By Christie Garton, Founder of the 1,000 Dreams Fund
As a student or even as a post-grad, student loan debt can take over your life and affect your performance in school or in the workplace. For students, juggling their personal finances can be equally tricky; most college-aged kids are getting their first exposure to “the real world” and learning how to make their dollar stretch. Here are some words of advice and best practices for college students and recent grads who feel like they are being crushed by their personal and student loan debt.
Tip 1: Manage your money WISELY so you don’t graduate with more debt than you would have otherwise. And technology can help you do it!
The graduating class of 2016 has an on-average debt-load of over $37,000, and many owe ever more. Shockingly, according to a joint survey between CreditCards.com and my non-profit the 1,000 Dreams Fund, conducted by Toluna Quicksurveys.com, over 40% of students don’t know how much debt they are in. And over 30% don’t know how much credit card debt, according to the same survey. (See the infographic below for the full scoop!) It is likely the same situation for Gen Z and young Millennial men. Don’t let that be you.
It’s absolutely critical to set a budget at the start so you don’t find yourself running out of money at month’s end, having to cover your gap with credit cards that will charge you 16-17% interest rates on average. And lucky for students and parents, it is way easier to track your money with financial tools and apps like the one provided by Mint. This nifty app allows students to create any number of budgets which can be as specific as coffee, movie or party money. And since many students are using credit cards for the first time, this app has a feature preventing you from never spending more than you can pay back.
Tip 2: Scholarships! Scholarships! Scholarships!
Almost $3 billion in scholarships get left on the table each year. And frankly, it’s not surprising. It’s hard to find those opportunities, as many of them target a particular region or school.
You must fill out the FASFA form, the application for federal aid, to see what you qualify for from the government. For those in most need, a large portion of that should be in grant-aid funding, not loans — those must be paid in full after graduation.
Once you know what the government can do to support your education, it’s time to pursue those scholarships — free money that can help cover any gaps in your semester budget. Start with your high school college guidance counselor, or contact your prospective college or university. They can help connect you with funding opportunities best suited to you. Also, reach out to your hometown community foundation, which often maintains hundreds of unclaimed scholarship opportunities.
Additionally, scholarships like the 1,000 Dreams Fund are also out there, and online resources like Scholarships.com can help you find them!
Tip 3: On-campus jobs make good money and career sense.
To work or not to work. That is the question on the mind of many busy college students these days, especially those students who are having to self-fund their education. We highly recommend looking into work-study jobs on campus. These on-campus gigs generally pay well and plug you into the university system, which can be immensely helpful with career networking. You can also target the work to your particular area of study or career interest. Some even allow you to do homework during those quiet hours when nothing is happening. How many employers let you do that?!
Tip 4: Look for VALUE colleges (for high school students who are determining what universities/colleges they are targeting).
If you’re in the process of applying to colleges, try to figure out which schools provide the best value for your dollar in terms of job placement. In fact, MONEY Magazine just released their annual Best Value College rankings, which provides great insight. Interested in journalism? That nearby state school may be better at placing journalists into well-paying jobs post graduation than an expensive private school. Thinking about graduate school? Save that top-tier private school for after you’ve graduated and had a chance to work, allowing you save some money for the pricier option.
Tip 5: Stay focused and try hard to get ‘er — college — done in 4 years.
With the high cost of college these days, it’s no longer cool to be that six-year senior. Plus many of your friends will likely have graduated, and that can be lonely. Stay focused, and make sure you complete all degree requirements before your senior year. Your academic advisor or on-campus mentor can help you figure that out!