Guest post from SMU College Prep instructor Libby Magliolo

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that we should expect the unexpected. Besides the devastating health consequences of the pandemic, there were many secondary impacts that touched people’s financial lives — job loss, increased expenses, and other challenges. For current high school and college students, this was the second financial upheaval they have lived through, including the financial downturn of 2008 and the aftermath that followed.

But when it comes to personal finances, 2020 didn’t teach us any new personal finance lessons; rather, it reinforced tried and true advice we’ve known all along. It showed us how vitally important it is to follow advice like “live below your means” and “save money for a rainy day.” For today’s college students, the post-pandemic advice I would most strongly emphasize are these two things: know where every dollar goes and build up an emergency fund.

  1. Know Where Every Dollar Goes.

If I could boil down every piece of personal finance advice to just one, it would be this: know where you’re spending your money. This is the first step to making meaningful progress towards building a successful financial future. You need to understand your spending behaviors and where your money is going now before you can start changing those behaviors and divert your current spending towards other financial goals like saving for the future or paying down debt.

If you don’t have a good awareness of where you’re spending your money right now, it can be very easy to get into some bad financial habits, like accumulating credit card debt, or worse — missing credit card payments and overspending. Many college students graduate with not only thousands of dollars in student loan debt but credit card debt as well. The simple act of tracking your daily spending prevents this by bringing awareness to your spending patterns. A daily $4 iced coffee at Starbucks paid may not seem like much, but tracking this spending will clearly show you how that daily coffee can add up to hundreds of dollars a month and thousands of dollars a year.

I recommend all students download the Mint (or similar) app on their phone and connect their credit cards, debit cards and bank accounts to it. If you don’t have a credit or debit card, you can also track your cash. Check in on at least a weekly basis to see how much you’re spending in major budget categories (food, gas, entertainment, etc.) and adjust your spending according to your goals. If you don’t have financial goals yet, this is a great time to set some!

  1. Build an Emergency Fund.

The second piece of advice I would give to students is to build up some savings so that you’re financially prepared when an emergency or other unexpected expense comes up. When I was in college, some unexpected expenses were: a flat tire on the highway, a business suit for an interview, and a last-minute plane ticket home. Just know that unexpected things will always pop up, and it’s best to save for them ahead of time than stress and scramble later to figure out how to pay them off.

I like the “50/30/20 Budget” where you earmark 50% of your income to necessities, 30% to “wants” and 20% to savings. If you’re wondering how much to save, 20% of your income is a great place to start. Transferring money into a separate savings account helps that money grow interest and keeps it separate from regular, everyday spending money. Many students may struggle with the idea of money just sitting there in a savings account (and it can be hard not to spend that money!) but when an emergency comes up, you’ll be grateful. Having this money set aside also allows you to avoid relying on credit cards when an emergency pops up, and helps you sleep a little better at night knowing you’re financially prepared for an emergency.

Too often, students learn financial lessons the hard way – after making mistakes with their own money. Learning these two skills – tracking your money and setting up an emergency fund – will put students on the path towards a good financial foundation.

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Libby Magliolo is a training and development professional at Southwest Airlines who is passionate about personal finance education for pre-college students. She teaches Money Matters workshops for SMU College Prep