For recent high school grads headed to college, the list of summer to-dos can seem endless. From picking out dorm decor to stocking up on ramen noodles and notebooks, prepping for university life can seem almost as daunting as the prospect of leaving home for the first time.
But no matter how busy those summer months get, experts say all college-bound kids and their parents should spend a few weeks focusing on financial preparations. Experts weigh in on some of the best things families can to do get money savvy before the first tuition bill gets paid.
1. Open a checking account — with or without mom and dad. All college-bound kids should open a checking account with a debit card attached to it, says Gail Cunningham, vice president of membership and public relations at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Parents should make sure to stress the importance of writing down every transaction and keeping every ATM receipt.
“Stuffing the receipt into the visor of your car isn’t responsibly filing financial records,” Cunningham says.
Parents who want to ensure that their child has enough money each month may want to consider setting up a joint bank account for depositing an allowance, says Linda Descano, president and CEO of Citi’s Women & Co..
“Consider contributing to the account every three months rather than weekly,” Descano advises parents. “If the money has to last for three months, your child will likely be more compelled to budget wisely.”
2. Create a sample summer budget and practice setting goals. “Students should create a budget reflecting summer expenses, then live by it. This will be a good money-management exercise for handling the college expenses,” Cunningham says.
Try the budget out during the summer, and by your first semester you should be ready to put it into action, Behnam says.
“Your first semester may be difficult, since you are still trying to learn what it’s like to be in college, but with your second semester, this exercise should be easy. Don’t forget to include things like books, utilities, play time, etc.,” Behnam says. “Make sure to review your budget once every six months or with a major change like moving from dorms to your own apartment.”
While you’re making your first budget, it’s a good idea to make a list of financial goals, says Kimberly Foss, founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif.
“It’s wise for students to simply write down their financial goals,” Foss says. “Maybe a goal is to secure a part-time job or set aside a certain amount of money each month in savings. Anyone who writes down their goals has a great probability of success.”
3. Have mom and dad co-sign on a credit card with you. Because of the Credit Card Accountability Act of 2009, no one under 21 can get a credit card independently unless they can demonstrate an ability to pay or they have a co-signer, Cunningham says.
“It’s not a bad idea for mom and dad to add their child to one of their existing credit cards as an authorized user,” she says. “This allows the youngster to build a credit history, but mom and dad are still in charge and can remove him or her at will if necessary.”
Parents who co-sign for their child should keep in mind that they’ll be on the hook for the student’s bills, Descano says. “If you’re concerned that your child might go overboard with the credit card, you can get a card with a low credit limit. That way, if he or she hits that limit, the card should be declined at the point of sale,” she says.
4. Start saving. “One of the biggest missed opportunities is that many college students don’t start saving early on,” says Ken Lin, CEO of Credit Karma. “Most recent grads should have a job the summer before college, and they can begin saving then before they are paying for more expensive items like textbooks.”
If possible, students should continue saving while they’re in school, he says.
“Say you are a student who is tutoring for extra cash or working part-time on the weekends. You should save a percentage of what you earn in an online savings account. Even 5 percent can really add up over the years. By the time you graduate, you’ll have a nice little emergency fund built up,” he says.
Also, keep in mind that your savings don’t have to come from a part-time job. “Whenever you get money, even a birthday gift, take at least 10 percent and put it in your savings account,” Behnam says.
5. Sit down and talk as a family. “For many kids, going away to college may be their first taste of financial independence, so it’s important to sit down together as a family and set some ground rules well before you’re dropping them off at their dorm room for the first time,” Descano says.
During the discussion, walk through how much your child will need for living expenses each month, and who will be responsible for making payments, she suggests.
“For example, will you deposit a certain amount of money into their account each month, and they’ll be responsible for budgeting? Or will you pay for some of their costs directly?”
All of this needs to be discussed before school starts, and it’s a good idea to have a financial check-in after the first few months, Descano says.
6. Understand how to view and pay your credit cards online. Although most students are incredibly tech savvy, it’s important that they understand how to view and pay their credit cards securely online, says Joe Sicchitano, senior vice president and head of financial planning at SunTrust.
“Students should understand how to check and pay balances online, review their statements and budget so they do not max out their card,” Sicchitano says. “Setting a personal monthly cap can serve as a smart safeguard.”
Credit cards, when used responsibly, can be one of the best tools for teaching effective money management, Sicchitano says. “For example, online credit card statements provide a detailed list of purchases each month, making it easy to maintain good financial records and assess spending habits.”
Parents should encourage their children to log on to pay their credit cards and view statements at least once a month.
7. Get a job if you can. “Working during the summer to help prepare financially for college means more than earning money for teens,” says Lauren Arndt, development manager for Junior Achievement of Central Florida.
Being employed also shows students the need for responsibility, time management and money management. “As these young adults are building their savings account, they are also building their confidence and learning the skills needed to succeed upon graduation in today’s global economy and workforce,” Arndt says.