Navigating financial stress in college

By Ella Kroll

A growing crisis is quietly unfolding on college campuses: the unspoken burden of financial stress on students’ shoulders. Money management can make a great impact on college students at this new stage in their lives, but many struggle to make ends meet while keeping their mental wellbeing afloat.

“I spend a lot of time trying to manage my money, so it’s almost taken over my life at this point,” said Bipasha Bipin, a third-year computer science student at the University of Georgia. “I never had to think about money before until I came here.”

New College on the University of Georgia campus. Photo by Ella Kroll

Many students feel unequipped when making financial decisions, and it can often feel taboo to ask for help navigating personal finance for the first time. This leaves students to their own devices to manage the intersection of money and mental health at a time when their education should be paramount. 

“Well, I definitely had to learn it all by myself. I just searched it up and found out, oh, how much should I spend if I have this much balance on my credit card?” Bipin said. “So I wasn’t ready for that, but through unfortunate experiences I learned it.”

Money struggles can be an isolating experience, but there are resources that meet students where they are to build up their financial readiness and alleviate the mental burden that money can bear.

Budgeting apps, like Mint or Wally, are available on the app store for free, or building a budget spreadsheet is similarly effective. Having a tool to keep yourself on track is an easy lifestyle tweak that can make a big impact.

“I think the simplest thing is having a monthly budget, which sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of people don’t have that,” said Kellie Bath, a fourth-year financial planning student at UGA.

Bath works as a financial planning service provider at the ASPIRE Clinic, a unit of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA that offers low- and no-cost services and resources to the Athens community.

The ASPIRE Clinic and others like it serve a wide range of clients, so students should not feel alone in being overwhelmed, nor should they be ashamed of seeking help.

“Working with people in general is always very impactful because they’re not coming to the ASPIRE Clinic for fun,” Bath said. “They’re coming because they’re genuinely feeling really stressed about their situation and they don’t know what to do with themselves.”

The clinic works with its clients to rate their level of financial stress each week. Bath said that she sees stress ratings go down significantly after just the first step of creating a budget alone. 

In addition to creating a budget, many students find ways to make extra money to supplement their lifestyle. 

“I donate plasma,” said Raelee Hunt, a second-year political science student at UGA. “I sell clothes on Depop, stuff like that, to make extra cash on the side.” 

Exploring ventures like these and getting jobs are common for college students seeking sources of income.

Estimates from 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students work jobs while enrolled in college. For students that elect to work these jobs, the workload can be stressful, especially with the added pressure of tax compliance without financial education.

A resource for working students is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), which provides free tax help to people who make $60,000 or less. IRS-certified volunteers provide basic income tax preparation with electronic filing to individuals who request the service.

Through VITA, students do not have to pay to have their taxes filed and can maximize their tax benefits knowing that their preparations were properly completed. This provides meaningful help to students who don’t know where to start with filing taxes and want to look to someone credible for assistance.

Student loans are also a large perpetrator of anxiety for student borrowers, often resulting in loan payments still being owed years after graduating from higher education.

In August, the Biden-Harris Administration introduced the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan for student loans. The SAVE plan is an income-driven repayment plan that is based on a borrower’s income and family size- not their loan balance. The plan also forgives remaining student loan balances after a certain number of years.

“Students want to look into that if they’re worried about their student loans,” Bath said. “It’s a really, really generous plan.”

The Department of Education estimates that a typical graduate of a four-year public university will save nearly $2,000 per year on the SAVE plan. They also estimate that 85% of community college borrowers will be debt-free within 10 years.

Borrowers can sign up for the SAVE plan by visiting the Federal Student Aid website.

After maximizing available resources, seeking community is the final measure that can be greatly impactful for students feeling alone in their struggles. 

“I feel like talking it out is really helpful, like with your friends and things like that,” Bipin said. “And the situation is what it is, so might as well talk about it.”

Since 1970, the Consumer Price Index has seen over a 500% increase. According to a Student Minds survey from July 2022, 51% of students said that the rising cost of living impacts their mental health. Feeling unequipped to handle this is not a lone experience.

Hunt said the biggest lesson she has learned is “radically accepting that living costs a lot of money.”

Ultimately, personal health and mental wellbeing should be prioritized higher than being consumed by finances. Money management is important, but it should not take over one’s entire life.

“Don’t drive yourself completely crazy and skip meals and stuff like that,” Hunt said. “Just in the name of saving money…I feel like that is never worth it.”

Ella Kroll is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

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