Student loans are a glorious thing when you’re in college. They’re even pretty great during the six-month grace period after graduation. But as soon as you realize what a significant cut your loans take out of your monthly budget, you may start to question how great they are and how you're going to balance your finances.
When my first student loan payment rolled around in December after graduation, I panicked. I was fortunate enough to have a job, but the thought of being stuck with the cost of my student loans every month until I was thirty or so felt like such an immense burden. "Maybe I should just go back to school and go into investment banking, or become a doctor or something," I thought, until realizing I would then have to take out more loans. I doubted whether I would be able to maintain my current lifestyle and keep up with other costs of living, let alone save any money in my twenties.
It’s been a little over a year since my initial panic kicked in. After some ups and downs, I’ve learned a few things about spending money wisely and how to save money, even with student loans. While everyone’s case is different, here are some of my best practices that may be helpful to you.
Start with a goal
In order to save money with a tight budget, you need to have a goal in mind. My grandmother always told me, “Save for a rainy day,” which apparently means it’s good to have a savings account or emergency fund, should something bad happen. I recently learned I have been misunderstanding this saying my entire life. I thought it meant you should save for a rainy day, when it’s gloomy outside and you want to do something fun like go to the movies. While the saying has merit, I’m partial to my interpretation.
It’s much easier to save when you have something in mind that you’re passionate about or emotionally invested in. Maybe you want to backpack through Europe in the next few years, maybe you want to decorate your new apartment or maybe you just want a Parks and Rec-style “Treat Yo’ Self Day” in your near future.
In my case, I knew I wanted to open a stationery store. Every time I was presented with the opportunity to spend money, I would weigh my options. "Do I go for a manicure, or save for a new printer?" When you have an exciting goal in mind, it’s easier to put your spending in perspective.
Shopping is not a necessity
This was my first big realization as a money-saver. I love shopping. I love clothes shopping, book shopping, even grocery shopping. Bring me to a store and I could spend the day there.
This was also my easiest habit to break. I simply didn’t go shopping. (Crazy, right?) When I really needed to buy something, I’d go at a time when I knew I couldn’t wander around the mall all day. I created a folder in my Gmail account so all store sale alerts went there instead of to my inbox. I stopped following brands on social media unless I truly enjoyed their updates. Not only did I save money, I saved the time I used to spend scrolling through online sales and curating the perfect shopping cart. It's a win-win.
Anyone can make a Starbucks latte
Sorry baristas, but it’s true. If you need to start your day with a little caffeine, stock up on your favorite ingredients at home or in your office. To help ween you off your addiction, you can even buy your own reusable Starbucks cup at the store for a dollar, or this pretty special edition one here for eight dollars.
Some people will say that it saves time and energy to have your coffee made for you, but I’d argue that there’s something therapeutic and rewarding about working some coffee-crafting into your morning routine.
If you’re not ready to turn in your Starbucks Gold Membership Card so fast, cut down to going on Fridays as an end-of-week treat.
Getting a second job can be fun
When most people think “getting a second job,” they immediately envision hours of work back-to-back, with no personal time in between. Often times, there’s something you really love to do, or maybe are already doing, that someone would pay you for.
If your friends congregate at a local bar or coffee shop, put in a few hours behind the bar. If you wish you could own a puppy but your apartment doesn’t allow pets, start dog walking. Maybe you’re crafty and knit scarves while watching Netflix - start an Etsy shop!
Think about you much you pay each month for your student loan: how much work would it take to cover that cost? Now, what do you love to do that could help you work that off?
Dine and drink on a budget
I’m a big fan of happy hour. When Friday rolls around, I’m all #TGIF and a glass of Prosecco. If you’re also a member of the happy hour crowd, you know happy hour can turn into dinner, which can then turn into going out. Suddenly a five dollar glass of wine turned into an evening out on the town.
I’ll grab a snack before going out, like a Clif Bar or an extra salad from lunch, and try to fill up a little so I’m not starving when appetizers roll around. Another trick is to alternate drinks with something non-alcoholic. Water is free (and healthy, and necessary) but sometimes you want something a little more exciting. Don’t forget that you can always order an iced tea or seltzer with a splash of juice while you’re out to keep costs (and calories) down.
Battle the peer pressure
You might have friends who have a higher disposable income than you do while you’re paying off your student loans and trying to save money. Whether it’s dinner, a weekend trip or going to the movies, don’t be afraid to politely decline an invitation if it doesn’t fit into your current budget. Bring up the fact that you’re trying to save money for (insert exciting goal here) and suggest something else you could do that doesn’t break the bank. Your friends will respect you for having goals and sticking to them, and they will be understanding because we’re all budgeting in one way or another.
Focus on the value you received
In the end, be grateful for your student loans and the opportunity you were presented with. When times get tough, think back on your best times in college--the times you’d love to relive that put a smile on your face. Think of everything you learned and how you’ve grown as a person, and imagine everything you can do in this lifetime with the education you received. This is my focus on the 16th of every month, and I let go with thanks and grace.
Haley Humiston is the founder of Grand Print Co. in New York, NY.