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Avoid the Freshman 15


“15” (Photo credit: Lincolnian (Brian))

It’s that time of year again when students either embark on a new journey from high school to college or return to undergrad studies from their freshman, sophomore, or junior summer into a new year of college. It’s also the time when bad habits, if left unmonitored, can result in what’s called the Freshman 15 – debt and weight gain.

Historically, the Freshman 15 meant that a student settled down in college and in the first few months gained weight due to poor eating habits, stress, and perhaps alcohol consumption after turning 21.

Today, I’ve expanded the Freshman 15 to also mean 15% – of credit card debt. Like consuming food, consuming money and on credit can lead to bad habits and have negative consequences.

I can remember when I was a freshman in college and the credit card offers came pouring in. What an amazing display of copywriting! It was as if these credit card offers were written for me and me only. The print seemed to understand my situation, the words made perfect sense. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the credit card companies pay their copywriters hundreds of thousands of dollars to write that copy. Why? Because it sells. And sell me it did.

Long story short, had I not caught myself I would still be in credit card debt – at a rate of 15%.

So how does a person avoid the 15? Here are some simple steps that can make it easier to avoid the added weight and interest.

  1. Pay yourself first. It doesn’t matter if you get student loans, scholarships, work study or grants, put a little bit aside and save that money. You’ll be surprised at what effect it has on your behavior. As that amount grows you’ll want to save more and spend less.
  2. Carefully consider (as many times as you have to) applying for a credit card. Ask yourself why you need it. It doesn’t mean credit cards are bad, but if you don’t need one don’t apply. Chances are if you have to buy something on credit you couldn’t buy with cash, you can’t afford it.
  3. Talk to your parents about credit. They know more than you think.
  4. Parents – talk to your kids about credit. They’ll listen more than you think.
  5. Establish a budget.
  6. Avoid dining out as much as possible.
  7. Go grocery shopping when you’re full, not when you’re hungry. You’re less likely to buy food you don’t need when you’re full.
  8. If you get a credit card, consider a card with no annual fees, and a low credit limit – just for emergencies.
  9. If you get a credit card, pay off your balance monthly. Never spend more than you can pay off in one month.
  10. Have an accountability partner. Typically this could be your parents that have access to your account and can help monitor and ask questions. In many cases, parents cosign for their childrens’ first credit card.
  11. Establish a schedule. Most college students have their class schedules for the semester. Consider working around that schedule to plan meals at the school’s cafeteria or pack a lunch and snacks if you’ll be on campus and away from your dorm or apartment most of the day. This will help reduce the urge to binge eat and spend when you’re hungry.
  12. Go home for holidays and breaks. You’ll appreciate the good food (and bed) you once got for free.
  13. Join the college’s gym. Most colleges have their exercise facilities for students free of charge or for a small fee and generally the hours are more than accommodating.
  14. Walk or bike to class. If you have to drive, park as far away as possible and walk. Usually parking farther away means no parking meters. Use the time walking or riding to enjoy an audio book or recorded lecture from class.
  15. Take an exercise or nutrition class. You have to get these credits anyway, might as well use them to your advantage.

Remember that when college is finished most students and parents may have considerable student loan debt. It makes no sense to compound that with more debt through credit cards. Use those four years in college to establish good eating and spending habits and you’ll be that much more prepared for success after you graduate.

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