The Ultimate Guide to Budgeting in College

When you’re a college student, you won’t have many opportunities to work full-time while balancing a full course load. If you can fit in a full-time job, the odds are you’ll be working for minimum wage, which means you’ll need to learn how to budget so you can afford necessities like food and snacks. 

If you’re living in the dorms, then your housing cost will usually be much lower than when you’re living in an apartment or renting a house off-campus. Not to mention, you don’t have to pay for utilities. Luckily, with a good budget, you should be able to afford food and housing if you’re living off-campus. Here’s your guide to budgeting in college. 

Start Budgeting Early

If you’re not in college yet, then now is the perfect time to start learning how to budget and building a budget for college so you can prepare for financial hardships. While budgeting may seem like a daunting task, you can increase your chances of success by tracking your spending and starting a budgeting worksheet so you can see how much money you bring in and how much you spend. 

The sooner you learn to budget, the easier it will be when you’re out of college and starting your first job, planning your retirement, and buying life insurance

Estimate Your Monthly Expenses

Once you’ve arrived at college, start estimating your monthly expenses. College expenses will vary depending on where you go to school and your room and board. You can start estimating your monthly spend by writing down all of your potential expenses, including:

  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Rent
  • Books and school supplies
  • Utilities (if applicable)

Over time, you’ll be able to figure out your average expenses and can plan to make sure you have enough to cover your bills. 

Determine Your Monthly Income

College incomes are usually low, but many college students work while they’re in college. Some students receive money from their parents for food and other expenses. Student loans can also be considered income since you might be able to use the money for living expenses, including room and board or apartment rent. It’s important to remember a loan might seem like additional money to spend, but you’ll have to repay the entire loan plus interest in the future, so try to limit how much you borrow. 

If you don’t have a steady income and are relying on student loans or savings, you might not know what to use your monthly income on. Luckily college students who live in dorms don’t have many monthly expenses. 

After you’ve paid for room and board, divide your monthly income by the number of months you’ll need it. If you take a summer job and save $8,000, you can divide that number by eight months (the typical length of a school year) and set your monthly income at $1,000. 

As a college student, your monthly expenses and income can be equal, but you should avoid having expenses higher than your income at all costs. If you have more expenses, you’ll need to either save money or increase your income. 

Track Your Spending

While you may have estimated your expenses before, after a few months of college, you’ll be able to track your spending and have estimates for how much you spend every month. You can use several budgeting apps to help you learn more about your spending habits. 

Many college students have semi-regular expenses, including room and board, that might be due at the beginning of the semester. If this is the case, add up your total expenses for the year and divide that number by eight just like you did with your income to determine if your expenses and income equal one another. 

Set Money Aside

Part of budgeting is ensuring you can save money for entertainment. You can set money aside by adding different saving goals as expenses to your budget. If you don’t spend some money one month, you can put it in a savings account so you can earn interest over the year. 

As a college student, you may not think you’ll have to deal with any emergencies, but anything can happen. Make sure you start an emergency fund for things, such as:

  • Vehicle repairs 
  • Transportation home
  • Unexpected bills 

You can also set other savings goals for other things like saving up for a semester abroad, traveling over spring break, or buying a new car.  

Budgeting Tips for College Students

Budgeting as a college student is difficult because you don’t have a high income. The good news is you likely don’t have too many expenses other than room and board, school supplies, and tuition. Here are some additional budgeting tips that can help you increase your income and decrease your expenses. 

Cautiously Use Credit Cards

If you have a credit card or are thinking about getting one, try to only purchase items you can immediately afford to pay off. Having a credit card is a great way to build credit when you’re young, so you shouldn’t completely stay away from one; just make sure you’re spending responsibly. If you are hesitant about your spending habits on a credit card you can have someone cosign the account with you for accountability. 

Rent/Buy Used Books

Most school bookstores and online bookstores offer used textbooks at a discount. Buying your new books can cost you double the price of buying them used. 

Start a Side Gig

Many college students earn extra money by getting a side gig and working online. With freelance platforms like Fiverr, you can sell your services without having to leave your dorm room. 

Get a Job On Campus

Find a job on campus so you don’t have to travel too far to go to work. Working at your college will help you save time on your commute while increasing your income. 

Use Your Student Discount

Many stores and businesses offer college students a discount, including movie theaters and shops located near campus. Take advantage of your discount whenever you can to reduce your expenses. 

Marné Amoguis

Marné Amoguis holds a B.A. in International Business from UC San Diego. She is a contributing writer at 365businesstips.com where she loves sharing her passion for digital marketing. Outside of writing, she loves traveling, playing music, and hiking.

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