College Student Finances and First-Aid Kits

It’s less than four weeks now until Rob leaves for college. There are two ways I am currently finishing that sentence, and the alternation between the two is fairly rapid:

1. …and he grows up and moves away and remembers only the times we were bad at parenting and only visits his spouse’s family.

2. …and I am pleased to see preparations are getting done one after another despite me feeling as if the number of things to be done was insurmountable.

Our most recent accomplishment was figuring out how he’ll handle money. He needs to have access to his personal savings and also to his college savings, but without getting them mixed up; and there are still many expenses we’ll be paying for; and we would like to put something in place for “emergencies” despite being unable to think of any examples of emergencies we wouldn’t be able to handle over the phone, over the internet, or by driving there.

We were hindered in this decision by being a little behind the times, financially-speaking: I haven’t used a debit card before; I pay bills by writing/mailing physical checks; the only “online baking” I do is transferring money between checking and savings; I don’t do any banking with my phone. Meanwhile, Rob is taking photos of his paychecks with his phone to deposit them, and doesn’t even have a checkbook. So we talked with him about what he thought would work in These Modern Times, and also about what he’d find easiest and most comfortable, and together we came up with this plan:

1. His current bank does not have any branches or ATMs where he’s going. I found out which banks had ATMs on campus, and one of them has branches here in town. He’ll open a student account with that bank and move his money there, closing his old account after that’s all set.

2. He’ll keep his personal money in his checking account, and spend it using his debit card and/or by withdrawing cash from the ATM.

3. He’ll keep his college savings in his savings account, and each semester we’ll discuss how much of it to use to pay tuition.

4. He’ll apply for a credit card with no annual fees and no other costs if it’s paid off in full each month. If he is approved, he will use this credit card for books and other miscellaneous college expenses of the sort that aren’t covered by the tuition bill. And he can use it in situations where he can’t use his debit card but can use a credit card, if those occur. The card will be in his name and will come to our address and we will pay it in full each month; he will reimburse us from his personal account for any non-school expenses he charges (the hope is that that will be rare). Meanwhile, the card will be working to build his credit, and it will be soothing his parents by being available for unknown emergencies. At some point, we will transfer full responsibility for the card over to him.


This took HOURS. If right now you’re thinking anything that starts with “Why don’t you just…?,” I think it’s safe to say that someone thought of it and that someone else had a reason they didn’t like it. “Why doesn’t he just have two accounts?” “Why don’t you just do a joint account?” “Why don’t you just transfer his college savings to your account?” “Why don’t you just use a pre-paid card?” “Why don’t you just use the campus account?” “Why don’t you just keep some money in the bank account for emergencies?” “Why doesn’t he just handle the credit card payments himself?” Forgive me in advance for virtually muzzling you, but you will have to trust me that all three people involved have with great effort come to this decision, and that it would not be helpful to disrupt it. I suppose I can conceive of a situation in which one of you, someone with kids currently or recently in college, might say, “WAIT!!! You need to know something we learned the hard way!!” But otherwise: this is what we’re starting with, and all the parts of the decision are changeable if any parts of it turn out not to work for us.

Also! I have had some fun putting together a little first-aid kit for him. Target had a deal where if you bought three first-aid supplies you got a free cute little kit, bright red with a plus-sign on it! But I correctly guessed that Rob would find that embarrassing. Instead I bought him an oversized pencil box from the school-supply section. Then I bought these things:

1. an assorted-sizes box of Band-aids
2. antibiotic ointment
3. hydrocortisone cream
4. Benadryl tablets
5. ibuprofen tablets
6. cough syrup
7. cough drops
8. Tums
9. there might be something else I’m forgetting

It all fit in the box, after a few Tetris-reminiscent tries.

55 thoughts on “College Student Finances and First-Aid Kits

  1. Rachel

    You should look into YNAB – “You need a budget” software. This is going to sounds like a commercial, but I swear it is not. I just use it and I love it and I WISH I had it in college. It is FREE for college students! I won’t go into details but you/your son should check it out. Their website is really informative.

    My kid is only 1, but I have loved reading your perspective on this whole process. Sounds like you are both really prepared and even if the list doesn’t get completely finished, it will be ok.

