A young female student using a cellphone and credit card outside on campus
Personal Finance

5 expert tips for managing money as a first-year student

Use these practical pointers to develop smart spending and savings habits when attending university

A young female student using a cellphone and credit card outside on campusTaking advantage of student offers, such as grocery store discount days, can help students stay on budget (Getty Images/PeopleImages)

Going to university for the first time is an exciting leap in life. It’s also when many young people first experience the challenge of managing money independently. 

“It’s very important to create and establish that healthy relationship with your money, because we know money runs through every facet of our life,” says CPA Vanessa Bowen, creator of women-focused financial service firm, Mint Worthy. “Your relationship with money will determine every decision you make.”

If you’re just starting your post-secondary studies, here are some tips to set yourself up for financial success.


Getting a part-time job is an obvious way to bring in more money. But you should also put effort into researching and applying for grants and scholarships that you may qualify for.

As a student you are likely on a budget. But Bowen says saving a small amount goes a long way to developing lifelong money behaviours. 

“Even if it's just $20 a month, it’s creating the habit that’s going to do more than the dollar amount,” she says. While the transition from living with parents to being on your own can be tricky, says Bowen, learning to save is one major milestone with a positive lasting impact.


Universities often try to help students streamline daily processes—especially for first-year students—with options such as meal plans. But Bowen says you still need to be cognizant of spending patterns with these programs. Because you are not actually exchanging cash for goods, the amount spent on a meal card can add up quickly—just like with a credit card. 

“People think, ‘Oh, I've got the meal card, so I’m just going to swipe it,” she says. “But then you have to keep reloading it.” Which brings us to budgeting.


Students can now easily keep track of spending and saving with savvy budgeting apps. CPA Natalie Taub, a recent graduate and associate at BDO, says she and her former roommates often relied on the app Splitwise to help divvy up shared costs and alert each other to who had outstanding fees. 

Systems such as these not only helped Taub and her friends keep on track financially, but the technology also helped add some diplomacy to the process. “Instead of having an awkward conversation, you could prompt the app’s email reminder notifications,” she explains. “It’s less personal and people respond better.”


There are many ways to cut costs from buying used text books to carpooling to save on parking. You can also evaluate your accommodation options, and assess whether living at home is an option or sharing with a roommate. 

Taking advantage of student offers, such as grocery store discount days, can also help you stay on budget. “I always went grocery shopping on those discounted days,” says Taub, who also shopped in the morning to ensure first pick of the best items. 

Saving and budgeting is hard for many people, says Taub, especially students who are gaining independence for the first time and faced with significant expenses. But it’s important to start with small steps. “It’s so important to build that habit from the beginning of your independent life,” she says. 


Looking back on her own university career, Bowen regrets not using personal time to become more financially literate. “I wish I would have taken some time to increase my own money knowledge,” she says. “You’re already in study mode.” 

Dedicating even one hour a week to financial education will go a long way, Bowen says. Simple things like reading financial blogs, listening to podcasts or checking out online resources and money management worksheets are great ways to start. [CPA Canada has lots of great online resources to help strengthen your financial capability.]

“It's not about waiting until you graduate, or you have a career,” she says. “You're [already] an adult and it's time to have that mindset.”


For some smart approaches to managing your money, read A Canadian’s guide to money-smart living.   

Plus, try this interactive questionnaire that covers money basics, learn how to keep your budget on track with these worksheets, including a financial fitness self-assessment and document organizer. And stay up-to-date on the latest financial literacy issues, tips and trends with CPA Canada’s Mastering money podcast.