Personal finance 101 for freshmen

College students

Tess Vigeland: Matt's question about paying for school is certainly one that lots of parents and students are grappling with right now.

But beyond the tuition payment, many newly minted college freshmen are about to start dealing with their own finances for the first time. They'll have to budget and learn that credit cards don't get paid off by a magical fairy. So for some tips on getting your college-bound kid ready for financial freedom -- at least to some extent -- we're joined by our good friend and financial journalist Carmen Wong Ulrich. Good to have you back!

Carmen Wong Ulrich: Thanks Tess. Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: I know some folks who actually will set up an account for their college student and put, for example, even the tuition money in there, room and board money in there. So that the check actually comes from the kid and they can see what this education is costing, and that that's another way to kind of make them aware of money itself.

Ulrich: Sure. I mean any kind of system you can set up where the student feels responsible for what's going on. Because here's the thing: I think we're past the point where college is just seen as a rite of passage that we just all kinda go through to move ahead in life. It really needs to be seen now, because it's so expensive, as an investment. And it's in the student's best interest to really realize what sacrifice and expense a parent goes through to make this investment happen and pay off of course. And I really believe that it's important that you have these discussions before they go to school, and also set up a system that they can start building credit before they graduate. So what you can do is you can co-sign on a card or open a card jointly with a very very low balance, so they can't go crazy and ruin your credit, that they can utilize while they're in school and while they're paying their student loans. And student loans is another big thing. Really talking to them about how a student loan works and the real cost of it is very very important as well.

Vigeland: Let's talk about some of the common money issues that particularly freshmen are going to encounter, as they start to manage their own money for the very first time.

Ulrich: Well, some of the biggest mistakes are having no budget at all. And by budget, I mean, saying you put $500 or $1,000 onto a debit card or account or into their account, and that's supposed to last them a certain period of time. And they just see the money in there and just keep using it and using it and not realizing how quickly it's going or keeping track in any way. It's really good to sit down with your student and kind of say, "Let's estimate how much going out to eat is going to cost you" or "how much you're going to be driving, what your books are you going to be," and lay that out first. And then say, "OK, here's the amount of money we have," and not just give a flat amount, because you'd be surprised how much pizza can cost.

Vigeland: You've mentioned a couple of times a pre-paid card, secured credit cards -- are those good options for students? Perhaps the best way to make sure they don't get themselves in trouble?

Ulrich: Not so much the pre-paid. I think the secured card is a very specific kind of card. So this card basically you put money aside or you deposit it onto the card. And then they extend you a line of credit. As you use the card responsibly, they'll extend you more credit. But it doesn't work like a debit card. It actually works like a credit card with a deposit that's put on their, kinda like your first and last month's deposit on a house or on an apartment. Secured cards can build credit as well. You really want to make sure they report to the credit reporting agencies before you get one. But if your credit is bad, or you're worried that they're not gonna be responsible, then maybe you don't want to co-sign on a credit card.

Vigeland: Any other personal finance tips for particularly those incoming freshmen who will be facing life on their own perhaps for the first time?

Ulrich: Well, I'll tell you this: Be nice to your parents. And I'll tell you why, because I also hear from parents who are doing things that are not advisable such as mortgaging their homes, taking money out of their retirement. We all have these dreams and I know I did -- "I've gotta go to this school, I've gotta get this degree..." And it's very expensive. If they can't afford to do it without jeopardizing their retirement, find another way. And be a part of that process with them. We shouldn't feel entitled to that degree. They can help us but to a point. In the end, we don't want to have to take care of our parents, which many of us end up doing. So the more you can help out with paying for school, the less you'll have to help them out down the road. And you have a lot more time to earn money and pay off that debt.

Vigeland: Carmen Wong Ulrich is a personal finance journalist and author of "The Real Cost of Living." Thanks so much.

Ulrich: Thank you Tess.

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