Savvy Freshman Guide to Money

It’s always in the media that students are taking on large amounts of student loan debt. How can I minimize my debt load?

  • Always Complete the FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid

    It's how you get grants, low-interest federal student loans, and some scholarships. Do it online at Remember that you will need your parents' tax information. You can use the IRS data retrieval process to make this process easier. Do this as close to Jan. 1st as possible because some need is first-come, first-serve.

  • UNL will inform you what grants, federal loans, and scholarships you qualify for. This information will be posted on MyRed. If you need to take out loans, remember to take out the SUBSIDIZED student loans (loans you DO NOT pay interest on while you're in school) before you tap into the UNSUBSIDIZED loans (the loans you do pay interest on while you're in school.)

  • Consider Federal Loans First

    You can also consider Parent Plus Loans and Private Loans. However, federal loans have many advantages over private loans, including:
    • Low, fixed interest rates
    • 6-month grace period during which no payments are due
    • Income-based repayment options
    • Ways to lower or postpone payments
    • Loan forgiveness programs (teachers, public service workers)
    • Deferment options, especially if you return to school

    In contrast, private loans: historically, have higher interest rates; repayment periods differ; usually there are no repayment options; usually there is no way to lower or postpone payments; there are no forgiveness programs; and usually there are no deferment options.

  • Stop & Consider!

    Don't make one of the 3 most common mistakes UNL students make with their financial aid!

    • Only Borrow What’s Necessary
      Student loans should only cover necessary costs like tuition, books, and school supplies!

    • Lower Interest Payments
      If you have the money, make interest payments on unsubsidized loans while you’re still in school! You can make payments on your loan servicer's website. If you don't know who your student loan servicer is, go to to find out.

    • Complete the FAFSA Every Year & Apply for Scholarships!
      You never know what free money you're going to get!

    Resource: Student Loan Advisor Calculator provides you with an estimate of the amount of educational debt you can reasonably afford, given the expected starting salary for your major.

If I don't want to be in debt forever, how much debt should I take out?

  • Financial experts suggest that student plan for:

    • No more than 10% - 15% of the expected monthly gross income from your first job going for repayment of all loans - including student loans.
    • If you go over 15% of your income going towards debt payments, that means you probably won’t be able to afford car payments.
    • 20% is the start of the "danger zone" when loan debt is out of control.

    A good rule of thumb is that for the Stafford Loan, the manageable debt load is about the same as your starting salary.

    Resource: Student Loan Advisor Calculator provides you with an estimate of the amount of educational debt you can reasonably afford, given the expected starting salary for your major.

Tips for Reducing Debt Load

Following are some great tips for current UNL students, in alphabetical order.

Apply for Scholarships From UNL Every Year
"It's crazy not to apply. You never know what free money you can get. The general scholarship form can be found on MyRed beginning on November 1. This form is due February 1st for current undergraduate students. Also apply for scholarships through your own college."

Avoid Paying Student Loan Interest
"I make sure all my friends, and myself, max out our subsidized loans before using unsubsidized loans."

Become an RA
"Free room and board baby! It's a good deal."

Consider Tuition Reimbursement Programs
"If you have a job, make sure you ask your employer if they offer education benefits. Some companies will give you money. Also, consider the Army ROTC. They offer scholarships and monthly living allowances. Another great program is Americorps, which offers you the opportunity to work for a public service program and get an educational award."

Consider Working for an Apartment Complex
"I work for my apartment complex. I do maintenance 15 hours per week and get free rent plus a little income."

Curb Impulse Spending by Creating Financial Goals
"If you need to save for tuition, determine how much you will need and when you will need it. Divide this amount by the number of months you have left to save. This number will show you just how much money you need to save each month to reach your financial goal."

Do Consider Loans for Study Abroad
"I was hesitant to use loans for a study abroad trip, but it was the best experience. I combined my loans with scholarships, plus I saved up money for 2 years before I went, so I didn't dig myself into a huge debt hole."

Don't Forget to Apply for Private Scholarships
"I love I've gotten 2 scholarships through that website and didn't have to go through a lot of work for them. I also got a scholarship from the company my dad works for."

Don't Take on Additional Debt While in School
"Stay away from credit cards unless you pay the balance off each month. Spring break might sound like a good reason to use credit, but you'll regret it in the future!"

Don't Rush, But Try to Get Through School in a Reasonable Amount of Time
"Start earning a regular salary as soon as you can. Don't waste time living on loans & charging up interest!"

Live at Home if You Can
"If you and your parents agree this is a good option, do it! Make sure you sit down and create some ground rules."

Live Like a College Student!
"We're all broke! Make sure you don't try to spend money like you've already made it. I shop at sales, search for free furniture, split rent with a roommate, and cook meals at home. I make saving money a game."

Lower Student Loan Interest Payments
"If you have the money, make interest payments on unsubsidized loans while you're still in school. That's what I do so I have less debt when I graduate."

