Hey Badgers! Your time as an undergraduate presents a great opportunity for you to take control of your financial planning and develop habits that will benefit you throughout college and beyond. Whether you’ve been tracking your spending for years or are just starting to learn the basics of budgeting, the tips below will help you and your bank account get a great start to the fall semester.

Minimize borrowing

If you are looking for help paying tuition, this is a very important part of your financial planning strategy. Be aware of the size and type of the student loans you agree to take on, as you are going to be held accountable for paying them back. If awarded a student loan, try to agree to borrow only an amount that will cover tuition, room, and board. Overborrowing could not only increase your monthly payments after college, but also affect your interest costs over the loan’s lifetime. If you have questions, contact the University of Wisconsin’s Office of Student Financial Aid.

Apart from loans, scholarships, grants and part-time work can earn you extra money without incurring debt. UW students should take advantage of the Wisconsin Scholarship Hub, which offers various scholarships for both new and returning students. Additionally, you can find part-time work just about anywhere on or off campus. To get started, use UW’s Student Jobs hub, where employers post hundreds of openings.

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Create a realistic budget

When creating weekly or monthly budgets for yourself, you have to take into account every type of expense you may incur. That daily coffee purchase may seem insignificant in the moment, but it adds up over time. Try to anticipate how much money you are going to need for food, utilities, and social outings throughout the semester so you can plan accordingly. You can even make a spreadsheet or use an app like Mint or DeepPockets to view how you are performing against your target budget.

Triple-check your academic plan

Unless necessary, students should complete their undergraduate degree within four years to avoid the costs of an extra year of schooling. Check in with your advisor to ensure you are on track as you expect. Staying organized and following an academic plan will also help you stay away from the extra high tuition costs of taking summer courses. If you’re on the waitlist for a required course, reach out to the professor via email and request permission to enroll.

Build a great credit score

Building good credit is an important process that takes time, so the earlier you can start, the better! A strong credit record enables you to make more important purchases later in life, such as a house or car, often at better rates. 

To  build credit, use a credit card to make smaller purchases, such as groceries or books, to incrementally build trust with your bank over time. More importantly, though, try not to fall behind on paying your credit card bills, as this will hurt your credit score and create debt with varying interest rates. Before making credit card purchases, be sure you have the cash to back up your transactions.

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Establish an emergency fund

Often forgotten, emergency funds are key to a student’s financial health. Unexpected expenses can throw off your budget and result in debt and borrowing. The size of the emergency fund will vary from person to person but ideally should cover basic needs for three to six months. That may sound like a lot, but if you contribute small amounts each month to set it up, it becomes more manageable.

Treat yourself

Even the best diets include a cheat day, and so should your budget! When outlining your personal budget, designate a small portion of money to go towards any impulsive buys you make. Preparing for your spending cheats will result in a more accurate budget and keep you motivated while sticking to it. And if you have a couple of weeks in which you spend more than you expected (e.g., upfront costs for books and supplies), try to adjust your budget for following weeks to compensate. Other splurges can be learning opportunities to improve your skills as a master budgeter throughout college.

Mckayla Johnson is a junior majoring in personal finance and economics. She is a peer educator with the Badger$ense Financial Life Skills program in the School of Human Ecology. Learn about Badger$ense courses, workshops, and other opportunities at sohe.wisc.edu/badgersense.