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Matt Gustafson, a counselor at Ridgewater College in Willmar, offers advice to students on how to establish a livable budget and then follow it. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

Ridgewater counselor helps students organize finances

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A counselor at Ridgewater College in Willmar has used his personal interest in budgeting to help students.

It isn't in Matt Gustafson's job description, but he offers his budgeting advice to students trying to figure out how to stretch their financial aid checks to cover expenses. Gustafson, 30, is in his fourth year at Ridgewater. He said he's always been careful with his money, but his serious budgeting started when he finished graduate school and started working at Ridgewater.

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"I created a spreadsheet for myself," he said. "I had to do it to meet my savings goals."

His goals included building an emergency savings fund, which is something most college students don't have. He also wanted to pay off his college debts and begin saving for retirement. Gustafson said he is strict with himself about sticking to the budget. When he talks to students about budgeting, "I preach discipline," he said, but he's not gloomy about it.

"Part of the reason I like budgeting is you can build in some of the fun things you want to do," he said.

The computer spreadsheet he built for himself includes categories like eating out, entertainment, gifts and travel, along with basics like food, housing, savings and taxes.

"You have to prioritize what's important to you," he said.

Gustafson is pleased to be 30 and debt free. He was fortunate that he didn't have to borrow too much for college, and he paid it off as fast as he could, he said.

So far he hasn't worked with anyone who's run up huge credit card debts. He would refer them to professional debt counselors, he said.

His non-professional advice is geared more to people who need to think through their priorities.

"What do you really need, and what do you want," he said. "You play the numbers to meet your goals."

Students at Ridgewater get real-life budget experience right away, Gustafson said. Since the school has no dorms, students must figure out how to pay for rent, utilities and food from the beginning.

When students come to see him, he said, he goes through a spreadsheet with them to help them get a realistic idea of how much money is coming in and where it's going.

He also urges students to talk with their parents about the family's budgeting priorities.

If income and expenses don't match, they discuss alternatives. "Some people decide they need to find a part-time job," he said.

Others find ways to cut back on some expenses. "People can learn ways to be more creative," he said.

He urges students to turn off lights and turn down thermostats to control utility expenses and to pay for one telephone, not both a landline and a cell phone. He tells them to "make do with as little as you're able to when you're a student."

Students often qualify for more in financial aid loans than they use, he said. He'll sometimes suggest they borrow a little more to cover living expenses, especially if another alternative would be working more hours.

"If you work too many hours, you can neglect your studies," he said.

However, he warns them to borrow no more than they need to cover their basic needs and not to borrow money to spend on "random stuff."

Most of the students he's worked with have been interested to see where their money is going, "or at least where it's supposed to go," he said.

Gustafson shares his spreadsheet with students, but they are free to adapt it to their needs, adding or subtracting categories to fit their lives. One of his friends prefers to keep her budget in a small journal.

Gustafson and others in the college's counseling office are offering a series of seminars on campus this fall. The sessions cover a variety of topics, including time management, goal setting and budgeting.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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