Save Money on Weekends
"Weekends are when most UNL students waste their money. But going out doesn''t have to be expensive. I recommend taking $20 cash out and not spending more than that. There's no reason to with so many free events happening at UNL all the time!"

The Easiest Way to Make Money is to Save What You Have
"Create a spending plan to see in what areas you are overspending. I stopped buying coffee, and by spending just $3 less a day, I saved over $1,000 this year. is an automatic budgeting program that has saved my life!"

Try to Pick Your Major Early in Your UNL Career
"Switching majors is costly. You can end up taking lots of classes you don't need and we all know how expensive classes are. Visit Career Services. They can help you pick the major that's right for you."

Pass Your Classes!
"This should be obvious, but it's worth reminding people that retaking classes is expensensive and can delay your graduation."

Start Your Own Business
"Find something you're good at and can make you lots of money. One of my friends owns his own DJ business and makes lots of money. The SMMC can help you get started."

Work Extra Hours Over School Breaks
"Places like list companies that are hiring seasonal workers. Check it out to see if any of the companies interest you."

Work Part-Time
"I think 10-15 hours each week is enough for most students. My job not only helps me earn a little extra cash, but I'm gaining marketable skills that will help you to get a great job after college. Plus, I get to network with people who can help me find a full-time job after college. Try to find jobs that will fit both your interests and your chosen career field."

So, my financial aid will go to UNL for my tuition and room & board. How will I pay for other expenses, like school supplies?

  • Getting a Refund Check

    If you borrow more than you have to pay in to UNL, you will receive a refund check. You can get your refund check deposited directly in your bank account (which you can set up in MyRed). If you don't set up direct deposit, you'll get an actual paper check.

  • What should you do with your refund check?

    Most students SAVE IT! They put it in a savings account and only transfer it over to their checking account when they need to pay their necessary bills. UNL Student Billing Cycle

  • Another Option: Some students that receive subsidized student loans - loans that you DO NOT pay interest on while you're in school - choose to keep their refund check and start an emergency fund that they can use if unexpected expenses come up, such as car repairs.

How do I know how much money I’ll need each year?

Expected Expenses per Academic Year
Note: Expenses will vary from student to student.

  • Parking Permit: $400
  • Textbooks: $1,000
  • Sport Tickets: $300
  • Laundry: $320
  • Cellphone: $630
  • School Supplies (printer ink): $250
  • Gas: $300
  • Unnecessary - Eating Out: $430
  • Unnecessary - Entertainment: $540
  • Unnecessary - Clothing/Personal Items: $540
  • Unnecessary - Student organization/Greek fees: $300
  • TOTAL: $5,010
  • An easy way to control your spending is to use a spending plan - a way of ensuring your income is equal to or more than your expenses. Spending plans also help you avoid overspending by helping you preventing or limiting unnecessary spending.

  • For example, the SMMC had 2 roommates track their spending for a week. One roommate had a budget after her major expenses and one roommate did not and spent her money however she wanted. Here's a comparison of their spending.

First Roommate with a Spending Plan

  • Monday: Gas, Groceries = $55

  • Tuesday: Coffee = $4
    Choice: skipped a concert with friends

  • Wednesday: Pop & candy bar = $2
    Choice: took the bus to East Campus

  • Thursday: Movie = $9
    Choice: Didn’t get popcorn and pop

  • Friday: Dinner for friend's birthday = $12
    Choice: Didn’t order dessert

  • Saturday: Fast food lunch, Food for party = $21

  • Sunday: Shopping for new shirt = $30
    Choice: Decided to pass on the $50 trendy shirt

  • TOTAL: $133

Second Roommate without a Spending Plan

  • Monday: Breakfast at gas station = $4

  • Tuesday: Parking ticket, Ate out for lunch, Bought present for Mom = $61

  • Wednesday: Gas, Ate out for lunch, Rented movies, Groceries = $79

  • Thursday: Coffee, Yoga class = $19

  • Friday: Takeout for dinner, Trip to Target for toiletries - Got clothing & candles also = $64

  • Saturday: Movie & snack = $15

  • Sunday: Laundry = $5

  • TOTAL: $247

By having a plan, the first roommate spent $114 less than her roommate, which adds up to over $5,000 saved each year, just by having a spending plan.

For free, automatic budgeting software, try, a budgeting program that is popular with UNL students.

Some Tips for Reducing Unnecessary Expenses include:

  • Eating Out = $430
    Use your meal plan. If you move off campus, learn how to cook!

  • Entertainment = $540
    Always take advantage of free UNL events. Learn how to handle peer pressure. If your friends want to spend money on entertainment, but you don't have the money, remember that it's okay to say no.

  • Clothing and Personal Items = $540
    It's important to understand your wants vs. needs. Take 5 minutes and make a list of what you really need and what you just want. Limit spending on your want.

