Tuition. Board. Books. Financial responsibilities can be difficult to manage during college, and the pandemic’s recession has only made matters more difficult. Due to faltering businesses, travel restrictions and heightened stress levels, students may find themselves out of work or stuck in an unused housing lease.
So how can students mitigate economic stress? Applied economics and management Profs. Scott Yonker, Byoung-Hyoun Hwang and Rich Curtis shared their top tips for money management during these uncertain times.
1. Monitor your spending. Hwang recommended the online platform Statusmoney.com, which allows you to track and anonymously compare your spending with other people in your age category. This financial tool makes unnecessary expenses in various categories such as cars, home and education more salient, encouraging a decrease in spending.
2. Set a budget, and stick to it. “I’d set up a budget spreadsheet enumerating all major monthly income and expense items, and strive to keep the expenses less than income,” Curtis said. Students should track their weekly, monthly, and annual expenses to see if they are within the budget, Curtis added.
3. Distinguish “wants” from “needs.” “You need food and healthcare,” Curtis said. “You do not need pizza four nights a week, or the most expensive electronics.” This is a great way to limit discretionary spending and keep within your budget.
4. Choose your credit card wisely. “First, when choosing a credit card, look at annual fees,” Curtis said. “Try to get a $0 annual fee card, a low interest rate and rewards on categories you spend a lot on. However, if you pay off your balance in full monthly, the interest rate is irrelevant, and this can also help you build a good credit rating and lower interest rates on future borrowing, such as for a car or a house.” He recommended Discover cards such as the “Discover It Student Cash Back” card and the “Discover It Student Chrome” card.
5. Consider a Stafford loan. If you have a large credit card bill, or other pressing expenses, Yonker recommended the Stafford loan. “Students don’t have to pay interest on these loans until after they graduate,” he said. For those concerned about loan payments, Yonker said, “The objective is to have a higher income when you come out of college. You can borrow on that future. Stafford loans are a great way to do this.”
6. Comparison shop. Whether it’s credit cards, health insurance, renter’s insurance or even potatoes at the grocery store, make sure to cross-compare prices to get the best deal. “There are lots of frugal options for everything from groceries to electronics. You don’t need high-end stuff to get through school,” Curtis said. “Make sure you have what you need, but reign in discretionary expenditures which you can do without.”
7. Do some creative online job-hunting. The transition to remote work may allow students to compete for international opportunities. “In a way, it could be a boon for some students … for instance, in the past, for smaller projects, German firms might have exclusively hired German students,” Hwang said. “But now they can hire from a much wider pool of students including students in the U.S. without having to worry about things such as getting these students a German visa.”
8. Set up an emergency fund. Curtis teaches students in his finance class to “try to build up three to 12 months of living expenses by saving [at least] 10 to 15 percent of their pre-tax salary each month.” He highlighted the importance of having a “cash cushion,” especially during a pandemic. “You can start small. Even setting aside 10 to 20 bucks per week can get you in the habit of saving, and as your income grows over time you can increase your weekly savings,” he said.
9. Seek financial support. Federal programs such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — which is under the CARES Act — provides benefit packages to university students, who typically do not qualify for unemployment insurance. This combination may total up to $800 per week. “If you qualify for something like PUA, then you should take advantage of it,” Yonker said. “Just make sure you understand the rules for these programs.”
10. If you are struggling and do not know where to begin, communicate your needs. Whether that be to your advisor, student services or the financial aid office. “Stuff happens. Life happens. There are tremendous resources for students here at Cornell, but students need to let faculty and staff know when they’re having academic or personal challenges,” Curtis said. “The Cornell faculty and staff are here to make students’ lives better, to help students negotiate those challenges and to help enhance each student’s overall collegiate experience.”