Budgeting for College Students

Table of Contents: Budgeting for College Students
1. Top 10 Tips for Saving Money in College
2. Why Do You Need a Budget?
3. How are you Paying for College?
4. What College Expenses to Expect?
5. Expert Advice: With Melissa Boutin

College Student Budget

College requires an investment. However, a diploma pays off in the long run. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn a median pay of $1,198 per week, while individuals with just a high school diploma earn a median pay of $730 per week. However, a high student loan payment post-graduation significantly impacts disposable income. Payment plans and budgeting helps students accumulate less debt. When budgeting in college, students need to factor in more than just tuition. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of a college student budget, what line items to include in a budget, and tips on how to stick to a budget. Saving in college on a tight budget requires strategy. However, setting aside just $25 per month often makes a difference. Below, we discuss 10 tips that help students build a savings fund for financial goals and unexpected expenses.

Top 10 Tips for Saving Money in College

If possible, avoid purchasing new books. Many online resources or local book stores offer common gently used textbooks for a fraction of the cost. Additionally, digital copies of books usually cost less than physical copies.

Students often also sell their purchased books online or to a bookstore for cash or credit. However, sometimes these businesses do not accept outdated books or books in poor condition. Protect your textbooks by using book covers and bookmarks and only writing inside in pencil.

Some students rent textbooks. Sites like Amazon offer books for rent. Borrow these books and return them after your course.

College and coffee seem to go hand-in-hand. Limit specialty espresso drinks from local coffee shops to a weekly or monthly treat.

Students who frequently rely on coffee to start their day or motivate them to finish a paper at night save a lot of money by purchasing a coffee maker. A traditional coffee maker works well for individuals who love simple black coffee. However, a stovetop espresso maker like a moka pot and a handheld milk frother often costs less than $10. These two tools help anyone become a successful at-home barista.

Many college towns rely on students to boost the local economy. Small businesses and large corporations often offer student discounts, so always carry your student identification card. Many businesses display signage about student discounts. Stores typically provide a 10-15% student discount.

Online services like music streaming subscriptions sometimes provide student discounts too. To qualify for these discounts, learners usually submit their school email address. To help people keep track of all these deals, we maintain a list of stores that offer student discounts.

Students often save money on groceries by implementing a few strategies. For starters, coordinate with a roommate or friend to split certain staple purchases like milk or bread. Meal planning also helps prevent individuals from overspending at the grocery store or frequently eating out.

Comparing prices at various grocery stores allows students to get the best deal. While shopping at multiple grocery stores requires extra time, the savings add up. Some stores participate in price matching programs when a customer presents a valid weekly ad from a competitor business.

Never go grocery shopping while hungry. Hunger can influence you to purchase larger amounts of food or additional snacks.

Rather than throwing or giving away unwanted items, consider selling them to pad your savings. Luckily, individuals no longer need to wait to accumulate enough items for a garage sale before profiting off old possessions. Students often sell items on social media platforms like Facebook Marketplace. However, more valuable possessions often sell for a higher price on sites like eBay. You can also list items on more than one platform to increase the chances of a sale.

By getting rid of extra items, you avoid paying for a storage unit. Additionally, students save money on moving expenses with fewer belongings.

When creating a living expenses budget, individuals sometimes overlook small subscriptions, like music streaming subscriptions or digital file storage services. However, these expenses add up.

Luckily, certain apps identify hidden subscription costs. Many students also find that they still pay for subscriptions that they do not use anymore, like a foreign language app or a membership fee to a gym. Always check with your bank before allowing a third-party app to access your bank statements. Use caution when signing up for a free subscription or membership trial that requires credit card information.

Taking a car to college can impact monthly expenses. Even vehicles already paid off still cost money for upkeep, fuel, and parking. Luckily, many college towns remain walkable, with essential businesses located near campus.

