Attending college often proves very costly. Tuition rates currently increase about 8% annually. Students may also need to pay for room and board, books, transportation, and other expenses. Fortunately, thoughtful school choices and budgeting practices can help enrollees manage college expenses and plan for the future.
Budgeting helps students manage their debt by encouraging effective financial planning and thoughtful spending decisions. Budgeting allows learners to identify and limit unnecessary spending that might otherwise go untracked. An effective college student budget also includes money for future plans and emergencies and keeps learners from racking up loans or credit card debt when these eventualities arise.
Why Do You Need a Budget?
A budget plan for college students supports effective financial decision-making. By planning and tracking their expenses and income, budgeters can keep spending under control. A college student budget often helps learners stay out of debt and plan for the future. These practices are typically worth the time and discipline they require.
Creating and sticking to a budget often poses challenges. A successful college student budget relies heavily on accurate income and expense estimates. However, loss of income and unexpected expenses often occur, requiring budget adjustments. Sticking to a budget also requires self-restraint. The budgeter must differentiate between needs and wants and prioritize the former. Factoring in savings, income, and unexpected expenses can help students avoid budgeting pitfalls.
Benefits of Budgeting
Creating and following a budget often improves financial decision-making and increases financial security and peace of mind. College student budgets help to identify and avoid wasteful spending practices that might otherwise go unnoticed. Budgeting also increases preparedness for unexpected changes in income or expenses.
Consistent expense tracking helps students stay on budget, but keeping track of all expenditures requires some organization and self-discipline. Fortunately, many of today’s online software programs and budgeting apps make it easier to track spending on the go. Popular choices include PocketGuard, Mint, Quicken, and YouNeedABudget. Some budgeters prefer older methods, such as a checkbook or a spreadsheet.
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College education entails many expenses, including tuition and fees, living expenses, and books. Some costs remain consistent over time, while others vary. Designating each expense as fixed or variable proves crucial for effective budgeting.
Tuition pays for classes and usually varies widely based on factors like number of credits, program and institution type, and location. Some schools charge tuition on a per-credit basis, while others charge a flat rate per semester or quarter. Students at schools with flat tuition rates sometimes save money in college by taking more credits per term.
Institution type and location also influence tuition. The College Board’s 2020 college pricing report suggests that in-state, public institutions cost significantly less than private institutions. Additionally, annual out-of-state tuition at public institutions averages about 2.5 times higher than in-state tuition. However, some schools allow distance learners to pay in-state rates regardless of residency. Annual tuition averages also vary by state, with states like California offering tuition rates well below the national average.
Housing and Food
College students may also incur housing and food expenses. Many learners live off campus with family members since on-campus housing and meal plans often prove costly. Some colleges charge comprehensive fees that bundle tuition, room and board, and university fees into one bill.
Additional potential college expenses include transportation, textbooks and other school supplies, and spending money. Commuter students may find public transportation more affordable than paying for gas. On-campus and distance learners often save on transportation costs. Textbooks and school supplies can prove costly, but buying used textbooks can save students some money in college.
Calculating the Cost of a College Degree
Affordable Colleges Online (ACO) features an affordability calculator that provides reasonable tuition estimates for prospective students. This tool asks users to enter their estimated living expenses, current income, book and fee costs, and financial aid data. The ACO calculator generates a manageable tuition figure based on this information. This estimate can inform a college student budget’s preliminary stages.
College Affordability Calculator
Break down your current financial situation, and receive a college tuition estimate you can afford to pay.
College costs vary drastically, so prospective students should compare tuition prices among schools and apply for financial aid. A 529 College Savings Plan may prove helpful in saving money for college. See below for 10 cost-cutting tips that can lower college expenses.
1. Go to Community College First
Many students save money in college by fulfilling prerequisite credits or degrees at community colleges before transferring to four-year schools. According to EducationData.org, in-district community college tuition averages $3,340 annually — considerably less than the overall annual tuition rate of $10,560 for all in-state public institutions.
