How much spending money does a college student need?

College can be the most exciting and eye-opening period of your life. It can also be a time filled with financial hurdles you haven’t jumped before. So how do you focus on exams and socializing without sweating over whether you can afford a late-night slice? 

Your college experience is unique to you. And the amount of spending money you need can vary based on your unique circumstances. Read on to learn how to figure out how much spending money you may need in college. 

Budgeting in college

Creating a monthly budget can be a first step when figuring out spending money. But how do you get started? 

Here are some things to take into consideration when creating your college budget:

  • Non-tuition costs: There are a lot of living expenses to account for when attending college. From transportation to groceries to personal care and entertainment, they can add up. And they vary depending on where you live. According to, in 2020, students living on campus at a 4-year institution paid an average of over $3,000 on these kinds of additional expenses annually. Be sure to account for all those extra costs when calculating your budget.
  • Cash flow: If more money is going out than coming in, consider adjusting your budget accordingly. Gauge when you can expect income to arrive and when you can expect expenses to come knocking. 
  • Support from family: If you regularly receive money from a loved one or someone in your family, don’t forget to count it as a source of income.
  • Financial aid: If you qualified for financial aid, make note of how much it covers. But if there’s still a gap, the Department of Education recommends applying for scholarships, working an on-campus part-time job or establishing a payment plan with your school’s billing office.
  • Lifestyle: If you prefer ordering takeout on the regular, it may be wise to add that as its own expense within your budget. Or if you plan to join a club or organization, add their dues to your fixed costs. Your budget can reflect what you assign value to, so don’t be afraid to customize it to fit your lifestyle.

It’s also a good idea to reevaluate your budget at least once a year to keep it up to date.

Calculating your spending money 

One way to calculate how much spending money you have is by subtracting all necessary expenses from your monthly income. The number you’re left with is the amount of spending money you have available. 

If you have $2.000 in monthly income and $1,500 in necessary expenses, the difference would be $500 for total monthly spending money. 

From there, it’s up to you to split that amount between categories like savings, investments and spending money. 

If you have $500 in monthly spending money, you can split that amount. For example, $100 in savings, $100 invested and $300 for other spending.

Preparing and saving before college

You can help set yourself up for success before you even set foot on campus. Getting a job the summer before starting college can help provide you with a financial head start. It can also be a great way to start wrapping your head around income and expenses. 

Building an emergency fund to account for random expenses is also generally a good idea. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends setting an emergency fund goal of $500 to start. But regardless of what number you set your sights on, try to maintain it throughout college and adjust it when appropriate. 

You never know when that extra cash may come in handy. And while dipping into your savings may not feel ideal, sometimes it might be your only option. 

Also keep in mind that college spending can vary greatly. The choices you make—meal plan or groceries, student or off-campus housing—can change what your budget looks like month to month. 

Tracking college spending

As you track your spending over time, clear trends will likely emerge that can help you create a more accurate budget.

Distinguishing needs from wants when reviewing your spending can also help you find costs you can cut back on. You might find that extras like streaming service subscriptions or daily coffee purchases are areas where you could cut back.

A helpful way to track your monthly spending is to use a budgeting tool. If you’re unsure on how to create one, the CFPB has a spending tracker available for free

Working during college

If you plan to work while you attend college, you’re certainly not alone. It might help to consider looking for a job that fits your lifestyle. 

  • On-campus jobs: These may offer more flexibility with your schedule, allowing for a healthy balance between work and study time. And if you live on campus but don’t have a reliable way of getting around, they might be best.
  • Off-campus jobs: There may be more opportunities and choices for an off-campus job, but they might not be as flexible around your class schedule. 

Weigh the pros and cons for each before you commit. 

Building confidence with your finances

For many people, college is about personal growth. And a big part of that can be getting more comfortable with managing your money. 

Creating a budget, tracking spending habits, working to build or establish a good credit score, and setting savings goals can help. And when you’re ready to consider a credit card, there are student cards that, when used responsibly, could help you build your credit. 

Student rewards credit cards

With responsible use, students can earn rewards while building credit for tomorrow.

Explore cards

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