How To Create A College Student Budget You’ll Actually Use

college student budget

As you begin your journey into college and balancing school and work, it’s important to learn how to manage your money well. Otherwise, you could end up with some unpleasant surprises at the end of the semester. So budgeting for college students is especially important.

Although the idea of budgeting might seem like it could suck the fun out of your life, it's important to have a solid understanding of your financial picture. With a budget, you can work towards your money goals.

You might be trying to save for a semester abroad or simply want to avoid taking on any extra student loan debt. Regardless, a budget for college students can help you reach those money goals.

In this article, we'll go over the strategies you can use to create and maintain an effective college student budget that you'll actually be excited to use.

Gather your money details

Before you can truly start budgeting effectively, you’ll need to understand what you have available to spend each semester. So here’s where to start your search.

Talk to your parents

If your parents are helping you pay for some of your college expenses, then make sure to have a frank conversation. Take the time to talk over the financial arrangements between you. In addition, find out exactly what expenses they plan to cover and which ones they will not.

Also, find out if there are any contingencies attached to these funds. Some of my friends had parents that were willing to help out if they maintained a certain GPA. Make sure to have all of those details upfront so that you aren’t caught off guard later on.

Review your scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grant awards could be a way for you to fund your education without taking out any student loans. If you're able to secure any scholarships or grants for the school year, then make sure to read the fine print.

Find out exactly what the funds can be used for. Many scholarships and grants have restrictions on what you can spend the money on. For example, you may only be able to spend the money on tuition expenses rather than the rest of your college student budget.

In other cases, you may be able to use the funds on living expenses as well. When in doubt, talk to the organization that funded your scholarship or grant for clarification.

College expenses to budget for

While in college, the day-to-day expenses of your life may not be too outrageous. But when you add in school-related expenses, suddenly your college student budget needs to support so much more. So here are some expenses that you should be aware of as you map out your spending.

Tuition and student fees

Tuition is a major expense for all college students. As you consider which college to attend, make sure to factor in tuition expenses. The range for student tuition can vary dramatically among institutions.

Beyond tuition, you’ll also have student fees to contend with. Each university has its own student fee structure. But you’ll likely run into several hundred dollars in fees each year.

Don’t let the student fees catch you off-guard; find out what your school charges ahead of time.

School supplies

School supplies like textbooks are a critical part of your success in college. With that, it's important to set aside enough money to buy books each year.

According to College Board, students spent $1,240 per year on books at a public four-year college. That could take a big bite out of anyone’s budget!

A place to live

Everyone needs a roof over their head in order to stay productive. So after tuition and fees, housing costs were the second most expensive part of my college student budget.

Although off-campus housing is often a more affordable option, you’ll still need to find a way to pay rent each month. And if you're going to live in a dorm, make sure you're aware of the costs ahead of time.

Food

The average American spent 9.5% of their disposable income on food in 2019. It's a significant part of budgeting for college students. Consider what you're willing to spend on food each month as you map out your budget.

P.S. Meal planning and trying out delicious frugal meals can make a huge difference in your food budget.

Gas and transportation

You may need to commute to class or maintain a vehicle in order to get to an off-campus job. If you will be using a vehicle, then make sure to factor that into your budget and prepare to pay car insurance.

When possible, stick to campus transportation in order to avoid paying for gas and the hassle of finding a parking space.

In contrast, if you want to go with the cheapest option possible and you don't live far from campus, a bike will work very well and it's a healthy alternative to driving everywhere.

Clothing

As you transition into the workforce, you’ll likely need some new clothes. When you hit the job fair, you’ll want to look presentable in business attire that suits your personality. With that, you should expect to spend money on professional clothes throughout your college career.

Since you're on a budget for college students, you can probably get by with buying a few well-chosen items once a year for now. Business clothing such as a structured blazer, some slacks or trousers, and work-appropriate footwear will help you feel your best when job hunting or starting internships.

Fun money

College is meant to be an enjoyable time. Although you will need to stay focused to keep your grades on track, you can still enjoy the things that make you happy.

Don’t be afraid to add a “fun money” category to your college student budget. You’ll be able to spend these funds without any guilt whatsoever. You should enjoy life and set aside some money each month to go out with friends or buy something you want.

How to properly track your spending

After you have a handle on the types of expenses you will encounter in your college budget, it's time to track your spending. As you start this process, it's okay to adjust your budget to more accurately reflect your spending needs.

Once you have a better idea of your spending habits through careful tracking, you’ll be better prepared to implement your college budget effectively.

Digital tools

Luckily, there are digital tools that can help you track your spending with ease. One great resource is Mint. It's a free app that can help you track your spending in real-time and help you monitor your financial goals, making budgeting for college students simple.

The old fashioned way

Although digital tracking is simpler, you do have the option to track your expenses manually. You can record your purchases in a spending journal or on a simple spreadsheet.

