Americans owe over $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among roughly 45 million borrowers.

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Did you know that behind mortgages, student loan debt accounts for the second highest portion of consumer debt in the United States? In fact, a staggering 71% of college grads are leaving school with debt this year, according to Student Debt Relief.

Now, we all know that maintaining financial strength isn’t always easy as a college student. To a student, financial challenges, such as unforeseen medical expenses and juggling the costs of tuition with their everyday needs, can mean the difference between graduating and leaving a program only a few credits short of a degree, which can have longstanding financial impacts. Research shows that degree completion is correlated with higher income over someone’s lifetime and increased financial resilience in times of economic downturn.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to mitigate and manage the invaluable cost of an education. Stacey Black, a financial educator at BECU, offers five ways to help students develop better money habits and build a stronger financial foundation during their college years.

Create and stick to a budget

When budgeting for college, it’s important to first know how much income you have coming in and then calculate all of your monthly expenses and purchases to see just how much you spend on other items. You may find that extra, unnecessary expenses, such as that daily cup of coffee or overusing rideshares, may be taking a bigger bite out of your budget than you realize.

“Starting a spending journal or using a money management tool, like BECU’s Money Manager or other apps, can help students see where their money is going and figure out where stricter budgeting may be necessary,” suggests Black.

Strive to live within your means

Whether a student is transferring to a new college, or attending for the first time, they often experience an adjustment period when transitioning from their previous lifestyle at home to their new life on campus. Things that may have been taken for granted — a full refrigerator, gas in the car, a smart TV with hundreds of available channels — may now be unaffordable luxuries.

“We understand that it’s difficult to adjust,” says Black, “But you can’t expect to experience the lifestyle you once had when living with your parents. This is why having a budget is so important, so you know what you can afford and can live within your means.”

Explore all your financial aid options

It’s no secret that paying for college is expensive, so it’s important to consider all the ways you can potentially lower your education costs. In fact, there are three primary types of student financial aid available to students: loans (which have to be repaid), grants and scholarships (which don’t have to be repaid), and employment programs, like work-study, that let you earn money and gain job experience while you’re in school.

“The amount and type of financial aid offered is based on two factors: merit (like scholastic and athletics) and financial need,” Black says. “To find out if you’re eligible, you’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid, which can be submitted any time after January 1.”

Black also suggests contacting each school you’re interest in early on to learn more about potential grant and scholarship opportunities. “If a school you’d like to attend offers some form of financial aid, it’s important to apply early as this can help you receive a better financial aid package and will also leave time for you to apply for other scholarships and grants,” Black explains.

Lastly, Black says to remember to apply for financial aid each year you are in school. “You must reapply to continue to get funding,” she says.

(iStock)
(iStock)

Fully understand loan terms before signing on the dotted line

Before jumping into getting a loan, such as a student loan or signing up for your first credit card, make sure you know what all the conditions are. For instance, while that interest rate may seem fantastic at first glance, do you know if it’s just an introductory rate?

“For credit cards especially, remember,” explains Black, “Six months later, it may jump to an outrageously high rate, so it’s crucial to read the fine print, ask questions and do your research ahead of time.”

Be careful with credit cards

Although credit cards are a convenient way to pay for things in the short-term, many have high-interest rates, unfavorable terms and allow students to live beyond their financial means. “As a college student, it’s important to be cautious of all of the credit cards offered to you,” explains Black. “Ask yourself, can you really afford to take on credit card debt? Do the math for one potential purchase using an online calculator and you may be shocked at how much you will be paying in interest.”

Stacey Black, BECU
Stacey Black, BECU

If you decide to open a credit card, it’s important to only charge what you can afford to pay off in full each month. “This helps you avoid interest charges while boosting your credit score at the same time,” says Black. “Make your payments on time every month and don’t overuse your credit cards. Keep your balance at no more than one-third of your limit.”

By getting in the habit of maintaining a budget and getting familiar with finances sooner, students can jump into adulthood with the right tools to manage their money responsibly and navigate college with a sense of financial independence.

As a member-owned credit union, BECU is focused on helping increase the financial health of its members and communities through better rates, fewer fees, community partnerships and financial education.