  • Student organization and Greek fees = $300
    UNL alums suggest only joining 2 or 3 organizations and devoting your time & energy to make those activities worth your time.

Should I start planning for expenses I'll have in a year or two, like studying abroad expenses?

  • Yes!
    It's important to develop financial goals so you don't miss out on opportunities, such as studying abroad. Additionally, financial goals can help you achieve larger life goals, such as buying a house, buying a car, or going to graduate school.

  • Also, financial goals can help students prevent overspending. Without goals, daily spending on unimportant things can keep students from achieving the really important things in life.

  • A good way to go about setting financial goals is to determine how much total money you'll need, how many months you have to save, and how much you'll need to save each month. For example, a student that wishes to study abroad the summer after their Junior year and is saving for their plane ticket and miscellaneous expenses - $2,000 - will need to start saving around $55 each month.

  • Some Common UNL Student Financial Goals include:

    • Graduate Debt Free

    • Go to Grad School

    • Get a Car - Used – US Average

    • Live Off Campus - 3 years – Rent & Utilities

    • Go on Study Abroad Trip - Summer Programs

What are some other things UNL students can do to avoid wasting money?

  • Read Your Banking/Credit Union Account Contracts

    UNL students waste lots of money on financial account fees. The best thing to do to prevent this is to read your bank or credit union contract and know what you need to do to prevent fees.

  • Some items to pay attention to:

    • Overdraft fees. For example, some are $35 per day.

    • Transfer fees. For example, there are fees if you transfer from savings to checking too often.

    • ATM fees. For example, some fees for using another bank’s ATM are $4 per transaction.

  • Prevent Identity Theft!

    Best Tip: Copy the front & back of all your credit and debit cards and keep the copies in a safe location. You will have the customer care numbers handy in case you lose your card and have to call it in lost. If there are unauthorized transactions and you don't report it lost, the liability for a credit card is $50 and $500 for a debit card.

  • Have Adequate Insurance

    • Health Insurance - Make sure if you aren't covered by your parents' health plan, get at least a basic health plan.

    • Renter's Insurance - Consider renter's insurance to cover the items you bring to your dorm. You can add the policy onto your family's existing polices. Nebraska average is around $150.

    • Auto Insurance - Remember your rates will rise if you get tickets or are in accidents, so be careful driving!

Do I need a credit card?

  • Not Necessarily! Following are some reasons why some UNL students have a credit card:

    • They want to have it in case of emergencies. However, a cash emergency fund can work instead.

    • They want to start building a credit score. For example, if they want a mortgage or car loan when they’re a Junior or Senior.

    • They understand the importance of credit scores.

  • However, experts say: Better to have no credit than to come away from college with a ruined credit score!

  • New Credit Card Laws
    You do have have to be over 21 to get a credit card OR have a co-signer (someone who agrees to pay your bills if you do not) OR be able to prove you have enough income to pay your bills.

  • Why Is a Good Credit Score Important?
    Your credit score is an indicator of your use and repayment of borrowed money over time - a numerical value ranging from 300 to 850 - average of 700. If you have a low score, you will pay more for mortgages, loans, and insurance, and may be prevented from getting an apartment, and in some cases, even a job.
    FICO: Understanding Your Credit Score

  • For example, a SMMC representative had her credit score checked for the following jobs while she was in college: Bank Teller, Leasing Consultant for Apartment Company, and Marketing Assistant for Retail Management Company.

  • Would you be a good credit user? Do you have the following characteristics of a good credit user?
    • Have the self discipline to live within your means
    • Are not an impulse buyer
    • Can pay your bills in full each month to avoid wasting money on interest
    • Can pay your bills on time – #1 thing to do to build a credit score
    • If you do carry a balance, know to only use 30% OR LESS of the credit available
    • Know not to open too many accounts too quick – Only have 1 or 2 and work on building a good account history
  • What to Look for in a Credit Card
    • Look for a low APR
    • If there are low “teaser” interest rates, know what the rate will jump to after the introductory period
    • Know the grace period
    • Know about all the fees, including late fees, over-the-limit fees, and annual fees
    • Important: Financial experts often suggest having no more than 1 or 2 credit cards – including store credit cards
  • Monitor Your Credit Report
    Credit scores being with the information from your credit report. Make sure this information is correct by requesting your report from

What do I need to discuss with my parents before I get to campus?

Some Good Discussion Topics include:

  • If your parents are providing you income. If so, how much and when will you get this income (monthly, weekly).

  • If your parents want you to work and how much.

  • How your UNL student bill will be paid. Are your parents paying it? Are you paying it?

  • The details about your health, renters, and auto insurance.

  • If your parents want you to use credit. If so, in what situations.

  • If using your NCard to charge items around campus, how much your parents want you to charge each month and who will pay for those charges.