2. Buy Used or Digital Textbooks
New textbooks often cost $50-$100, but students can save money by ordering used or digital textbooks through sites like BookFinder.com and Amazon.com.
3. Use Public Transportation
Given the high costs of gas prices, commuter students often save money by using bus, trolley, subway, and/or train systems to get to school. Finding housing close to campus can also reduce commuting expenses.
4. Limit Eating Out and Choose Your Meal Plan Wisely
Most schools offer several meal plans in different price ranges. Many students save money by choosing a lower-cost meal plan and eating some meals at home. Students can also shop at affordable grocery stores and cook their own food to save money.
5. Take Advantage of Campus Amenities
Many colleges offer free services, such as health clinic care, counseling, career planning, and campus recreation. Students can save money by using these free, on-campus services instead of paying for similar services at off-campus locations.
6. Live at Home or Find a Roommate
Living at home often costs less than paying for on-campus housing. Students who live on or near campus may save money by finding roommates with whom to split rent costs.
7. Get a Part-Time Job or Side Hustle
Many students rely on part-time jobs or side businesses to cover living expenses while in school. Balancing a full-time job with full-time study may prove too challenging for many students.
8. Use Your Student Discount
Some entertainment venues and businesses offer student discounts. Taking advantage of these discounts can help students save money.
9. Find Free and Cheap Entertainment
Many schools provide cheap or free entertainment for students. Participating in these events often costs much less than going to off-campus events. Students can also explore inexpensive off-campus entertainment and activity options, such as hiking, community theater, and club sports.
10. Don't Fail Class
Many schools charge a per-credit tuition rate, which means that students must pay to retake any classes they fail. To avoid failing classes, students should sign up for a manageable course load and seek help from professors and on-campus tutoring services when needed.
How to Pay for College
Making good college financing decisions often requires planning. Many college students and their families use a 529 Plan to save money for college. This budget plan for college students varies by state and usually offers tax benefits. Prospective students should also submit the FAFSA. This financial aid profile helps learners secure grants, loans, and scholarships.
The federal government and various organizations offer grants, which do not require repayment. The federal Pell Grant program awards up to $6,345 to undergraduate students who submit a FAFSA demonstrating financial need. Graduate students may also qualify for dissertation or research grants from universities, governments, and nonprofit organizations.
Unlike grants and scholarships, loans require repayment. Many students qualify for subsidized federal loans, which typically feature lower interest rates than private loans and do not require repayment until after graduation. Learners needing additional funds may accept unsubsidized loans from student loan companies or banks. Students can submit the FAFSA to determine federal loan eligibility.
Federal work-study programs allow students to work part time on campus or at affiliated organizations that advance public good. The federal government determines work-study eligibility based on the student's FAFSA information and pays half of the students' salary.
Expert Q&A: College Money Matters
Certified Financial Education Instructor
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.
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:
Choose 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.
Enter college with course credits earned through high school or community college before enrolling as a freshman.
Become an on-campus resident assistant, which comes with the opportunity to reduce housing costs.
Consider employment opportunities that offer tuition reimbursement or waivers. Chipotle, for example, is one employer that offers this benefit.
Obtain course credits by examination with CLEP that colleges accept as equivalent course credits.
Transfer community college credits with the prior approval of the college or university.
Apply for scholarships from outside organizations, in addition to those offered by the college, and continue to apply for scholarships every semester through graduation.
Negotiate tuition breaks and inquire 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.
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.
Budget Resources for College Students
Federal Student Aid
This website connects students to federal financial aid such as grants and loans. It also offers various tips for creating and maintaining an appropriate budget.
Managed by a team of debt experts, this organization provides online information relevant to debt and financial decisions. Prospective students may benefit from this site's information on financial aid and debt management.
This company offers credit counseling, debt consolidation and management programs, debt relief solutions, and financial literacy resources. It also offers a free budgeting lesson.
An award-winning budgeting app and method, this resource helps debtors manage their money and get ahead financially. The app emphasizes planning and intentional spending. Users can sign up for a free, 34-day trial.
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.