Money Management 101: How College Students Are Handling Their Finances

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 6/10/21

Highlights

  • 66.1% of college students said one of their financial goals for 2021 is to create more ways to generate income.
  • 56% of college students reported having at least one investment account.
  • College students were more likely to report feeling stressed about paying off their student loans now than before the pandemic. 

Being young is filled with fun – hanging out with friends, going on dates, and enjoying nights out on the town are all things to take advantage of before full-fledged adulthood (and responsibility) kicks in. No matter what age you are, though, the practice of wisely managing your money should be a priority.

We surveyed current college students and their millennial counterparts about their money management habits. Do they have financial goals for 2021? What do college students tend to overspend on? How do college students feel about their student debt? These questions, and more, will allow us to further our understanding about how young Americans are spending and saving their money and how they feel about their financial future.

 

Goal Setting

Setting concrete goals can be a big help in maintaining good financial habits and creating a secure financial life. 

College students 2021 financial goals

The most popular financial goal college students reported having for 2021 was to find different ways to generate additional income. Luckily, the opportunities for students to make some cash on the side are numerous. For example, they can hop on a bike and work for a food delivery company, tutor, babysit and/or pet sit, and do freelance work, among other things. 

Nearly two-thirds of students also wanted to crack down on impulse purchases. Meanwhile, millennials, who are likely in a different phase of their financial life, were more focused on investing and paying off their debts. Developing good habits in college can make the transition to managing other financial obligations, like the debt and investments millennials reported wanting to prioritize, easier. 

When comparing college men and women, men were much more interested in investing their money, whereas women were focused on avoiding impulse purchases and maintaining a strict budget. A recent survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults regarding investment strategies and tendencies revealed that nearly three-quarters of men invested in the stock market, compared to just over half of women. The majority of men also preferred to manage their own investments, whereas women were more likely to use a financial adviser. Findings like these highlight how gender-based psychological differences can affect investments.

 

Not-So-Smart Decisions

While it’s important to build good habits early, there’s always the possibility for bumps in the road along the way. 

Budget categories where college students overspend

The budget categories that college students said they were most likely to overspend on were both food-related: dining out and grocery shopping. There are a few reasons why young people might go overboard with their food purchases. These include the pressure from social media to splurge on Instagram-worthy food, a lack of the time or know-how needed to cook for oneself, and the fact that dining out is a natural way to socialize and take a break from studying. This might, in part, explain why 51% of college students reported not saving any money month to month. Those who did make a point of putting money aside saved $142.30 monthly, on average. Additionally, over 83% of students reported getting financial help from their parents

Interestingly, 56% of students reported having at least one investment account. One trend to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been many young people getting their feet wet in the investment world. Fewer students (32.2%) said they’re currently saving for retirement, though. 

 

Money-Saving Motivations

Regardless of where people are in their financial life, there’s a good chance they have at least one thing they are saving up for at any given time. We looked at what current college students and millennials were squirreling away cash for. 

What college students and millennials are saving for

College student or millennial, both groups reported that saving for an emergency fund was a priority for them. Emergency funds are critical because their primary goal is to cover unexpected financial blows, which we know can happen at any time. 

Seeing as most millennials have probably already completed their college degrees, they were more likely to be saving for a much-needed break from their job in the form of a vacation, as well as putting money aside for retirement. 

Within the past year, 50.6% of college students said they’d gone off track with their financial plans and goals, likely due, in part, to the same negative financial implications of the pandemic that Americans of all ages have faced. Millennials had more budgeting woes than college students, but both had high rates of getting back on track.

 

A Very Large IOU

Student loans have likely been top of mind for current college students as COVID relief measures were instituted for borrowers and loan forgiveness made its way into mainstream news. We wanted to know how the past year has impacted current college students’ views on student debt.

Student loan status of current college students

Forty-two percent of the students we surveyed had student loans. Only 24.9% were actively paying them back, which might be expected as most don’t start repaying student loans until they have their degree in hand. However, experts recommend starting to pay them off as soon as possible, even before graduation. Seeing as over 45 million Americans have student debt, amounting to over $1.7 trillion dollars owed, it’s a burden that many are forced to deal with at some point.

Since the pandemic, there has been an uptick in the stress students are feeling about paying off their loans. The financial consequences of the pandemic have certainly not spared young people. Studies have shown that college students who graduate in the middle of a recession tend to deal with major income losses that can affect them in the long term. 

 

Future Finances

Zooming out, we wanted to explore college students’ feelings on their current financial situation, as well as their optimism about their financial future.

How college students and millennials feel about their finances

Only 16.1% of college students said they feel very or extremely confident in their current financial situation, compared to 32.7% of millennials. As we’ve mentioned, this difference could come down to being at different points in their life. Millennials have likely been out of college for a few years, meaning they may have steadier income and more of a financial foundation than college students. But with that extra life experience apparently comes more stress: Millennials were more likely than college students to be very or extremely stressed about their current finances. 

Looking ahead, 29.8% of college students said they’re very or extremely optimistic about their financial future, compared to 43.1% of millennials. Given the uncertainty of the economy and the job market as the country comes out of the pandemic, it’s not surprising that college students are feeling less optimistic than millennials. However, male college students were over two times more likely than their female peers to say they’re extremely optimistic. This isn’t necessarily surprising given that factors like gender pay gap keep women from accruing the same amount of wealth as men over their careers. 

 

Decisions, Decisions

It’s encouraging to see that many college students are motivated to create new revenue streams for themselves and limit their impulse purchasing. While both college students and millennials were interested in starting emergency funds, millennials had other pressing matters to finance for as well, like marriage and children.

Another thing we learned is that it’s hard to escape student debt, as many people need loans to finance their education. At CollegeFinance.com, we aim to help students navigate the sometimes overwhelming financing efforts that are needed to pursue a degree. Head to our website now to consult our many guides and tools for college students to help make the best decision when it comes to your educational experience.

 

Methodology

We surveyed 765 current college students and 203 millennials about their financial habits and goals. College student respondents were 57.5% female, 39.1% male, and 3% nonbinary. One respondent was transgender, one respondent was genderfluid, and one respondent didn’t disclose their gender. Millennial respondents were 66.3% male, 33.2% female, and 0.5% nonbinary. 

Questions on respondents’ financial goals, budget categories they are most likely to overspend on, and things they’re currently saving for were asked as check-all-that-apply questions. Therefore, percentages won’t add to 100. 

 

Limitations

The data we are presenting rely on self-report. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.

 

Fair Use Statement

Money management is a crucial skill for young people to grasp. If you know someone who might enjoy reading about the various saving strategies discussed, as well as our other findings, feel free to share it with them. We just ask that you do so for noncommercial use only and to provide a link back to the original page so contributors can earn credit for their work.