Using public transportation also helps students save money. Typically, bus passes cost much less than a single Uber ride. Even mid-sized cities and towns feature public bus networks, and some schools offer free shuttle services across campus. Many students bike around town on sunny days. Many cities offer affordable bike rental services as well.

Going out to eat adds joy and convenience to your day, but costs more than cooking at home. Budget a small amount for eating out and a larger amount for groceries.

When meal planning, choose easy dishes you love with minimal ingredients to avoid the temptation to eat out and waste food. Some meals require less time than driving through a fast-food pickup lane.

Libraries serve many purposes. They offer free resources for completing a research paper or picking up a new skill. Additionally, libraries provide entertaining books and even movies in some cases. Learners unable to afford a computer often take advantage of a library’s technology lab. Certain school libraries offer free tutoring and printing services to students.

When studying at home proves difficult, college students often access public library Wi-Fi or a private study room. Some public libraries offer unconventional items to check out, like household tools or toys for children. Contact a school or local library to learn more about these services.

College students often find ways to stay fit at little to no cost. Many campuses house a recreation center with indoor equipment, tracks, swimming pools, and rock climbing walls. Colleges usually factor the recreation center into tuition or miscellaneous fees.

Even if your campus does not include a school gym, find ways to work out for free. Go on a run at a public park or gather a group of friends for a game of ultimate frisbee. Maintaining your health by working out acts as a type of preventative medicine, which indirectly saves you money on medical bills.

Why Do You Need a Budget?

Individuals who earn or spend money need a budget. However, college students who cannot work during their studies or who take out student loans especially need a budget. Students should track every incoming and outgoing dollar in their bank accounts. Keeping a close track of spending can prevent overdraft fees.

Students also need a budget to build emergency funds. Budgeting for additional savings helps students set aside money for student loan payments or even a down payment on a home.

Before creating a budget, individuals need to calculate their income. Calculating income presents a challenge for students with job schedules that vary each week. When estimating monthly income, always err on the side of underestimating. Any extra funds earned go directly to savings.

How are you Paying for College?

Before enrolling for classes, plan out how to pay for college. College students often pay for their education by using multiple means, including financial gifts from relatives, scholarships, and student loans. Some individuals choose to pay the college directly through a payment plan during their studies.

Communicate with relatives ahead of time to determine their contribution, if any, toward expenses. Filling out the FAFSA using a guardian’s tax information allows students to apply for multiple need-based grants and federally subsidized student loans. Just like scholarships, grants do not require repayment after graduation.

Prospective learners planning on taking out student loans often research the average monthly income for their desired profession using a resource like the BLS. Then, they generate a post-graduation budget and determine a feasible loan repayment amount.

What College Expenses to Expect?

Create an education budget and a monthly budget. An education budget includes items like tuition, books, fees, and student loan payments. Of course, predicting every expense poses a challenge, so include a section in your budget for hidden miscellaneous costs, like club or lab fees.

A living expenses budget includes items like transportation, groceries, rent, and entertainment. When creating a college budget, factor in costs for small luxuries, like going out to eat with friends, gifts for loved ones, or investing in high-quality professional clothes. Update your living expenses budget on a monthly basis.

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Expert Q&A: College Money Matters

Melissa Boutin

Certified Financial Education Instructor, Your Money Worth

Melisa Boutin is a Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI), a student loan expert, and founder of YourMoneyWorth.com, a website providing personal finance resources to help millennials in the United States and the Caribbean region get rid of debt and build positive net worth.

  • What are some common misconceptions college students -- and even adults -- have about budgeting?

    Both adults and college students mistakenly think they can rely on the costs of attendance provided by colleges as accurate estimates of students’ miscellaneous and personal expenses. Expenses that a college student might incur can exceed those estimates, so it’s important for families and students to create their own budgets. Another misconception about budgeting is that a written budget is not necessary for a college student, as they will have little or no variable income. In fact, budgeting is an essential skill that everyone can learn and master, even with a variable income.

