don’t work too much,” says Weagley.
Look for work on campus. Professors often need go-fer help with their research, and pay for it. Those are the real plums. “They learn so much doing it,” says Weagley, and professors make great job references.
The worst thing to do with overdue bills is ignore them. “As soon as you think you’re in financial difficulties, seek help,” says Weagley.
Head for the student counseling center. Mizzou, for instance, has a program in which seniors majoring in financial planning help fellow students in trouble.