Learning to handle money is the best college lesson


It's back-to-school time and for students headed to college, it's an important time to take control of personal finances and master money management.

Along with the other big changes in their lives, college students encounter an array of new financial experiences. Knowing where and how to focus their attention can make a difference in their college experience. It also can teach valuable lessons they'll use the rest of their lives. Here are some I consider important:

Find a bank that works for you. It may or may not be the same bank and the same kinds of bank accounts that the student had in high school. Indeed, some students may not have had a true relationship with a bank until now. College, however, is one of those times when a strong banking relationship makes a difference.

So choose your bank wisely and consider how important these factors will be to you: ATM access, remote deposit (by you and your parents), online bill pay and access to in-person banking assistance. All will differ in importance, at least slightly, based on each individual and where he or she is attending school (close to home or further away). But students and their parents should weigh them all when making a college banking choice. They also should talk through these options with representatives of the banks they are considering.

Enroll in Financial Responsibility 101. College students are more on their own than ever before. But this also means they must be more responsible than ever before with their finances. College is an important time for students to learn how to create a personal budget and how to monitor their finances, such as by balancing a checkbook.

I suggest students work with their parents to set a monthly or even weekly budget for expenses including food, housing, transportation, utilities, laundry and, yes, fun. Parents should then turn over the reins to their students and make sure they are living by the budget or making necessary adjustments. A number of online budgeting and money-management apps are available to help students earn an "A" in Financial Responsibility 101.

Learn to live frugally. At many colleges and universities, students are openly encouraged to "live like a student." That means frugally. And part of making ends meet is using resources available to you. For students, that includes taking advantage of student discounts and coupons, comparing the price of textbooks at campus bookstores as well as at other retailers and weighing student loans versus college financing options such as part-time jobs or work-study programs.

Step into the credit world ... carefully. Students who have only had a debit card in high school should consider a credit card, if only to help in the event of unexpected bigger expenses. But a credit card also teaches a student to use credit carefully and it helps build credit history, two critical lessons.

The important word in any credit discussion is "careful." For students, that means being wary of the many credit card solicitations offered to them, often with perks such as a free T-shirt, free food or a one-time discount. Students shouldn't fall for these and end up with a handful of credit cards that they either don't need or that they use too often. Students also should try to pay off much or all of their credit card balances each month and understand that they, not their parents, are responsible.

Keep finances safe and secure: College campuses are busy, fast-paced environments. As a result, they're ripe for theft and financial fraud. At all times, students should keep their wallets, purses, checkbooks, credit cards and financial data such as passwords and PINs secure and away from anyone who might compromise them.

This is especially true when it comes to electronic fraud and identity theft, which is made easier by the open online networks available on campuses and in areas where students congregate. Students who are not used to monitoring their accounts online should get in the habit of checking them regularly to make sure all is safe and secure.

College is an exciting time for students to learn and step out on their own. An important part of this involves students taking on more financial responsibility ... and taking more responsibility for their finances. Parents can share best practices and lessons they have learned. They also can help their students make good choices about spending and banking. But one of the most important ways parents can help is by refraining from micromanaging and letting students learn important financial lessons themselves.