    1. Beth

      Agree about YNAB! It is a great tool and I wish I had had it college, too. Curse you, Macy’s! For luring me into getting a Macy’s card when I was a jobless student, leading me down of a path of credit card debt that took decades to overcome!

    2. Rachel

      Hopefully the absence of the “just” in my “you should” sentence makes my comment less pushy. I realized reading through the comments that it was a little ironic the the first comment did exactly what you said was unnecessary :)

      1. Corinne

        “You should” is way different than “Why don’t you just”
        People who start sentences with “Why don’t you just” must like to be friendless and unloved.

      2. Swistle Post author

        I agree with Corinne: there is a WORLD of difference between “Why don’t you just…?” and “Oh! You should consider….”

        A WORLD.

  2. Alice

    My college gave us little first aid kits as part of the dorm supplies. The only thing I remember it containing was a centigrade thermometer. I’m in the US, and was attending a US state school. I think they must have been trying to make a point about science. Or they had a million of them left over from an odd purchase in history.

    Since it was a perfectly good, working thermometer, I kept it for years and on the rare occasions that I thought I might have a fever, I dug it out, dug out the equation, and did the math to find out if I was sick. It was a pain in the neck. We now have a touch-free digital read-out thermometer that we got for the baby. It is MUCH easier to use.

    And it provides results in both Farenheit and centigrade, if I ever happen to miss seeing centigrade readings for things….

    1. yasmara

      Yes, I would add a thermometer (and make sure he can use it correctly & that it has working batteries) as well as an anti-fungal cream for athlete’s foot (shared showers!).

          1. Swistle Post author

            Yes, I’m sneaking a box of condoms into the bin with shampoo/soap/razors! That’ll be a fun little surprise!

  3. Kacie Meixell

    The first aid kit note reminds me of the “dorm survival kit” that my mom makes for high school grads. She includes simple first aid supplies, but also stuff like a small picture hanging kit/command strips, a cheap hammer, screwdriver, pliers (she used to get these at the Dollar Store, but I think she might get them on Amazon now), a doorstop (such a great thing to have if you are social!), extension cord/surge protector, plus random office supplies like a stapler, white out, scotch tape, etc.

    Not only were these items often forgotten in the madness that is deciding how much of your life you need to pack for college, they are also a great icebreaker for floormates – we had people ducking in our room all the time to borrow our tools!

    1. Sarah!

      I impressed some guy’s (slightly condescending) dad in my dorm one year because I was the only one on the floor with a tool kit. My hammer was popular on loft-the-beds and un-loft-the-bed days. Definitely recommend a basic tool kit, with name on each piece!

  4. Katie

    I think your financial plan sounds fantastic and I’m incredibly grateful that you three worked this out for me to keep in my back pocket in a few years.

    Also, I find most sentences that start with “Why don’t you just…” are unhelpful and dismissive and no matter how brilliant the idea may be, I want to reply with “Why don’t YOU just shut your piehole.”

  5. liz

    My feeling is that if any tweaking needs to be done, you will find out during the first semester and sit down and tweak over the winter break.

    Mir Kamin has a (overly?) inclusive list of things to put in a First Aid Kit if you’re feeling like you want to do therapeutic shopping over his impending departure. But I think your kit looks perfect.

  6. Alison

    Very sensible financial plan! It sounds similar to what I did, with some specific tweaks for my family/situation/the time. It will work out, and you guys will adjust as needed, and yay for figuring out finances before dropping him off!

  7. Suzanne

    Excellent plan and I love the first aid kit!

    In case you need something else to buy… One of my favorite graduation gifts was a tool kit. It came in handy so often throughout college and then in my first apartment.

    1. Natalie

      Also an excellent suggestion! Small hammer, screwdrivers, some allen wrenches, maybe some thumb tacks/pushpins, scotch tape, command hooks. The possibilities are endless.

      1. Sarah

        Ikea has a great tool kit. My dad gave me one, and then after my husband “borrowed” it. I bought myself another one!

