Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A student’s guide to money

College is an exciting time, but suddenly becoming responsible for their own finances can be daunting for students. Here are 10 tips from Worcester-area financial advisers that can help students make smart money decisions in college — and beyond.

• Budget. Look at your monthly income, whether it comes from a part-time job or parents, and subtract your expenses, rent and bills, not just personal items.

“Budgeting helps keep you disciplined,” said JoAnn G. Morency, senior vice president of retail banking at Commerce Bank in Worcester.

“Since most of my spending money is earned over the summer, I try to take the cost of books, organizational dues and travel into account before I even arrive on campus,” said Kaitlin M. Wojnar, a senior English and psychology double major at Amherst College.

• Use a debit card before a credit card.

“Think before you grab the piece of plastic,” said William E. Philbrick, senior vice president at Greenberg, Rosenblatt, Kull and Bistoli, a public accounting firm in Worcester. “If students find themselves with an overdraft on a debit card, they shouldn’t even touch a credit card.”

Overdraft charges on a debit card are costly but still cheaper in the long run because overdrafts won’t affect credit scores.

Lisa A. Mayer, a senior hospitality and tourism management major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has only a debit card. “It’s basically like cash and I can’t go out and spend $100 which I don’t technically have. It really makes me think about my spending a lot more,” she said.

• Know your account balance at all times.

“Knowing in your head what you have isn’t good enough,” said Carol A. McGrath, marketing director at Webster Five Cents Savings Bank in Webster.

Miss McGrath recommends using a checkbook ledger, but because students are more apt to bank online, check your balance daily.

“I use a program called Mint to keep track of my balance at all times,” said Dane A. Phillip, a civil engineering major at North Shore Community College. “I check my balance and charges at least once a day.”

Mint.com is a free service that can be downloaded.

• Save by paying yourself first.

“A common problem that everyone faces is that if you try to save your leftover money at the end of the month, there is nothing left,” said Rosemarie A. Boyd, founder of the Boyd Financial Strategies in Shrewsbury. How much you save depends on your goals.

• Starting small with savings.

“Starting small has a lot of value,” said Ellen W. Dorian, senior vice president of marketing at Marlboro Savings Bank in Marlboro.

Ms. Dorian suggests students look for places where they can make small sacrifices and put away $10 a month into a savings account. Small amounts will make a big impact when you allow time for your money to grow.

Steven N. Pokalsky, a senior economics major at UMass-Amherst, isn’t saving for retirement, but for graduate school.

“I don’t really budget my spending consciously, but I try to save what I can since I’m not working right now.”

• Keep a list of what you have in your wallet.

Nancy B. Cahalen, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau of Central New England Inc. in Worcester, suggests compiling a list so you don’t waste any time in calling your bank if your wallet is lost or stolen.

“Keep the list in a safe place,” Ms. Cahalen said. “Not in your wallet!”

• Don’t be late with credit card payments.

“The biggest urban myth about credit card payments is that ‘If I’m late one time it won’t hurt my score,’ ” said Lora A. Baldracchi, vice president of retail lending at Southbridge Savings Bank in Worcester.

Payment history is 35 percent of your credit score, so being on time does count. Call your bank to see what can be done to help you be on time.

“I have been late on a payment! I was late only because I didn’t know the payment was due, so I just paid it ASAP and was charged a late fee from the bank,” said Jennifer Tran, a senior English major at UMass at Amherst.

• Read the find print when you’re opening your first checking account.

Diane M. Thompson, a training officer at UniBank in Whitinsville, recommends a statement savings account. “Shop around to find the right checking account,” Ms. Thompson said.

Many student checking accounts have extra benefits such as the ability to use an ATM card at other banks without paying a fee for the first few transactions.

“I chose my bank because it is a smaller, local bank and I think they provide better customer service,” said Kevin M. Harrington, a senior political science major at UMass at Amherst.

• Craigslist scams. Craigslist is an easy way for students to sell items such as furniture, but beware if a buyer “accidentally” sends more than the price then asks you to wire the difference back quickly, not allowing time to see if the check clears.

“The key word is wire,” said Thomas J. Melia, a fraud investigator for Unibank in Whitinsville. “Now the money has gone overseas and very few people get caught.”

If you have been scammed, notify the local police department.

“If I ever find myself giving personal information, I always know who I am giving it to. I’m usually very cautious when it comes to the Internet and my personal information,” said Paul T. Agne, a sophomore psychology major at Clark University in Worcester.

• Never give out your PIN. No matter how much you trust your boyfriend, girlfriend or friends in general, keep confidential your PIN number (the number used to access your account at ATMs).

“If you give your card to someone and they use it again and again or take all your money, we can’t help you get your money back at all,” said Jacqueline S. Jones, branch manager of the Barre Savings Bank in Paxton.