How to budget as a student

November 23, 2021

Miranda Marquit

Once you’re out of your parents’ house and off to college, your finances become a little more involved. Not only are you are in charge of your spending, but you have many more choices to make when it comes to your money.

Creating a budget is essential to ensure your college finances stay on the right track. Plus, learning to budget as a student is a valuable skill you can use later in life. Let’s take a look at how you can start budgeting.

Start with the money talk

There is often a taboo around talking about money — even if it’s with your parents or another trusted adult. However, having that money talk is important if you want to know what you have to work with as you create your student budget.

As you talk about money with someone else, make sure to cover the following points:

Who pays for what

Some parents pay for all costs associated with college, including housing and entertainment. Other parents might cover the cost of tuition but leave living and entertainment expenses up to the student. In other cases, a student is entirely responsible for all costs. Get clear on what you have to pay for.

Ordinary expenses during college

Your parents or other guardians might not have a clear picture of what common expenses might be. Consider talking to your school’s financial aid office to find out about common expenses. These might include tuition, fees, books, meal plans, housing, and other costs. Have an idea of what you might need to spend while you’re at college.

Potential job opportunities

Don’t forget to figure out the income piece. Your parents or guardians might have ideas for jobs that are available. The campus career center may help you find jobs both on and off campus. When you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you can indicate an interest in work-study. This can be an excellent way to receive guaranteed income for a job that might help you with your cash flow needs.

Once you’ve had the money talk, you can get a clearer picture of your finances and what they might look like during college.

Review your income and expenses

Take a look at your income and expenses to understand how money moves through your personal economy. In addition to knowing when and how much you can expect to get paid, you should also know what bills you have and when they’re due.
Income sources
Depending on your situation, you might have a variety of income sources, including:

  • regular allowance from your parents
  • scholarships to pay for tuition and fees
  • job or work-study help
  • side hustle
  • student loans (although they have to be paid back) to help you with education expenses

Understanding where the money is coming from can help you figure out how much you have to work with. Suppose you know that your scholarships and student loans will cover your tuition, fees, books, school meal plan, and housing. In that case, you can then figure out whether a part-time job is enough to cover your other costs, including entertainment and extracurricular activities.

List out your income sources and what expenses they are earmarked for.

Expenses

Depending on your situation, there are different spending categories you may need to plan for. However, it’s common to spend money on the following items while you’re at college:

  • tuition and fees for attending school
  • textbooks, supplies, and equipment needed for classes
  • housing (including utilities), whether you stay on campus or off campus
  • food, whether you fix your own meals, eat out, or use a college meal plan
  • transportation for getting to and from campus, if needed, or a parking pass if you drive yourself (don’t forget about gas and auto insurance)
  • discretionary spending on extra clothing, entertainment, travel, and extracurricular activities

List out your likely expenses and pair them with an income source. For example, if you have a scholarship, pair your tuition costs with the scholarship. You then know that it is covered for the semester. If your parents pay for your housing, match that up in your list. If you know you are responsible for paying for the gas in your car, list your job or side hustle as the income source.

Seeing which income sources match up with your expenses can help you get a better idea of where you stand financially.

In some cases, it can make sense to use an app like You Need a Budget (YNAB) to plan out your expenses. With YNAB, “every dollar gets a job” so you can easily assign your income to costs and plan for the future.

Consider the future

Assigning income to different expenses is an integral part of making sure you’re on track. However, you also want to consider the future. Look for ways to cut back on some of your spending to see if there is extra money in your budget.

By setting up an emergency fund, you leave yourself some room for unexpected costs.

 

When you have extra money, consider setting it aside for an emergency fund or retirement. You can even plan for this. Decide you want to contribute a set amount to retirement each month, and then plan for that by matching that line item with a source of income. You can do the same with an emergency fund.

By setting up an emergency fund, you leave yourself some room for unexpected costs. You might end up needing a car repair, or be stuck replacing a textbook if yours gets lost or damaged. Rather than needing to use a credit card to cover these costs, you’ll have an emergency fund to dip into.

Monitor your spending

An essential part of student budgeting is making sure you’re on track. Monitor your spending to make sure it’s in line with your plans and your income.

As you monitor your spending, review which items are needs and which are wants. Often, it can become easy to just spend your money without thinking about whether you’re working toward your goals or whether you actually need an item. If you tend to run out of money towards the end of the month, look at your spending to see if some of it is going toward unnecessary items.

The more connected you are to your money, the less likely you are to make big mistakes with it.

 

Checking your spending is relatively easy. You can check your bank and credit card statement regularly to see where the money is going. Additionally, there are several budgeting apps, like Mint and YNAB, that can help you stay on top of your spending.

You might need to cut back on some costs if you’re overspending on wants. If it looks like your expenses related to needs are going up, look for ways to save money. If that doesn’t work, you might need to look for additional income or develop more creative solutions.

It can be challenging to look for more income when you’re a student due to the time constraints of classes. As a result, it often makes sense to look for the best ways to cut back on spending when possible.

Review your spending at the end of each month. Look at where the money went and notice whether you’re above your budgeted amount in specific categories. The more connected you are to your money, the less likely you are to make big mistakes with it.

Adjust as necessary

Remember, a budget isn’t set in stone. Sometimes you need to make adjustments. If you find your food costs are rising, you might need to cut back on entertainment. So, if you previously expected to spend $100 per month on food, but are spending $150, you might need to cut your entertainment budget from $200 per month to $150.

Additionally, it’s essential to see if your budget is still in line with your goals. If you’ve reached your emergency fund target, you might want to set a different goal, such as creating a spring break fund or putting more into your retirement account.

Bottom line

Start budgeting now, as a student, and develop a good habit that will be useful for the rest of your life. Start by looking at your income and expenses and matching them up. Consider using a budgeting app that can help you get an overview of what’s happening with your money so you can quickly see whether you’re on track.

Students have a lot of expenses, so it’s essential to make sure you have the income and a plan to cover them. Create a budget, monitor your spending, and make adjustments as needed. Over time, you’ll become better at the process, and by the time you graduate, you’ll be a budgeting pro — just in time for your first paycheck post-college.

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