If you’re one of the millions of high school graduates gearing up this summer for the first year of college, there’s no doubt that money is on your mind. After all, college isn’t cheap — even if you got a grant or scholarship — and there’s a lot to consider when it comes to paying for tuition, books and supplies, extra-curriculars, dorm room decorations and housing, and, of course, a social life
Calling this transition “overwhelming” is a bit of an understatement. If you’re lucky, you have some sort of support system to lean on, but at the end of the day, you’ll have to own each and every choice you make during your college years — from the major you pick to how much student loan debt you decide to take on
Here are five things every you should definitely know about money before you go to college:
Student loans aren’t free.The cost of a four-year college degree has more than doubled in the last few decades, making it all the more challenging for students to cover the costs of college without relying on student loans. The average college graduate will leave school with close to $30,000 worth of debt on their shoulders. Now, student loans may feel like free money, but trust us — they’re not. In most cases, you’re going to have to start repaying that debt six months after you graduate. There are steps you can take to make those payments easier to manage, but it is next to impossible to get rid of student debt once you’ve signed up for it. Want to find out how long it will take you to pay back your loans? Here’s a pretty simple calculator from Bankrate.com
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Start looking for ways to lower college costs early.If you get creative, you can drastically reduce the amount of debt you have to take on. For example, think about ditching the dorm and renting a place off-campus with friends to save on housing. Better yet, apply to be a resident assistant and you can live on campus for free. To save on food, try skipping the meal plan and covering groceries on your own. Your books don’t have to be brand new, either. And don’t give up on scholarships after your first year; keep a list of them that you’re interested in, and make it a point to keep applying. Some schools have scholarships specifically available to current students in specific majors
Another savvy way to save money is to take courses at a low-cost community college. After a year or two, you can transfer to a more expensive four-year university to finish your degree. The key here, of course, is to be sure your target university will accept your course credits
Your major does matter.College is a huge financial investment, and you want to go in there with some sense that what you study will get you a job that pays the bills after you graduate (especially those student loan bills). There’s a ton of research out there that will give you a hint of what kind of income you can expect to earn depending on your major and your school of choice. Check starting salaries using these tools from the Hamilton Project or Payscale.com for your field. If your expected earnings look a lot lower than what you’ve borrowed, it could be time to rethink your major — or your school of choice
Internships are vital (but that doesn’t mean you have to work for free).Nobody wants to hire a graduate with an empty resume. Job experience is one of the most important things employers want from college graduates today. The best way to get hands-on experience while in college is, of course, to apply for internships. But just because you need that internship doesn’t mean you should be working full-time for little or no pay. And no, academic credit is not enough to justify an unpaid gig sometimes. Know your rightsunder federal law before you take an unpaid internship
Credit card companies aren’t your friend.By the time you finish college, it would be great to have built up a healthy credit history. Good credit makes it easier to qualify for low-interest car loans or rent an apartment, and it can even make you look better to potential employers
Be sure you’re building up your credit in a smart, healthy way. One of the most common misconceptions about building credit is that it’s good to charge a bunch of stuff on your card right away. You only build up your credit score by by paying your balances off in full each month. If you rack up a bunch of credit debt and can’t pay it off each month, not only is your credit score going to tank, but you’ll get hit with interest and late fees. The average interest rate today is crazy high, at 16%
So, try this instead: Use a credit card to pay for one small recurring bill — like your cell phone — and then pay the whole thing off each month. This will take some serious self control but you’ll be rewarded for it with a stellar credit history after you graduate. If you don’t think you can hack it, a smart and potentially less risky way to build credit in college is to become an authorized user on a parent’s credit cardMandi Woodruff is the executive editor of MagnifyMoney and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career and finance. She is the former personal finance correspondent at Yahoo Finance and former personal finance editor at Business Insider.This post was originally published on Teen Vogue.