If you’re heading off to college and want to live on more than coffee and ramen, we have good news: You definitely can.
College can be expensive, but if you know how to manage a budget, you can make it through every semester or quarter without having to ask a friend to spot you for things like meals, gas, and rent.
If you can figure out the art of simple budgeting, this skill will set you up for success in your post-grad life. Budgeting throughout college may allow you to graduate with some extra money saved up to help you start paying back student loans, buy a car, or move to a new city and get an apartment.
Not only that, but once you start earning paychecks in your first job, you’ll be able to make confident decisions about how to afford your post-grad life while everyone else tries to figure out how to manage their spending for the first time.
Student budgeting is the same as any other type of budgeting—it comes down to knowing how your expenses compare to your income. Whether you plan to live on-campus in student housing, off-campus in an apartment or house, or at home with your family, creating a budget is the best way to start building your financial independence.
Estimate Your Expenses
The first step in creating a budget is to calculate your total cost of living. It can help if you break down your cost of living by year, semester, month, and even week to give you a clear picture of how much money you’ll need to cover your expenses.
Here are a few different categories to think about when adding up your expenses. Note that you might have additional expenses depending on your situation. If anyone else is helping you pay for school, such as your parents, this can be a good thing to brainstorm together.
If you’re living on-campus, some housing expenses may be prepaid at the beginning of the year or semester. If you are living off-campus, you might have monthly payments for rent, utilities, parking, WiFi, or other expenses. If these costs are paid upfront, they still need to be accounted for financially. For instance, if you plan to work to help pay for school, think about how much you’ll need to set aside from each paycheck to help pay for rent or room and board the following semester or year.
Nothing against ramen, but you might want the option to go for the occasional non-freeze-dried meal. If you plan to be on a student meal plan, leave room in the budget to add on to your dining services account at the end of the term if needed. If you decide that you’re going to buy groceries and cook meals at home (that’s some next-level #adulting), make sure to budget a realistic amount for groceries every week.
Certain courses may require you to buy or rent books or other equipment. Textbook costs are often higher than anticipated and can quickly add up, so give yourself plenty of time to look around for used copies or rental options online. Students who took the course previously might be looking to sell their textbooks, so check student Facebook groups or sites like Craigslist before buying a new edition.
If you need to buy a laptop for school, factor any monthly payments into your budget, including WiFi, especially if you plan to live off-campus. Other technology costs might include your phone bill and a set of quality headphones to block out background noise (it’s only really a “need” if you’ll be living in a dorm or in a house with many other people). Remember to factor in a “tech emergency fund” for things like cracked screens, replacement chargers, or the accidental coffee spill on your keyboard. Things happen, and you’ll be less stressed in those situations if you know you can comfortably afford the repair costs.
Depending on where you go to school, you might choose to rely on public transportation and ride-sharing apps rather than owning a car. As convenient as ride-sharing apps can be, know that taking multiple Lyft or Uber trips every weekend can quickly add up, even if you’re splitting the fares with friends. If you plan to use ride-sharing apps or public transportation, make sure to budget a realistic amount in your weekly or monthly budget. If you plan to have a car, plan to spend on things like gas and car insurance. Depending on your housing situation, you may also need to pay for a parking spot, especially if you live in an urban area.
Now that you’ve thought through the expenses that fall into the “need” category, consider much you’ll need for extras, such as monthly subscriptions (think Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Spotify, Apple Music, workout apps, etc.), clothing, weekend trips, and going out to eat. If you have a fall or spring break coming up, your costs might be higher for that week, especially if you plan to travel somewhere. The more realistic you are about your spending habits, the more accurate—and useful—your budget will be.
Estimate Your Income
As you think about your budget, the number one goal is to get through the semester without spending more money than you have available. The only way to create an accurate budget is to know what that “available” amount will be, which means adding up your income.
As a student, your sources of income may vary. Whether you’re relying on student loans, scholarships, part-time work, work-study, or financial help from your parents, make sure you have a clear picture of how much income you’ll be working with each semester. By knowing your total income, you can put realistic limits on your spending to ensure you reach the end of the semester with some money left over. If you can manage to put some money aside, it will be a big help in the long run, especially when you graduate!
If you’re finding that your expenses are higher than your income (or if it’s from your parents, the available amount you have to work with), think about ways to lower your spending:
- Consider renting a less expensive apartment.
- Live with a roommate to share the expenses.
- Buy used books.
- Use free or shared resources, such as library WiFi.
- Ditch the car and use ride-sharing apps or public transit.
- Buy groceries and cook at home instead of going out to eat.
- Use on-campus facilities instead of joining a gym.
You also could consider additional sources of income, such as:
- Apply for an on-campus job, such as tutoring.
- Work as a resident assistant in dorm housing—many schools need upperclassmen to live in freshman housing and will lower your room and board costs in exchange.
- Create a savings plan to give you cash for more expensive months.
- Work summers and weekends to earn extra cash.
How Your Bank Can Help
Your bank can help you manage your budget and set you up with services to help you save money:
- Student checking accounts allow you to keep a low balance without fees.
- Savings accounts enable you to set extra money aside for emergencies and future expenses.
- Programs like Pocket Change round up debit card transactions and put the money into your savings account to help you grow your savings without thinking about it.
- Bank credit cards can help you manage your spending, especially if you have money coming in only once a month. Many cards offer cash rewards and travel points that you can use to book flights to and from school. No matter which card you sign up for, opening a student credit card is a great way to start building credit.
- Most banks also offer mobile banking apps that make it easier to keep track of your money, including monitoring your bank balance, transferring money between accounts, depositing checks, and paying bills from your smartphone.
Budgeting comes down to making sure you have the money you need to cover your expenses and save for the future. By knowing exactly what you can afford in different areas throughout the school year, you can be confident in your spending and fully enjoy your college experience.