The word "software" might sound intimidating, but try not to freak out. I'm going to be talking about software (computer programs, phone apps, websites, and so on) that can legitimately make your college life (and life in general) easier.
First I'll give a little background information about myself so that you believe that I know what I'm talking about. My name is Noah Betzen, and I'm a computer science undergrad here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I essentially live on the Internet, and I do a lot of browsing, especially for cool programs that make my life easier in whatever aspect I need help with. According to Google, I've made more than 3000 searches in January alone, most of which are related to various programs and websites that are helpful. That obviously isn't a great metric for Internet credibility, but this is my blog post and I do what I want.
There are tons of free and cheap computer programs, phone apps, and websites out there that exist to make your life easier. Some of them are garbage, but others are legitimately useful and fun to use. Some of you might be averse to trying new things, especially if you don't consider yourself a computer person. Don't worry too much. Most of the software I'm going to talk about is designed to be user friendly.
I'll be covering a few different categories of software. Those categories will be:
- Budgeting (Making The Most Of Your Money)
- Time And Task Management (Keep Your Life On Schedule)
- Taxes (Don't Let Taxes Be A Nightmare)
- Textbooks (How To Find And Pay For Textbooks)
- Homework and Studying (Learn To Help Yourself)
NOTE: I'm not going to go into too much detail on each of these apps. I'm going to briefly describe them, link them, and let you choose for yourself. Check out their features and read reviews (this advice applies to anything you find on the Internet). A lot of the apps are considered "freemium". This means that they have free versions/options but you can pay for more features. Always be sure to check out pricing information for these to make sure that the free version has the features you want. If I recommend a commercial application (i.e. something you have to pay for regardless, but generally you only pay once instead of monthly subscriptions), I do so only because I think the price is worth it. Keep in mind that I rarely like to spend over $20 for such software.
Budgeting is difficult, but it doesn't have to be. Most banks have some decent software for this, but there are a couple programs that I enjoy that make it a much easier and more entertaining process.
The entire purpose of a budget is to put everything on the table for you to see. You'd be surprised how much more careful you are with your money once you actually see and understand how much you spend. Purely by starting a budget and keeping it updated, you will subconsciously start being more careful.
You Need A Budget is a cool program that helps you create a budget (as the name suggests). YNAB is nice because it is actually fun to use and they offer a bunch of help and tutorials for learning how to budget your money. Normally it costs a bit of money (and it's totally worth it if you want to spend the money), but it was announced last year that YNAB is free for college students now! Info about that is below:
GNUCash is an open-source (read: completely free no matter what) program to help with personal and small-business money management! Open source software (especially software related to GNU) is generally documentation heavy and not the easiest to use at first glance, but if you are willing to read a bit and watch some tutorial videos it's great. If you need help figuring out how to use it, head over to Youtube and search "gnucash tutorial" and you'll be up and running in no time.
TIME AND TASK MANAGEMENT:
Like budgeting, keeping track of how much you spend on various tasks is important. Keeping helpful calendars and to-do lists is also important. Most people have used a calendar before (whether a physical or virtual one), but sometimes those just aren't enough. If you've got a busy life, you've got multiple things to keep track of at once and simple calendars just don't cut it. This will probably be the largest category, because from what I can tell this has the most options available.
The first website I will mention is one that I use religiously… and that is Google Calendar. If you have a Gmail account (all UAF students are given one with their @alaska.edu email address), you have access to Google Calendar. At first glance it might seem like a simplistic calendar that isn't very useful, but I highly encourage you to look through its features and see what it can do.
The second website I will mention is one I have actually used and love, Trello. It's freemium, but the free version is incredibly useful, especially for projects and deadlines.
HabitRPG is a freemium game that helps you build good habits and break bad ones. You level up and gain gold and fight monsters and all of that. If you like video games and have a lot of bad habits, give this a try.
This is an interesting one, but imagine using an interactive stopwatch to keep track of how much time you spend doing certain things? That's what Toggl does. I've never used it, but it looks cool and I'm definitely going to give it a try.
The following five websites/apps all fulfill the same (or at least very similar) functions. Check each of them out, Google some screenshots of them, and give one of them a try. I sorted them in order of which I think look the best or have the best features or have the best pricing.
These next two sites are similar to the previous five, but these are specifically geared towards school homework. Helium is the freemium fancier version, and Get Organized is the older (slightly clunkier, but completely free) version.
Taxes are kind of stressful. We are lucky in Alaska because we don't have state taxes, so we only need to worry about federal taxes. Most popular software for this will offer a free version for federal taxes, so you have plenty of options. However, I will list my favorites (in case anyone reading isn't from Alaska, which is likely).
TaxACT is nice because it's most expensive option for doing federal and state taxes (with some other features) is only $20.
If your income is under $60,000, MyFreeTaxes will help you do your federal and state taxes for free.
This is a touchy subject, as you might understand. I'm going to keep this short and simple. Check your official campus bookstore, then check Amazon and compare. Amazon will also buy used books from you if you want to do that. Shop used if you can. I'm not a fan of renting books, but that is just me. I also highly recommend checking Facebook for various book swap groups (there are a few for UAF, for example). These are nice because you can find books people are getting rid of, request books, or offer your old books.
One tip I can give you is how to find out the books you need. If you aren't a UA student, then this won't be very helpful to you, so I apologize for that.
Head to https://uaonline.alaska.edu/ and log in.
Go to the "Registration" menu.
Go to "Register/Add/Drop Classes".
Submit your term.
On the bottom of the class sign up page, you will see two buttons called "Bookstore Directory" and "Get Books".
Clicking "Get Books" will automatically generate a list of textbooks listed for the courses you are signed up for. Sometimes this doesn't work, but "Bookstore Directory" will lead you to the bookstore site where you can search for classes by course number and such and then you can find your books from there.
HOMEWORK AND STUDYING:
Homework help is tough because there are so many subjects, but I've found a few things that are helpful.
Quizlet is great for flash cards. Many subjects and topics can be adequately studied with flashcards, and Quizlet is a great service. I personally used Quizlet to write down over 4,000 words and phrases in Norwegian when I was in Norway studying language, so I know what I'm talking about here.
I'll be honest, I've never used Evernote, but I've heard great things and it looks solid. You can import all sorts of items or create your own and tag them and easily search them. This could greatly simplify your note taking.
If you've ever needed math help, you've probably heard of WolframAlpha. Give it a problem and it'll have an answer and a guided solution (sort of). It used to be completely free; now it is not so free. If you want detailed walkthroughs of problems, you have to pay a subscription (~$6 per month, ~$4 per month for students). However, there are WolframAlpha iOS and Android apps that are only $3 (one-time payment) that give you detailed walkthroughs of problems as well. Even without that feature, the stuff WolframAlpha does for free is still great.
All of the software I've listed here was found using a few different things. Google is your best friend. Learning how to Google is a valuable skill and will help you for the rest of your life. For example, most people know about Quicken (the proprietary budget software by Intuit). Why not search Google for "alternative to quicken"? In general, Googling "alternative to [insert-popular-commercial-software]" is pretty useful. Generally, I Google "best [insert-topic-here] app/program", check out the results, read reviews, and look up popular alternatives to what I find. By doing this a few times on a few different websites and platforms I can get a very informed opinion on what is available and compare it to what I want and need. Although some people hate it, reddit is a pretty good place to find helpful communities (or at least a ton of links to cool stuff). For example, www.reddit.com/r/frugal is a subreddit devoted to learning how to save money. Do a few searches there and you can find all kinds of cool things.