Monday, February 15, 2010

Keep track of it all

Yes, attending college usually means that you, yourself, do not have much money. For those of us fortunate, we do have financial support from family. For those of us not, we may be taking out loans, working, and earning scholarships. And then there are still those of us who are mixed (our families offer support, but we also must contribute). For me, I work hard, about 24 hours a week, to pay my rent, my school books, groceries, and various bills. I'm also trying to save money so that I can study abroad. I know many students who are in the same boat. However, there is a common theme: none of them know where their money is going at any given time.

Seriously. I have friends and coworkers who go out on the weekends, spend on food, cabs, and alcohol, then struggle at the end of the month because they don't know if they can make rent. I know people (girls and guys) who spend, spend, spend on clothing that they've never worn. So many people haven't even started on their student loans, yet they've already racked up several thousand in credit card debt. It's ridiculous.

I will make one proposal: Start keeping track of your money.

Take a notebook, everywhere you go. When you go shopping, every time you spend money, write it down. Don't even keep the receipt, it will get lost in your bag or washed with your jeans and you will never see it again. Write it down. Everywhere. Even if you went to CVS and bought gummy bears for 99 cents, write down, "Gummy bears, 99 cents." After two months, add everything up and categorize. What did you spend on food? What did you spend on rent? What did you spend on fun stuff? Then prioritize. Where can you cut back?

Some people tell me, "I can't do this!" "This is boring!" "What, I can't drink EVERY weekend?" Well, first of all, you can. Unless you have a legitimate problem (in which case, I urge you to get help, so you can change it), all it takes is a change of habit. Second, isn't it better to go out on the town when you KNOW you've got rent taken care of and you can actually relax and enjoy yourself? Third, you may have to find a cheaper way to have fun. Fourth, you'd be amazed at how much you're spending your hard earned money on. Do you really need that?

Keep track of it all. It will simplify your life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What did I come back to?

Ok so it's 2010 and back to work. The semester is just starting, the new year has begun. Time to get (re) organized! Take a minute, look around your space. Did you come back to a wreck of a room? (did you leave one behind for mom?) If that's the case, have no fear. Here's the way to deal with a wrecked room:

1. Make your bed first. If you haven't had a chance to wash your bedding, now's a good time to throw it in. If you have limited money, wash your sheets. If you can, wash your blanket and your comforter too, all in hot water. Your comforter will have to be done by itself and blankets are best done alone as well. Washing in hot will kill any allergens lurking but check your comforter label before dunking it in hot water and wash accordingly. After everything is clean, dry and smelling fresh, make your bed. There. Your room looks better already.

2. Get all the stuff off your floor. Grab your laundry basket and put all your dirty clothes and towels in that and set it aside, out of your way. Now I'm assuming there's still a lot of stuff to be dealt with. With your garbage can and an empty box or container big enough for a pile of papers, sit on the floor and go through all the stuff. Pile CDs, DVDs etc. up on your desk for now. Go through your papers and chuck what you don't need in the garbage. Keep your stack of "keep" papers together and put them in a pile on your desk for now. Empty your garbage and take it to the trash. Put a new bag in. Is everything off your floor?

3. Pick up any stray objects--bobby pins, hair ties, etc. Don't leave any large bits on the floor. Do you have a vacuum? Can you borrow one from a friend or housekeeping? Vacuum your floor next. Take a clorox wipe or a wet washcloth and wipe down all the surfaces of your room . Desk, dresser, cabinet fronts, etc.

Ok--now you should have a clean made bed and a floor that you can see. Great! Your room should be looking much better. Those are the two easiest things you can do to make a big difference. Onto the next:

Do your drawers close and can you find stuff? Make sure all your clean stuff is put away. Go through your "keep" pile and file those papers away. If you don't have a method for keeping them, one of those cute accordian folders will do the job just fine.