  8. Kara

    I’d include Vicks, Pepto & condoms in the first aid kit. However, the school I went to (State University, public, liberal state) had condoms all over the place, available for the taking if this makes you uncomfortable. Pepto, because I like it better than Tums, especially for hangovers. Vicks, because I like it when I have a cold. It’s comforting, even if it’s not really doing anything.

    Tweezers and nail clippers, unless they fall into personal hygiene in your opinion and are stored elsewhere.

  9. JMV

    I find conversations about “how to do” finances with my husband annoying, frustrating, and mind-boggling. The solution was separate accounts and separate responsibilities for certain family bills. I can only imagine how taxing this convo will be when we add our daughter to the conversation.

    I think of Swistle as so forward leaning with tech; I’m amazed that I do online banking in advance of Swistle! She’s on Twitter for which I can’t seem to find a reason to sign up. She uses a feed, which I never really found helpful. Swistle seems to think about YouTubing how to videos where I would be more inclined to phone a friend. I had to google/wiki mindcraft, shopkins, candy crush, Pokémon go. Often I read this blog and think, “Jesus, I’m not yet 40 and I’m so far behind the times.” There may be hope for me yet!

    1. Alice

      My only surprise was that she’s never used a debit card. I’ve been using one since at least the 90’s, mainly to get cash out of ATMs. Which actually does lead me to a “consider if you want to” bit of advice– in my everyday life now, I use either a credit card or cash for purchases. I’ve never had my debit card number stolen, but– if you debit card number is stolen, they can empty the account. At least with a credit card, you can dispute the charges with the credit card company. If you don’t want Rob to use a credit card except for emergencies, I’d actually at least verbally encourage him to run on cash as much as he can.

      1. Swistle Post author

        Oh—I DO use my bank card at the ATM to get cash. But I think of it then as “my bank card” or “my ATM card.” I haven’t used it as a debit card to make purchases at a store.

        1. Maureen

          I’ve never used my bank card as a debit card either! I am afraid of what Alice mentioned, that someone could empty my bank account.

  10. thefluter

    I think your financial plan is genius! I wish my parents had talked to me about credit cards and started one with/for me. Instead I got my first card because they were giving out free t-shirts at my college campus if you signed up — which gave you TWO different credit cards. “Oh, you can just cancel them or one if you want,” said the credit card company. gee, thanks, that’s really financially sound advice.

  11. Ruby

    This isn’t exactly a first-aid item, but when I was in college my mom sent me a care package that included a box of safety pins. When I asked why she’d included them, she said, rather ominously, “You’ll need them at some point.” And I DID end up needing them! All the time!

  12. Maggie

    I have no suggestions or advice I just wanted to say thank you so much for this entire series of going to college posts. Oldest is a freshman in HS this year and while college seems ages away, I know it isn’t and there are so many things in these posts that I hadn’t even thought of, and it will be so nice to have at place to start when our time comes.

  13. Elizabeth

    I just want to say, this is amazing and you are so prepared. When I went to college, oh gosh, THIRTEEN years ago now, our financial plan was: no plan. I I had a scholarship so tuition wasn’t an issue, but for room and board, books, etc., I think the school just sent a bill to my mom, who then sent it to my dad. I didn’t work my first year, but I recall I had some savings from working in high school and I used that for everything else.

    1. Shari

      Exactly what I was going to say! Also a couple of those dry packets of Pedialyte that can be mixed with water. But I’m an over-preparer.

  14. Emily

    I love your plan, because it puts so much of an emphasis on letting Rob make his own financial decisions. When I went to college, my parents paid for EV.ER.Y.THING, which was AMAZING but A) didn’t help me understand or prepare for anything remotely budgetary/financial for myself when the time came and B) kind of makes me feel guilty that I won’t be able to do the same when my kids go to college (THEY’RE GOING TO NEED LOANS). But anyway, what I wanted to say was that I think this is the perfect mix of letting him budget his own money and yet, being involved enough as a parent to be able to see where some money is going and therefore maybe steer him in a better direction.

