Starting university? How to keep your finances in order

·4 min read
For a first-year student, managing finances can be daunting. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)
For a first-year student, managing finances can be daunting. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)

It's often during university or after graduation that people start wanting independence and stability with their personal finances.

Tierra Dam, an international student at UPEI from Vietnam who's about to graduate from the school's biology program, knows this too well. At 27, she feels like it's about time she weaned herself off her parents' support.

"I don't want to be a burden on my family," she said. "From the culture that I'm from ... parents oftentimes take care of this child until they're actually married or financially stable. And I don't feel comfortable having them continue to pay my education at my age."

But managing your own finances can be daunting. And for a first-year student looking to do so for the first time, it can be difficult to even figure out where to start.

John Eisner, president and CEO of Credit Counselling Services of Atlantic Canada, says the most important things a student can do before heading to school is planning ahead and keeping track of their spending.

"Budgeting is boring. Nobody likes to do a budget," he said. "But there's one thing about a budget or 'Money 101': It won't lie to you. The numbers won't lie to you."

The non-profit provides free counselling as well as many useful tools to financially distressed families and individuals. They also offer scholarships for post-secondary students in the region.

Track your spending

The first step is breaking down your expenses. Eisner said students should be keeping track of where their money is going in an average month.

Submitted by John Eisner
Submitted by John Eisner

Numerous apps are available to Canadians which make this seemingly arduous task easy.

"There's so many different ones out there," Eisner said. "Try them to ensure they work well for you."

For Amaan Rais, a UPEI computer science major, the old-fashioned method of just keeping a spreadsheet works just fine.

"My dad's an accountant, so it's the old school for me," he said. "He does actually ask me every three or four months for a spreadsheet."

Those who may be getting their own credit cards for the first time shouldn't forget to keep an eye on their debt as well.

"Credit cards I had to learn the hard way for sure," Dam said. "It's putting power in the hands of someone who was not responsible enough at the time, you know, giving them money that they don't actually have."

Cut down expenses

Eisner said food is the most important thing students should be budgeting for. Planning your meals, buying at discount grocery stores and not splurging on brand-name products can lead to big savings.

Nicole Williams/CBC News
Nicole Williams/CBC News

And while breaking a habit of eating out may be difficult, those expenses can really add up.

"Between the working hours and stuff like that, it was really hard for me to cook my own food," Rais said. He's been working part-time throughout the summer.

"Going back to university, I'll be working less hours and definitely cooking my own food."

Eisner said that even small things, such as making your own coffee at home, make a big difference.

"If you own your own coffee maker and you buy the beans and do that — and I've done this exercise myself — and I can tell you within two months we paid for the coffee thing and we actually save money each and every month," he said.

Be realistic

Outside of food, Credit Counselling Services recommends students take advantage of student discounts, buy used textbooks and try to resist impulse buys.

If you don't build that into the budget, the budget's not going to work. - John Eisner

But Eisner said limiting your spending to only the bare necessities is impossible for most people. He said students are setting themselves up for failure if they leave no wiggle room for entertainment and other non-essentials.

"We're not going to teach you to be penny pinchers and not do anything," he said. "We're going to allow money for … those little pieces of social entertainment, whatever, because I'm going to be very honest with you: If you don't build that into the budget, the budget's not going to work."

Work toward a goal

Dam said one thing that's helped her with her spending is having some long-term goals in mind.

"I do put out goals for myself," she said. "I put aside the money to go into certain individual goals. So that I would say that's the way that I approach it."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on her plans for now, she's been saving money for travel.

Rais is setting his sights on starting his own business once he graduates from school.

"It's very easy to blur the line between what you might need and what you might want," he said. "So it's always a good idea to have ... a bigger picture in mind."

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