Are you using your vertical space? The ceilings can be very high in a dorm room so there is lots of wallspace to use for things other than posters. 3M Command makes heavy duty hooks etc. that you can use to hang practically anything from towels and robes to laundry baskets and mugs. Use your wallspace to keep things out of your way.

Do you have space under your bed? How about a set of bed risers to hoist your bed up 6 inches and a couple big storage drawers for your overflow of stuff? Do you have a lot of stuff in your room that you don't use? If it's no good to anyone, put it in the garbage. If you can't use it yourself, sell it or give it away. If it needs to go home, get yourself a box, keep it under your bed and fill it with the stuff that has to go home to mom and dad. Let them know when it gets full and you can either bring it, ship it, or give it to them when they come for a visit.

Voila! Now your room is neat and you can find your stuff again!

Have a great semester!

Love, Mom

Monday, August 17, 2009

Do you love your money....a latte?

I am a coffee queen. I love coffee. I am known among my friends as a serious caffeine addict and I don't plan on giving it up any time soon. I love mocha lattes as if they were a drink of water as I'm dying of thirst. I used to drink them every day.....but now I don't.

Why not? Simple reason.....I need the money.

Lattes are amazing yet have proven, time and time again, to be the silent killers of the pocket book. Unless you have your own espresso machine and limitless supply of espresso and milk, they are near impossible to just have on hand every day. Yet, going into a Starbucks or to your local Fair Trade, campus owned coffee shop is just too easy......After all, it's only $3.10 (sans tax), right?

Wrong. $3.10 comes out to $15.5 after five days are up, which leads to $62 by the time the month is over. By the time the year is up, that means you've spent $744! $744!! That can buy textbooks for a semester! For me, that's just $112.50 over my monthly rent! And remember, this is before sales tax calculations. It may not seem like a lot of money, but it really is if you're in college. Especially when you can take that money and put it toward something you really care about.

My solution? You don't have to get rid of the lattes but cut back on them. Have them once a week if you really have that craving. Get a coffee maker (or, better yet, a roommate who already has one) and start brewing your own French vanilla/hazelnut/whatever blend. If you want the latte feel, just steam up some milk and have an au lait instead. Mix hot cocoa in it, do whatever you want. It's OK (and as a full-time student working over 30 hours a week, necessary) to feed the beast that is your addiction. Just make sure you don't kill your pocketbook in the process.

Romance is.......NOT a Financial Plan!*

Ah, l''s a beautiful thing. When you're young, whether it's just a crush, a hookup, a what-are-we, or an actual relationship, it drives us to distraction and feels like it will last forever (for good or for ill). In addition to the movies, the candles, the kissing and cuddling, the lovely dinner, there is a price tag to go along with it. And right now, I'm not speaking of the cost of your heart.....

One huge problem I've had with dating is the expectation that the guy is supposed to pay all the time. I have a ton of guy friends who do it, regardless of whether they're dating a girl or they are just irresistibly sweet and just want to buy their female friends coffee or dinner just because. Now, I understand the time and place. Female financial independence is a relatively new concept and it was true that women couldn't pay for dates. Thus, in order to be a gentleman, a man had to. Otherwise, he'd be worthless scum for not considering a lady.

However, in this day and age, we women are much more independent than in previous eras. We have more control over our finances than we ever did. At the same time, when we're in school, money is understandably tight. This empty feeling in the pocketbook does not know gender boundaries so our guy friends are struggling with it, too. Hence, I do find it a bit unfair that, if the guys are struggling with the costs of rent, education, etc as well, they're still expected to pay for a relationship. I also don't think girls should get off so easy, because it gives the impression that we need to be let off easy, that we can't assume any responsibility, whether it's financial or otherwise. So, while I think it's really sweet if a guy is willing, I don't think he should be put in that situation all the time.

My solutions? I'm not saying men shouldn't be gentlemen or whatever. I'm saying that men and women are equal and this should apply financially as well. So, for the college student, I suggest a couple things.

1. Take turns paying. That way, you're sacrificing for each other and it's not just a one-way street. Seriously, you cover someone one night, they should cover you the next and vice versa.

