How to budget as a college student

One of the great things about college is that it can be a time of personal development. You’re focusing on your studies, learning about who you are and figuring out who you want to be. But it’s hard to grow when you’re worried about money. 

For many students, getting creative with their finances is just another part of college life. But living on a budget doesn’t have to weigh you down. Check out these college budgeting tips as you get ready to take on the world.

Key takeaways

  • Budgeting is a skill that’s useful in college and beyond.
  • Figuring out where you have money coming in and where you’re spending is a good first step.
  • Identifying necessities—as opposed to stuff you want—can help you find areas in which to save and avoid overspending.
  • There may be student discounts and coupons available to help you find extra ways to save.

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Establish your college budget

Setting a budget while you’re in college can be important for a couple of reasons. It can help ensure you have enough money for the things you need. And it may help you save money in the long run. The basics of budgeting are pretty simple. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explains, it involves answering a few basic questions:

  • Where does my money come from?
  • Where does my money go?
  • What are my bills and when are they due?

Once you have that information, you can put together a plan:

1. Track your income and expenses

Writing down where your money comes from and what you spend it on can be a real eye-opener.

You might start by identifying your income. That can give you an idea about where you stand financially and how you’ll pay for things. Income might include money from a job, a work-study program, financial aid or parents.

Then move on to cataloging your expenses. Having awareness of your spending habits can help you adjust them to fit your goals. For example, you might find that eating out with friends is taking a bite out of your budget. Your expenses might include:

  • School-related expenses, possibly student loans
  • Rent
  • Internet and phone
  • Food and groceries
  • Entertainment, including travel or shopping
  • Transportation, including car payments

2. Set monthly spending limits

Once you understand your spending habits, create a realistic budget you can stick to. Set aside money each month for essential expenses like rent and utility bills. 

Then come up with a monthly spending limit for things like eating out and entertainment. That way, you’ll know when you can afford to splurge and when you should stick to instant ramen. 

3. Use a system that works for you

There are several methods for tracking your budget. You might choose to use a debt journal, track your spending in a spreadsheet or download an app. 

Just remember to stay organized and consistent with your tracking over time. Try to establish a set day at the beginning of each month—or once a week—to go in and update your spending. 

4. Establish your financial goals

If your budgeting goes well, you might even have a little money left over each month to start putting away for emergencies or future savings. Building good habits—and savings—can help you make progress toward bigger life goals. 

Ask yourself what these goals are. Maybe you want to graduate debt free. Or maybe you want to feel comfortable with the amount of savings you have in your account to start planning for life after graduation.

Whatever your goals are, college is a great time to start thinking about the future and making plans. Just ask Ellie, who’s featured in the video below. She was able to manage her money and build habits to set herself up for success after college.

Separate your needs from your wants

College should be fun. But it’s also a time to learn about things like establishing financial independence. And one step is differentiating between a need and a want. Knowing this information can help you make smarter spending decisions. 

Make a list of any future purchases you may be considering. Now take that list and prioritize each item. For example, is a new phone a necessity? Or do you simply want the latest edition? 

You can determine whether you need or want something by asking yourself:

  • Can I afford to buy it right now?
  • Is it essential to my everyday life?
  • Will I still be happy with my purchase in a few months? Or will I have buyer’s remorse?

Cut down on your expenses

If you find out you’re spending more than you can cover with what money you have coming in, it might be time to cut back. If you’re continuously going over budget, you’ll want to consider ways that you can cut down on your expenses. Here are a few areas to explore:

Food

Smart spending doesn’t necessarily mean skimping on taste. Learning how to eat well while not breaking the bank is a great way to save when you’re sticking to your budget. Here are some ways you can keep your wallet—and belly—full:

  • Plan out meals.
  • Make a grocery list and stick to it.
  • Cut down on eating out and deliveries.
  • Explore local food pantries.
  • Make your own coffee instead of buying it at a coffee shop.

Transportation

As a college student, you need to get around. But having a car on campus can be costly. There are ways to get to classes and clubs that won’t cost you a fortune in gas, parking, insurance and upkeep. Here are some tips for saving on transportation:

  • Bike or scooter wherever you can.
  • Take public transportation or your school’s bus service.
  • Carpool with your classmates when possible.
  • Take advantage of student transportation discounts.

Shopping

Let’s say you have a class presentation or a first date coming up, and you need to find the perfect outfit. Or maybe you need to purchase new art supplies for your drawing class. No matter the purpose, shopping is almost inevitable. But you don’t have to break the bank. Try one of these money-saving options the next time a shopping trip is in your future:

  • Visit thrift stores.
  • Borrow clothing from friends.
  • Shop around and compare to find the best deals.
  • Set spending limits for yourself.
  • Ask about coupons or student discounts.

Entertainment

Spending money on entertainment can feel great in the moment, but it can also add up quickly. Going on frequent outings with friends or hanging on to unused subscription services can blow up your budget. Try to limit your entertainment spending with one of these tricks:

  • Cancel any streaming services or gym memberships you’re not using.
  • Find free and low-cost ways to have social outings.
  • Feel comfortable telling your friends no when you’re short on cash.
  • Split costs with friends when possible.
  • Look for free activities and campus or local community events.

Take advantage of student discounts and other ways to save

Be on the lookout for discounts and other ways to help stay on your budget. You may be surprised at the variety of places that offer savings for college students. From movie theaters to restaurants and museums, businesses love to offer a helping hand to students. 

You can also look online for coupons offering savings on products, food and more. You may find them on company websites, in apps and on social media. 

There are also web-based tools like Capital One Shopping for finding deals online. Just keep in mind that online coupons may work best for things you’re already planning to buy rather than expensive splurges.

How to budget as a college student in a nutshell

Being a college student doesn’t mean you have to miss out. You can eat well, dress well and live well without flattening your wallet. It’s more about learning how to track your finances so you can manage money while still having fun—and hopefully finding time to study.

Learning to budget can help set you up for success later in life too. If you’re looking to get a jump on long-term goals, like owning your own home, check out how you can build credit with responsible use and earn rewards with a student credit card

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