College will present you with a host of new experiences—including, perhaps, the experience of not having unfettered access to Mom and Dad’s wallet. But learning how to balance your checkbook while also hitting the books doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here’s a checklist of financial lessons that’ll get you through the first year of college without unnecessary debt.

1. Get to know your financial aid package

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, will help you determine your total out-of-pocket college costs. After receiving your financial aid award letter, you’ll know how much you’ll have to save or borrow to make up the difference on your college expenses.

Aid typically comes in the form of grants and scholarships, which do not need to be repaid, or loans, which do. Before you hurry up and take on a loan, though, know that it will make a major impact on your life after college. 70% of students in the class of 2013 graduated with college-related debt, and the average amount of that debt was $35,200, according to a Fidelity survey.

You may also be eligible to participate in Federal Work-Study, a program that offers students in roughly 3,400 post-secondary institutions the chance to work part-time to finance their college costs.

2. Set up a checking account

If you don’t have a checking account, consider opening one before you head to college. Between buying books, writing checks for tuition and paying bills, you’ll find that you need other forms of payment besides cash. A checking account will also make it faster and easier for you to receive financial aid or scholarships through direct deposit, and allow you to make tuition payments automatically.

3. Build your credit

Using a credit card for college expenses can help you build good credit, but there’s also the risk of damaging your credit if you don’t use your card wisely. In 2013, college students graduated with an average credit card debt of $3,000. To avoid a hefty post-graduate debt, charge only what you can pay when the balance is due, and make it a habit to pay the balance in full.

An easy way build good credit is to automate payments for recurring monthly charges. For example, you could arrange to pay your Internet or cellphone bill with your credit card, and set up bill-pay through your checking account to pay off the card balance each month, so you never miss a payment. 

4. Create a budget … and stick to it

To establish a budget, add up your income and subtract your expenses. Ideally, you should have some leftover cash that you can set aside for fun stuff, like going out to eat with your new roomies or shopping for university swag. If your budget is tight, look for expenses you may be able to cut. For example, you can use your on-campus meal plan rather than spending money on restaurants, or opt for used books instead of new ones.


Amanda Finnegan, NerdWallet