2. Go Dutch. It's easy enough to split the cost. If the restaurant doesn't do separate checks (the one I work at does not), ask if they can split it. Of course, going Dutch doesn't often sound like the paragon of romance, so if it's not your cup of tea, go for option one.

3. Low cost activities. Going for a walk, for a cup of coffee, hanging out at each other's places, cooking for each other (that one is particularly adorable), making arts and crafts for each other, writing songs/poetry for each other and other things are every bit as meaningful and much easier on the budget than going to a restaurant or out dancing all the time.

4. Whatever you spend, always keep track and make sure it falls within your budget. If there's something special you would like to do for your amore, plan ahead. Always, always plan ahead.

5. Don't EVER put yourself in debt just because you like someone. If they truly like you back, they would not expect you to do so and in fact would worry (especially if you're like me and you worry about everything under the sun). Not to mention that, in the future, if you're hoping to enter the world of marriage and family life, keeping your finances under control is an absolute prerequesite.

Am I writing this because I want to reduce love to a bank statement? No. It's precisely because I do NOT that I am blogging about this topic. Love should be about more than the size of the pocketbook. For most of us college students, it's not very big. So let us learn to love, with both generosity and practicality.

*DISCLAIMER: I'm NOT going into arguments about either gender, sexuality or racial inequality here, or how this standard applies in different situations. I'm going by what I observe and experience and am giving my thoughts on the matter.

Congratulations! Your First Apartment!

Now, what's next?

Having just signed my first lease a few weeks ago, I've had and still have a ton to learn about managing money, how banks work (and their policies), and how to set up a budget. A couple scares and shame of my lack of knowledge have given me impetus to learn and explore. Sadly, as my mother has pointed out (yes, I am the twenty-year-old daughter in question), there are more campaigns telling college students to spend, rather than resources telling them how to be responsible. I see a lot of this first hand, as many of my own friends have either fallen into credit card debt or have taken out the equivalent of a mortgage in student loans, all before buying their first houses. Even though my parents gave me sound advice from the beginning, there are many things I had to learn trial and error. All so I could put my money toward big expenses, rent being one of them.

A few tips for the beginning:

1. If you haven't been as good at managing money before and are now in a position where you are fronting your own rent, calm down. You won't make things easier by freaking out. In fact, you will only make things worse because instead of gaining control of your finances, you will be losing control of yourself. So, take a deep breath and know that you can do this.

2. Start keeping track of what you're spending. Everything. Every dollar. Keep all your receipts and write it down. If you're like me and you haven't been as good, pick a free day and just sit with your notebook, bank statements (yay, online banking!) and receipts and write it down. At the end of the month, sit down and figure where your money went. This is the first step to figuring out your budget. It will also help you see what portion of your money went to stupid stuff (and surprisingly, a lot of it does).

3. Learn about banks' rules and policies. It may seem like a waste of time but I'll admit, when I first came to college, all I knew was how to put money in and how to take it out. I didn't know about overdraft fees until I had to pay them. I didn't know checks were no good after six months. I didn't know the bank could have you pay fees just for using your debit card (yes, this is true). Seriously, this is stuff everyone should know, but for one reason or another, I didn't. Not only that, but it could help with bank shopping, with taking time to choose the best bank before you sign the dotted line.

4. For big expenses, plan ahead. There are some things you already know you have to plan for. For us college kids, we know we have to buy books in August and January. Thus, we need to plan for that. Or for study abroad, for any trip we want to take. You know you want to do it months in advance, you should plan for that financially as well. Savings. Start now.