  15. JenniferB

    If you’re comfortable asking your pediatrician or family or any doctor, request a prescription for Zofran dissolvable tablets. It’s super handy to have a few of these immediately on hand if a vomitous GI bug hits. Last semester, my daughter woke up feeling nauseated, vomited while we were texting, and still elected to attend class. After leaving class three times to puke, I begged her to return to her room and take one of the tablets I’d carefully included in her first aid kit. I explained it’s magical ability to cause immediate cessation of said vomiting. She reported having misplaced those a previous semester and had to make her way to the school clinic where she was left in an exam room where she waited alone, vomiting every ten minutes for 2.5 hours, until the doc finally came in and gave her….a Zofran tablet…and she hobble-crawled back to her dorm room…

    During move-in day, I secretly taped an envelope inside my daughter’s closet – up high on the wall above the door where it was only visible from inside the closet – containing a multi-purpose “buck up/I’m sorry you’re having a tough day/thinking of you/hang in there” greeting card containing forty dollars cash and a ten dollar doughnut/coffee shop gift card. I waited until she was in both a funk and a bind (but either would have worked) one day (and my texts & suggestions weren’t helping), to tell her about the existence of the envelope. I got to be a hero for a few minutes and she felt better and it was nice.

    1. Tommie

      This comment made me laugh. I so often lament that fact that I don’t proofread my posts/comments nearly well enough and am often haunted by mistakes that can’t be quickly, easily fixed. Thanks for this.

    2. Swistle Post author

      This is something I could fix. But your follow-up comment was so amusing, I’m reluctant to do so, since then I’d have to delete the second comment, which I love and identify with.

  16. Gigi

    I agree with whoever above said you will figure out where you need to tweak your system in the first semester.

    I’m very impressed with your preparations for his impending departure – and am sending you a virtual hug because I know it’s hard.

    And as for the worry that he will only remember the bad bits of parenting…turns out, at least in my experience, that they seem to remember the better days more than the days we were crazy.

  17. Katie

    The system you have with Rob is the same system I had in college with my parents (except the credit card was just a second card for my moms account). It worked totally fine. I never ran into a situation where I needed money and couldn’t access any. The main emergency I had was buying a bunch of first aid supplies one time I needed stitches and for taking cabs (ie when I was going home at night and it was dark and sketchy). My point is that it’s a very workable system.

  18. Trudee

    Why don’t you just … reward yourself with something awesome because that plan sounds really solid! :) I have nothing much to add except to say that the first sentence finisher reminds me of my mother’s experience. When I left for university, my mom had an unexpected depression (for lack of a better term). My mom wasn’t a helicopter parent and was otherwise fine (and had my sibling to care for/distract her). But it hit her hard after I left for school, and she wasn’t expecting it. So I guess I would just say that, once you’re done prepping Rob, don’t forget to take care of yourself.

  19. Sarah!

    This is basically the system my parents and I had, except dad paid my tuition so that wasn’t in my accounts (and is something I am thankful for every single month that I don’t have to pay student loans!!!).

    See if the new bank has a student credit card- that’s how I got my first one with minimal credit. Thanks to my textbooks-and-parent-instructed-expenses card, I had an awesomely high credit score when I graduated and needed to actually do stuff without a cosigner.

    Maybe you could look up the phone number for the student health center and a 24/7 urgent care to include in the first aid kit? Also maybe a photocopy of the health insurance card in case he needs the numbers off it.

  20. Anne

    I love everything here. Thank you once again.
    Does this mean you get to keep the free cute little kit, bright red with a plus-sign on it for your own bathroom/car/other place it could be useful?

  21. KP

    That plan sounds perfect. I’m so glad you’re getting him a credit card – I didn’t get one till I was 21 and the short length of time I’d had credit hurt my credit score for years.

    Pro tip: if the debit card has the Visa or MasterCard symbol on it, you can usually use it even when placed don’t take debit. He can just tell them to run it as a credit card (or hand it over and let them assume). I don’t fully understand why that works, but I promise it won’t change anything vis a vis his accounts.

    The one exception I can think of is rental cars. They put a large hold on debit cards. But I can’t imagine that will be relevant for a while yet.

  22. Jd

    You can save some of these things for care packages. My mom mailed me completely random boxes of stuff about once a month. While many of her selections were confusing/random it made me feel loved.