  • Debts usually come into the picture when students enter college. What should students keep in mind about accumulating and managing debt, especially student loan and credit card debt?

    Students should aim to minimize the amount of student loan debt they take on to fund their college educations. When it comes to student loan debt, a student should limit the total amount of borrowing to no more than the starting salary they expect to earn after graduation. For example, a student who expects to earn a starting salary of $27,000 after graduation should not borrow beyond that amount for college. Applying this rule of thumb can help students avoid the burden of unaffordable student loan debt payments.

    In the case of credit cards, students should avoid carrying balances and get into the habit of spending only what they can pay off every month. If using credit cards will result in debt they can’t afford to repay in full, however, students should avoid them altogether.

  • Having conversations about money with parents/guardians can be challenging. How can students work to keep an open line of communication when it comes to finances?

    Students can initiate conversations about money from the angle of managing college costs, and use that as an opportunity to have ongoing conversations about money with their families. They can consider establishing a schedule of check-ins about their finances with their families at the end of each semester and during each school break. By approaching it from a mature, practical standpoint, this way of communicating about finances can become routine.

  • Some students need to work in college to get by. What advice do you have for those who need to balance academia with earning an income?

    Students who need to work while taking college classes should explore work opportunities that allow them the time they need to dedicate to their course loads. They should consider earning money in flexible positions such as brand ambassadors (people hired to represent company or product brands in a positive light), street teams (people who hit the streets to promote events or products) or as a delivery person working with apps such as UberEats that allow students to work flexible schedules. Saving money from paid internships or summer employment is another way students can balance school and work. They can ramp up work hours during school breaks and scale back when they’re back on campus.

  • Amid tough classes and assignments, keeping a budget can seem arduous. What are some quick ways that students can keep an eye on their finances and ensure they don't overspend?

    Setting up calendar reminders to do routine financial check-ins is one way college students can steer clear of overspending. Another way is using a spending account and debit card like Chime, whose mobile app sends automatic alerts of transactions and account balances. These options make staying informed about your finances as simple as reviewing alerts on a smartphone.

  • Are there administrators on campus who can help students with budgeting? Where might they be found?

    Financial education resources can be found at many colleges via the student affairs portal, as is the case at Wright State University. Another popular option is in-person financial wellness counseling services, such as those offered at University of Minnesota. Students should check with their student affairs department on campus to explore the financial education and support services available to them.

  • What are some ways that college students can cut their expenses?

    College students cut their costs of attendance by focusing on ways to save on major costs. Some areas to consider include:

    • choosing an accelerated completion schedule (for example, a student can choose to take on a fuller course load and take classes during the summer to finish college in three years);
    • entering college with course credits earned through high school or community college before enrolling as a freshman;
    • becoming an on-campus resident assistant, which comes with the opportunity to reduce housing costs;
    • considering employment opportunities that offer tuition reimbursement or waivers (Chipotle is one employer that offers this benefit);
    • obtaining course credits by examination with CLEP that are accepted by the college as equivalent course credits;
    • transferring community college credits with the prior approval of the college or university;
    • applying for scholarships from outside organizations, in addition to those offered by the college, and continuing to apply for scholarships every semester through graduation;
    • negotiating tuition breaks and inquiring about unlisted scholarships at the college.

  • What are your favorite apps/websites on this topic that students might find useful?

    My favorite budgeting app is Mint, as it aggregates all your transactions, allows for manual entries and tracks your spending against different budget categories and limits. As far as websites go, CentSai Adulting is a good personal finance resource for college students.

Portrait of Tessa Cooper

Tessa Cooper

Tessa Cooper is a freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes to international and regional publications focused on education and lifestyle topics. She earned a bachelor’s in public relations from Missouri State University and is passionate about helping learners avoid high student loan debt while pursuing their dream major. Tessa loves writing about travel and food topics and is always planning her next meal or vacation.

See more articles by Tessa

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