Young students by the millions are heading off to college over the next several weeks, many of them for the first time. By now, parents and their student have settled on a financial aid package, living arrangements and maybe a meal plan.
Now, what parents and students should add to their to-do list — if they haven't already — is establishing a plan for managing money in college. Here are a couple of recommendations that you can tailor to the particulars of your situation.
The most important step for parents is to help their student establish a budget. Of course, for many freshmen, some parts of the budget will be guesstimates. That's OK. The plan should be flexible by design. The main goal is to start a conversation about money in college, one that will continue throughout their college career, honed over time with better information and experience. A budget should help students avoid the cycle of eating craft pizza at the start of the semester and Ramen noodles at the end of the term.
Since the budget needs are usually relatively simple, a notebook and pen is probably sufficient. But I would also look at the online budgeting tools offered by banks and credit unions. Some are very good. A website like Mint.com is another option, an easy to use monitoring tool that facilitates budgeting.
Speaking of banks and credit unions, many offer college students free checking and saving accounts. You'll want a financial institution with convenient ATMs to avoid fees on withdrawals. Mobile alerts can be set up to remind students to pay their bills.
I would steer clear of a credit card for undergraduates. I don't find the argument convincing that undergraduates should use a credit card to build up a credit history. They have a lifetime of work ahead of them after graduation to establish a credit history. The risk is too great that students will take on credit card debt on top of student loans. Students should rely on a mix of cash and debit card (essentially a plastic checkbook).
One caveat to my credit card perspective. In the last year of college it makes sense for a student to get a credit card. The reason: It's extremely easy to get a card while in college and harder after graduation. Seriously.
By the way, students will make money mistakes. Keep the lines of communication open and maybe include a line labeled "oops" in the budget (or at least yours!).
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, Marketplace, commentator, Minnesota Public Radio