5. Smile. You're starting to take control of your own finances. That means control of your life. And that is incredible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dorm Room Shopping

College shopping. What to buy? What do you need? What should you wait on? Well, if you go to any of the big chains right now, not only are they stocked to the rafters with must have items, they’ll give you a copy of their pre-printed registry so you can make sure and buy one of everything. Have no fear, you needn’t go overboard in shopping or packing for college. Here are a few ideas and guidelines:

1. Do not buy anything “for the room” until you have physically been inside the room and know exactly how it’s situated. I’m talking about curtains, loft systems, anything that fits “over the door” and anything that is going to sit on the floor. A loft system is a great idea and there are good ones out there, but remember, you haven’t seen your room. Your bed may already be lofted. Usually, you do not need to buy your own curtains for privacy, there will be blinds. Anything that sits on the floor—hampers, 3 drawer chests, bookcases—until you know what kind of space you have, hold off. There is shopping near your new school just as there is shopping at home.

2. Once you know your space, use your vertical space as much as possible, especially near your desk. 3M Command Strips and their whole storage line will help keep things up and off your desk. Their hooks will be great for towels, robes, purse, keys.

3. If you are buying a trunk or footlocker, make sure it has wheels. These items are very bulky to move and without this added function are practically impossible to move, fully loaded, by yourself. Footlockers are great because once unpacked, they usually clear the bed height and can be stored underneath. They can then help to store extra things that you don’t need to have out at your fingertips.

4. If you are moving far away from home, check with your school’s shipping policy. Will they accept delivery of boxes before school is in session? Can you ship your bedding etc. in advance?

5. You will need to know if your bed will be a regular twin or an XL twin and you will need to check the sheet packages carefully before you purchase them. Buy for comfort—get the softest sheets you can afford. If you have favorites at home and they fit, take them! There’s no substitute for “your” bed. One thing to splurge on, but if space is an issue, wait until you get there—Buy a nice mattress topper, whether it is a tempurpedic or a simpler variety, it will add comfort and coziness to a college mattress. You are going to want your bedding and your towels and toiletries asap, whether you bring them yourself or ship them in advance.

6. It is important to check with roommates regarding big items—who has the TV? Do you need to buy a microwave or a fridge? Does the school lease these items? Leasing for the semester is a great way to go because then the item does not have to be stored at the end of the school year. Room arrangements and roommates change from year to year so it’s nice not to have doubles of everything. If roommates agree to lease, then they can split the cost as well.

So don’t worry about having everything before you even get there. Leave room to find out what you really want and really need. Bring the items that you normally use during the course of the day and don’t worry too much about the stuff you “might” need. There’s the bookstore on campus and chances are there is shopping nearby and there is always shopping on-line if the big chain store is too far out of the way.

Relax and enjoy getting ready. Shopping is fun but it’s not fun to try and figure out how to pack it all up on moving day. Shop within your means and bring less than you think you need. Other things can be shopped for and shipped from home as needed. Enjoy your move-in day, the rest will come.

Hometown Savings

Well, it's the end of July and in just a couple of weeks, it's back to campus. Maybe it's your first time on campus or maybe you've got another year to go, but now's the time to think about money. One of the best moves you can take to ease your mind is to set up a hometown savings account. The purpose of this account is to provide easy access to emergency cash. The days of mom and dad sending a check in the mail are long gone, however, banks do not have universal branches and wire transfers are expensive and take time. Let's face it, we all run out of money occasionally, and there are always unexpected expenses.

In the few weeks of summer that remain, take a ride down to your local bank, preferably the bank that your own (or your parents') accounts are already at. Set up a (joint) statement savings account and order a debit card with the student's name on it. You want a debit card that acts like a Mastercard or Visa. It's nice to know that whether it's for rent or medicine, you can have money to your student with a couple quick keystrokes online. No paperwork as with a wire, no wait time that you'd have sending a check and having to wait for it to clear. With a debit card, your student can access the funds at her local ATM or pick up a product at a store.

My daughter would take a larger balance out and deposit it into her own account so she would not be charged ATM fees by her bank if she used her home-town debit card to withdraw funds. The important thing is that the account is in place. The peace of mind that it can provide, knowing you can have money in an instant is priceless. It might not work for everyone, but it worked for us.