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Money Confessions: What I Learned As A Student

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I was not always good at managing my money. There. I said it. I spent my student summer days working in jobs that were fun, rewarding and personally fulfilling (you know...the camp counselor-lifeguard-sailing -sun-soaking -it -up type jobs), which also meant I was not earning as much as my friends working downtown in the financial district. So you'd think I'd have diligently saved and planned how I would spend that "hard earned" money to make it last through my academic career. Nope. I burned through it so fast around frosh week and first semester that by January I would inevitably, fully stressed out, be calling on the Bank of Mom and Dad to rescue me.

Since then, I've learned I was not alone. Most students aim to earn enough money to support themselves through the academic year. But like many things in life, success comes in the details. If you don't plan for the expected and unexpected costs that post-secondary life can throw at you, your chance of success diminishes.

Take Taylor Losak for example. A second year student at Queen's University in Ontario, Taylor had saved for essential expenses like textbooks, and of course tuition and rent and groceries. She set aside money for social outings. But the reality was, as she learned during her first year, that there were so many unanticipated additional costs. She didn't know course readings were required on top of text books, and that academic conferences would be part of her studies. And the intramural dodge ball league she joined ate into her budget. She knew that she needed to plan better for the following year (and she has, she tells me).

Our research tells us that a majority (73 per cent) of students say they are concerned with having enough money to pay for post-secondary school. It can be intimidating to try and guess how much you'll need and tally up every planned expense. But one thing I know for sure is that having a plan can be a huge step in reducing financial stress.

I did not really learn the value of having a financial plan, until the summer before my fourth year (yes...fourth...since I'm confessing) when it occurred to me that I legitimately did not want to be mooching off of my parents for the rest of my life. How would I ever move out from under their roof and gain the freedom and independence I so relished without first proving to myself that I could manage my money and be financially independent? So I set up a financial plan for the first time in my life and I made it work for me. And the tips I learned that summer, were the foundation for financial planning I use to this day.

Here are my suggestions for Taylor and other post-secondary students out looking to start the summer off in best financial shape:

Talk to your peers: This one is especially true if you're a first year student. Look to upper year peers and ask them about any unforeseen expenses. Each academic year will bring different opportunities. Some classes might require you to purchase tools for your trade or a reading package or licensing fee in addition to the textbook, for example. Also, you may want to be able to take advantage of things like a semester abroad or a special course. Upper year students might be able to alert you to these opportunities so you can plan your finances now.

Re-assess and re-plan: Taylor has already taken the first step to creating a better financial plan by identifying her unforeseen costs. If you're an upper year student, reviewing your plan against your actual expenses from the previous year is the first step to financial fitness. Examine your bank and credit card statements to try to get the clearest picture of your actual costs and look for realistic targets for the upcoming year. If you are entering your first year, check in mid-summer to see if you're hitting your savings goals.

Set realistic savings goals: If you're working this summer, make sure you're saving enough from each paycheque to build up a cushion for when you get to school. Don't get discouraged if you feel like your savings aren't building as quickly as you'd like. A realistic plan will help keep you par for the course and highlight any deficits you'll need to cover.

Take free money: Millions of dollars in scholarship money are unclaimed every year. There are bursaries and scholarships available at every stage of learning -- and not all are based on academic standing. Some reward civic engagement, particular skills, and heritage. Look for contests. It's worth a shot, and every little bit of money helps you realize your dream. Taylor knows first-hand how successful this step can be as the winner of the Thank You Mom and Dad contest.

Talk to your parents: While you may feel like you want to show your independence, or that you assume your parents understand the financial costs associated with school, having a candid conversation about money is important. Its likely been a while since they were in school and things have changed a lot, so take the time to share with them what you've learned about post-secondary finances and work together to make a financial plan. You can also look to other trusted people in your life for advice, like a family friend, advisor at your bank or older sibling.

While post-secondary life isn't only about hitting the books, taking the financial stress away during this time in your life will allow you to focus on what's important. The lessons you learn about money now will lay the foundation for smart money management in the future.

What about you? What was the most surprising expense you experienced while in school? Share your comments below or on Twitter: @RBC_Canada

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