  23. suburbancorrespondent

    We were on vacation for 2 weeks in Maine right before my eldest started college (and we didn’t even know he’d be starting until one week into that, because we were waiting for a ROTC medical waiver to come through). So we got home with exactly 36 hours to get ready. That was a really fun day, I’ll tell you that. Realizing at 4 PM that we needed to get to the bank and set up an online account and realizing that he didn’t have a cellphone of his own yet (this was 2009, people) and handing him mine in desperation – good times, I’ll tell you. The only thing I did right was buying the bed linens online back in July. At least THOSE were sitting there, all ready to go, when we got home from Maine.

    And, yeah, they do show up again. The one I’m talking about is sitting in my living room right now, after four years of college and four years as an Army officer. But don’t worry, he’s not planning to stay. ;)

  24. JP

    Wow! You are such a wealth of information. I hope you know how appreciated your well thought out explanations are. I wish I’d had some guidance like this when my stepson was off to college (or when I was!).

  25. Julia

    I don’t know where Rob is going to school, but mine went to a big city and I wasn’t always comfortable with him walking home late at night. He downloaded the Uber app and I connected it to my credit card. He rarely used it but it gave me a safety rush when I saw that he had.

  26. Maureen

    I don’t know if others have mentioned this, but I would add some kind of Sudafed sinus, Nyquil type medicine to the list. I don’t know if it is like this in all states, but there is an age limit for buying these products where I live, it is either 19 or 21-even I have to show my ID when I buy them. At least once a semester my daughter gets a horrifically bad cold, in fact one year she was so sick someone in the next room complained she was coughing too much at night. She was like “Gee…I’ll get right on that…”.

    Anyway, some of the more hard core cold medicines-there are so many germs in those dorms-illnesses really do sweep through whole buildings.

  27. Phancy

    Your financial plan sounds brilliant, and I hope you let us know if you tweak any piece of it. I actually don’t really recall how my parents and I handled it, although I am sure they recall in precise detail how we hashed it out. Although I do recall getting to pick and order checks in college (I couldn’t write checks until I was 18) and I loved so much choosing amongst the designs. I am a little sad that my children will probably not have that same pleasure. Thank you for sharing this journey!

  28. Sally

    So you probably already know this (or maybe others have written this in the comments elsewhere) but a couple of the more recent “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcasts have had lots of tips and suggestions for parents sending their kids away to college for the first time (Gretchen’s daughter is heading off and she asked listeners to send in suggestions). I think you might enjoy some of the tips and ideas, and also the general discussion :)

  29. Ariana

    Your life experience and decision making posts always brighten my day. That was the same financial set up I had in college and it does work very well. Any update on the swim leggings I’ve been wondering what your opinion was on them since you posted about buying a pair.

  30. Ruby

    One more piece of advice for Rob, if you haven’t thought of it already: get a checkbook. Odds are he won’t need it often, but situations will likely arise where he’ll have to pay with something with cash or check only, and cash may not always be practical. (If he wants to get an apartment in the next four years, for example, he’ll likely need to pay his rent with a check.)

  31. irene

    I found your website by searching about pillar candles (I just bought one because it was on sale and I liked the smell, and I don’t know what do do with it apart from light it… I mean, can I just put it on a ceramic plate? Like a plate I use for food?). Google brought me to your post about pillar candles not burning properly. I enjoyed your sense of humour, so clicked to the homepage to read your latest posts.

    Just want to say I love that you and Paul are having so much discussion with Rob about the financial thing. When I went off to college, my dad paid my accommodation and tuition fees directly to the institution, so I only needed money for food and other minor miscellaneous stuff (I lived on campus, so did not need transportation). Dad said I should spend only about $10 a day for food, which multiplied by 31 days came up to $310/month and he decided to be generous and topped it up to $350. This was 20 years ago. There was no discussion and I didn’t dare to say I might need more; it did look fairly doable on paper. This was very much the family dynamic, and I do wish that there had been more discussion about various issues affecting the family (and me) instead of just having my parents lay down the law. It’s a different parenting style, that’s for sure!

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