Starting college can be bewildering, as students try to navigate campus, remember roommates’ names, and find a quick, cheap pizza supplier. Small wonder, then, that personal finance can take a back seat.
Only half of four-year college students and 60% of students at two-year schools regularly check their account balances, according to a recent survey by EverFi and Higher One. Worse, 46% of students at four-year colleges and 40% of those at two-year institutions don’t stop spending when their resources run low.
This is the fourth year of the survey, and the researchers found a disturbing trend. “Students are becoming less likely to respond that they are ‘never’ engaging in risky decisions or ‘always’ engaging in responsible actions,” they wrote.
One of the biggest money challenges for new college students is staying on top of what they are spending. They may be trying to keep up with new, well-off friends or living in a high-cost area, and many are unused to managing money.
Plastic is another potential hazard. The Card Act of 2009 was supposed to eliminate excessive marketing to students and other young people, but some still have credit cards. Many more have debit cards, which may even be repositories for their financial aid disbursements—which doesn’t exactly help students keep their spending under control.
Overdraft fees can also be a problem, especially if students are not monitoring their account balances. Americans aged 18 to 25 incur more overdrafts than any other age group, according to Nerdwallet, and in many cases that means paying especially high overdraft fees.
Sometimes that's because they use high-cost banks. Some colleges and universities receive payments from banks in exchange for allowing them to open on-campus branches. Many students opt to bank there for convenience, but other nearby banks may offer better terms. (Nerdwallet identified some of those here.)
So what should parents do to help their kids navigate these money minefields?
Helping college students avoid money problems requires both parental patience and a willingness to let them live with their mistakes. For example, you can coach your child on features to look for in a bank account, like low overdraft fees, convenient ATMs, and low-balance alerts. You can also help your student set up a budgeting app—and hope it stays in use. If you do give your student a credit or debit card, have a serious talk about when and when not to use it.
What parents shouldn’t do is bail out their students if they overspend and run short of money, experts say. If they have to miss a few pricey social events or dinners out, they will likely be more careful the next time around.
Of course, sometimes students have to learn lessons the hard way. In 2015, a rising college senior called a radio show saying she had blown through $90,000 her grandparents had given her for college and wanted her parents to pay her expenses. Her parents co-signed for a loan, but only after she promised to get a job in the school cafeteria.
“I know they’re trying to teach me a lesson and ‘blah blah blah’ and character building,” Kim, the student, said in an interview.
Those parents have their work cut out for them. But if you teach your college student now how to avoid financial pitfalls, your job should be much easier.