It wasn’t until after I moved into my first college dorm room that I realized I had no direct access to my far away, small-town bank and no blank checks. I may have been ready for classes and other adventures that lay ahead, but my finances weren’t.
I should have prepared more.
If you are getting ready to head off to college for the first time (or are a parent preparing to drop your college kid off at school), here are few things you can do before leaving home to make sure you’re more financially prepared for college than I was:
1. Locate a bank branch close to campus.
Spending time researching student checking account options and visiting local banks was something I could have done before my first week at school. If you currently have a checking account with a small-town bank, I recommend checking ahead of time to see if you can access the banking amenities you’ll regularly need once at school.
There’s only so much you can do via smartphone or computer, so if you find that your bank doesn’t have a branch in your school’s city, it might be time to open an account with a national bank that has branches near campus.
2. Have a few blank checks packed in your belongings.
Paper checks may seem like a prehistoric form of payment, but they can save you in a pinch. Checks can be used to make personal cash withdrawals from a bank or pay your tuition or rent. And they’re safe to put in the mail.
Credit or debit cards may be easier, but you don’t want to be standing at your university’s cashier’s office trying to pay your tuition bill the day it’s due armed only with a card they don’t accept.
3. Find no-fee ATMs close to your new residence.
Whether you are splitting the cost of pizza with friends or using public transit to get downtown, a little bit of cash in your pocket can come in handy.
In my experience, there are typically quite few ATMs on campus but many of them charge a fee. The fees may only be few dollars per withdrawal, but every dollar you can save in college counts. The cost of four ATM cash withdrawals could equal the cost of a movie ticket, dinner out or that homecoming T-shirt all your friends already have.
Spend a few minutes on the Internet to find the most affordable ATMs near your new home so you know right where to go when you need an extra $20 cash.
4. Establish a safe place to keep your money and cards at school.
Now, I’m not implying that everyone you meet and live with at school will rifle through your things and steal your lunch money, but until you get a handle on your new environment, don’t leave your wallet or purse right out in the open.
No one wants to deal with a stolen wallet situation while cramming for midterms.
Have a plan for how you are going to keep your money–and other sensitive documents–safe when you get to school. It’s unlikely you’ll want all your cards, IDs, checkbook and other related items with you at all times so a small lock box, a special area in a dresser drawer or even a shoe box tucked in your closet are all options to help keep your valuables out of hands’ reach.
5. Let your bank and card issuers know you are moving.
Nothing is more embarrassing than handing a server your debit card after your first dinner out with new friends only to be told it was declined. You may have enough money in your bank account, but if you recently moved to a new area — especially if you’re now in a different state — your bank may be trying to protect you from fraud.
Avoid this situation by letting your bank know you are moving. A simple phone call or visit to a local bank branch is all it takes to avoid a few days of rejected debit charges and borrowing money from people you just met.
6. Consider opening your first credit card, if you haven’t already
College is likely your transition–or jump–into adulthood. Once you graduate, you’ll need a decent credit history to rent an apartment, buy a new car or, in some cases, even land a job. So, it doesn’t hurt to start building credit early.
It may be a lot to think about as you are prepping for freshman year, but it’s worth considering. If you don’t have a job or aren’t especially good at saving money, waiting to get a credit card might be a better option. However, if you’re going to have a part-time job and already feel comfortable budgeting and paying small bills, consider applying for your first card. A small line of credit can be handy in emergency situations, especially if you are far from home.
After all, going off to college is a big step and it never hurts to be prepared.