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Work & School A freshman’s guide to being friends with your money

Nov. 27, 2018
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“I can’t go out for lunch today, I can only spend 3.42 euros today and I spent half of that on my morning coffee already.”

“Wen. This is why we don’t let you go inside Urban Outfitters anymore.”

In case my mother ever comes across this article, I am sorry. 

I did not realize how much it would have cost to buy all of my textbooks, kitchen appliances, toiletries—and to satisfy my greedy stomach’s bubble tea demands. It certainly did not help that my school is walking distance from stores like Urban Outfitters and Bershka.

By the time October rolled around, I was picking coins out of my jean pockets, hoping I had enough money to buy food for the rest of the week. It felt like a drop from heaven to hell; after my previous issue of having too much food to eat, I was struggling to contain the growls of my stomach.

The banking app on my phone has become my most frequently used application over the past three months. After a day of hefty purchases, I always dreaded opening it and trying to calculate what my spending meant for the rest of the month. Would I have to make my own coffee for the rest of the month? Did I have enough money to pay my phone bill? 

Going to college isn’t my first time away from home—I was used to living away from my parents at summer school. But while my summer school tuition covered dining (as most American colleges do), I’m on my own in college.

Likewise, in most European universities, it is not common to have a dining plan which covers three meals a day. Rather, the colleges here offer a small-scale on-campus canteen that requires additional fees.

I dreaded my school canteen options. I could only eat a chicken panini so many times before it started tasting bland and draining my bank account. When I first started college, I was blowing money on lunch because eating out was less time-consuming than packing my own lunch. And when you’re trying to fit into a new group of friends, it’s easy to give in to the temptation and go out with them to new restaurants every night.

However, my dietary choices weren’t the only thing draining my bank account. Coming from a relatively tropical country whose winter peaks at 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius), I was not ready for an Amsterdam winter. I was forced to purchase sweaters, jackets, and hoodies. While my closet was getting fuller, my wallet was getting emptier.

I knew I had to cut down on my expenses. After figuring out how much I was spending each week on food and researching more finance-friendly dining options, I began giving myself a proper budget, mapping and planning out my meals. This gives me more flexibility when the book lists for my courses come: instead of scrambling for money, I just dip into the money I’ve already set aside each month.

Cutting down expenses is a double-edged sword. It’s hard to not want to splurge once in a while on a takeout meal instead of going home to cook after a long day, so if cutting down expenses isn’t your cup of tea, you can always increase your income. 

For a little over three weeks, I worked in retail under minimum wage. My workload for school at the time was not too heavy, so taking afternoon and weekend shifts was a convenience. Other than my hourly wages, I also received hefty discounts on the store’s clothing items! Keep in mind that if you do take on a part-time or full-time job, you should still put your school work first, especially during freshman year in order to build a stable foundation of healthy studying habits. After three weeks, I had to quit the job because my employer refused to prioritize my school schedule.

If you’re lucky enough to work under a great employer, retail and restaurant service are both good first steps for college. These jobs provide flexible hours that can likely accommodate a college student’s schedule. Furthermore, retail positions often offer employee discounts, allowing you to rock some stellar looks without breaking the bank. On the other hand, working at restaurants allows employees to fill up their stomachs with employee meals and occasionally take leftovers home.

Working part-time during college is an amazing way to stack up some experience prior to entering the work field post-graduation. Personally, I have been writing for Lithium Magazine since 2016, and it’s allowed me to rack up some experience; at the same time, I’ve been able to save up the money I’ve earned through writing. It is a “two birds one stone” situation, to be able to do what I love and be paid for it.

Having personal savings set aside gives you so much freedom, and it also provides a sort of insurance; if I ever go over my budget, I’ll have a safety net to fall back on.

Befriend your money—you‘re going to want to keep it around.

Still a freshman,

Wen Hsiao

Illustration by Hannah Kang