It may be somewhat tedious to manually track your expenses, but you might find that you're more intentional about your spending as a side effect.

Example college student budget

As you map out your budget for college students, it can be helpful to have an example. The first big step is to decide whether you want to budget on an annual or semester basis. Personally, I chose to map things out on a semester basis since that’s how scholarships were usually awarded.

Below I will share a college budget that was very similar to my own before I graduated a few years ago. It shows the entire semester budget as well as the monthly budget:

Expenses for the semester Budget for the semester Budget per month
Tuition and fees $3,800 Spent at the beginning of the semester
School supplies $500 Spent at the beginning of the semester on supplies and books
Rent $2,600 $650
Utilities $160 $40
Internet $120 $30
Food (groceries and eating out) $1,200 $300
Clothes $100 Only spent on professional clothes when needed
Fun money $300 $75

Of course, your exact budget will vary based on your school and situation. Personally, I usually ran under budget most semesters because I had the goal of building a small savings stash before I graduated college.

So with a combination of help from my parents, scholarships, and summer jobs, I was able to make it through without taking on student loan debt.

If you look at your budget and decide that it's not possible to fund everything without student loans, then seek out the lowest interest rates possible on any loans. A small difference in interest rates could tremendously impact your finances post-graduation.

In addition, keep track of your budget in the way that makes the most sense for you. Use a budgeting app or spreadsheet as discussed, or write everything down on a whiteboard and keep it on a wall in your room to keep a close eye on it. Whatever will help you be frugal.

Tips to save money and stick to your college student budget

Saving money on a tight budget might be a challenge, but it's definitely possible. While you're in college, you'll have access to even more opportunities to spend less. Here's my best advice for saving money while budgeting for college students.

Track and trim your expenses

The importance of tracking your expenses cannot be overstated. With careful tracking of your expenses, you'll have a better idea of where your money is going. If you aren’t happy with your current spending, then you can see your progress as you adjust your spending habits.

As you track your expenses, take note of any charges that seem unreasonably large. It's quite possible that you're overpaying for a service.

In order to avoid this, try calling the bill provider to ask for a discount. If that doesn’t work, then switch providers to land a better deal.

Also, avoid Starbucks for your morning cup of coffee and brew it at home instead. And now isn't a bad time to cancel a gym membership, as you can bike or run around campus for free. Look at everything that seems "necessary" and try to find a cheaper alternative.

Seek out used textbooks

Textbooks do not change often. Instead of buying a brand new book, seek out a used copy. You can find used copies of textbooks at shops around campus, CampusBooks, or on Facebook Marketplace.

Beyond cheap textbooks, check out your campus library. In many cases, you’ll be able to check out a copy for free. If you’ll only need the textbook for a few assignments, then you might want to save the money and sit at the library for a few hours.

Find free food

One amazing thing about college campuses is that there is free food in abundance. You might encounter free pizza nights or food giveaways on any given day. Seek out these free sources of food to stretch your budget further.

Student discounts are everywhere

In addition to free food, you’ll likely encounter student discounts in abundant supply around town. A lot of places like the movies, public transportation, and even concerts give student discounts.

Be sure to keep your student ID on hand at all times. You never know when you’ll run into a discount to help out your college student budget.

Talk to your parents about health insurance

Health insurance is a major expense. If possible, talk to your parents about staying on their health care plan.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, you can stay on your parent's healthcare plan until age 26. Otherwise, you might need to factor this large expense into your college budget.

Sell your old textbooks

Don’t let your textbooks from last semester crowd your apartment. Instead, take a few minutes to sell them. You can earn some money from selling those textbooks and keep your apartment clutter-free at the same time.

Manage your credit card responsibly

If you have decided to open a credit card while in college, then remember to manage that credit card wisely. It's very easy to slide down a slippery slope into a mountain of credit card debt.

Do your best to pay off your credit card in full each month to avoid a major debt burden down the line. Remember, a budget for college students is best managed without any debt.

Find free activities

On most college campuses, you can find fun and free entertainment available every single day. Although you might need to step outside of your comfort zone to enjoy some of these opportunities, they can be a fun way to expand your horizons. You don’t have to break the bank to try something new.

Work part-time

If your schedule permits, working a part-time job is a great way to bring in some income. It can help you offset your expenses and you might even be able to save and invest some of the money you earn. You can try working in the evenings or on weekends when you have free time.

In addition, if you don't have much extra time, look at some passive income ideas for students to determine what options could work for you!

The bottom line: You can create a college student budget that works!

Building the right college student budget for your situation can help you stay on track for your financial life after graduation. Plus, learning to build and maintain a budget is an important skill to carry with you for the rest of your life.

If you aren’t sure how to create the perfect college budget that works for you, then check out our free budgeting course. It will walk you through the steps of building a budget that actually sticks. With helpful budgeting printables and guidance along the way, this free course is the perfect next step.

Finally, be sure to check out our positive affirmations for students. They will help you stay focused and motivated!

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