College is a rite of passage for graduating high school seniors. Starting college means enjoying greater freedoms and pursuing bright opportunities. But starting college also means taking on more adult responsibilities, such as a part-time job, car payments, and rent. For high school graduates, college budgeting can be a more difficult and elusive responsibility to fulfill.
In high school, saving was less goal-oriented and more of a suggestion made by parents—a responsibility unwillingly followed. Each check was usually spent on shopping the latest fashion trends, checking out the new hipster coffee shop, or purchasing tickets to a music festival. Though college students can still enjoy the many activities they used to splurge on, monthly expenses can be significantly higher than they were during one’s high school days. Budgeting now seems like a wise adult responsibility, but it can still be confusing.
Returning, or adult, college students may have a more accurate understanding of creating and maintaining a budget. But significant changes to expenses and sources of income can be difficult to anticipate, and adult college students can still benefit from learning more about budgeting in college.
What is shocking about both new and returning college students is that 58 percent of them are not saving money each month, according to a survey by LendEDU of 455 undergraduate and graduate students. Furthermore, 41 percent of survey respondents gave themselves a “C” letter grade for their financial management. Clearly, budgeting for college students is a critical learning area.
Discover the sections of this guide:
Ch. 1: How to Make a Budget in College
Ch. 2: Budgeting Tips and Tools for Students
Ch. 3: Student Budget Plan Example
Chapter 1: How to Make a Budget in College
When applying to college, you had to learn about the application process, find out where to obtain financial aid, and meet with a counselor to discuss your academic goals. With so many things to do before your first day of college, budgeting may have seemed like the most time-consuming—and difficult—responsibility.
Fortunately, budgeting for college isn’t as complicated or time-consuming as you might think. In this guide, you’ll learn about free tools that will help simplify and shorten the budgeting process. Whether you’re a graduating high school senior or an adult college student, it’s important for you to understand how your income and expenses will change, how to create financial goals, how to save for emergencies, and how to stick to your budget. But before reading about how to budget for college, it’s important to recognize why you should do it.
Why is a budget important in college?
College is a time to focus on grades, exams, and staying on track to graduate. Balancing work and school can be a struggle, and the thought of creating and maintaining a budget might sound like another responsibility on an already long list. But making an effort to budget in college is important for many reasons.
- Financial goals are just as important as academic goals, and a budget will keep you on track to meet the former.
- Maintaining financial health will let you focus more on your studies and less on unpaid credit card bills.
- A budget can guide your academic decisions, such as choosing to take a heavier course load or enrolling in summer classes.
- A budget can guide your career decisions, such as choosing to work more or fewer hours per week.
- The financial decisions you make in college will affect you for years to come.
How will creating a budget help?
Budgeting will help you:
- Identify financial goals | Whether you’re saving for a down payment on a car or a house or buying college textbooks, budgeting during college will help you see your daily purchases in the context of reaching your financial goals.
- Achieve academic and financial goals | If you value the advice of a school counselor, why not recognize the importance of a budget? With a budget, you’ll stay on track to meet your financial goals—whether they entail saving money or avoiding debt.
- Plan, save, and control expenses | Do you find yourself daydreaming about your next vacation? By tracking and analyzing your monthly expenses, you’ll be able to identify unnecessary costs, find ways to lower expenses, and get a clearer picture of how much you can save every month.
- Avoid debt and improve credit | Are your morning coffee and snack purchases getting out of hand? Maintaining a budget and monitoring your growing credit card bill could help you cut down on those habits and stay financially healthy.
How to make a budget
Now that you understand the importance and benefits of budgeting for college students, you’re asking how to create a budget while in college.
- Discuss income vs. expenses | Budgeting for college students requires understanding how your income and expenses will be affected by pursuing a degree. For example, your income from work may go down, but maybe scholarships, grants, and loans can help your finances. Expenses such as gas may increase if you drive to school. You may have less time to cook and therefore choose to purchase prepared meals or snacks.
- Create a monthly or yearly budget | Similar to creating short-term and long-term budget goals in business, college students must understand how overspending in one month can affect the yearly budget. The key to successful budgeting for college students is having both a monthly and a yearly budget.
- Stick to the budget | This is definitely easier said than done. It can be difficult to anticipate how much college textbooks will cost or how changes in gas prices will affect your budget. But keeping an eye on smaller, seemingly insignificant expenses, such as coffee or snacks, can help you stick to your financial goals.
Chapter 2: Budgeting Tips and Tools for Students
Senator Elizabeth Warren once said, “Balancing your money is the key to having enough.” In college, it may seem like your expenses are greater than your income. But it is possible to maintain a balance and make—and achieve—financial goals. By viewing money as something that can be managed and controlled, you’ll see the benefits of budgeting while in college.
As a college student, you have a plethora of budgeting tools and resources available to you. We’ve sourced advice and useful links—from budgeting tips to apps and student discounts—to help you meet your financial goals and develop healthy financial habits that will last a lifetime.
Basic saving & budgeting tips
Start with these simple, yet effective, budgeting tips in college and continue using them well after graduation.
- Track all purchases | A bag of chips and a cup of coffee here and there can really add up and put a strain on your monthly budget.
- Create categories | Expense categories can include tuition, textbooks, rent, groceries, entertainment, student loans, car maintenance, car insurance, and phone bill.
- Differentiate between wants and needs | Do you really need that cup of coffee from Starbucks, or should you start brewing your own at home?
- Allow minor cheats | It’s a lot easier to keep yourself from splurging big if you give yourself small rewards. Go ahead and have a latte every now and then—just not every morning.
- Build credit—not debt | Understand the difference between building your credit and amassing unnecessary debt.
- Use cash for entertainment | Give yourself a monthly budget for entertainment and withdraw that amount in cash. Once it’s gone, you’ll know you’ve reached your limit for the month.
- Attend free events | Free doesn’t always mean boring, so consider checking out a free on-campus event instead of going out to eat or drink.
Use budget apps to track and save student money
If you thought the only way to track your expenses was with an Excel spreadsheet, then you really need to consider a simpler option: budgeting apps.
- Mint | The ultimate budgeting app helps you manage money and track and pay bills. You can also receive custom tips and ways to grow your savings.
- Left to Spend | The app simply tells students how much they have left to spend based on a set daily allowance. No need to input or categorize monthly expenses.
- Pocket Guard | By connecting all of your financial accounts, you’ll be able to see how much you have in your pocket to spend and how you are doing on savings.
- Acorns | Take budgeting and saving to the next level by investing spare change. The app is absolutely free for college students with a valid .edu email address for up to four years after registration.
Use student discounts
As a first-time—or returning—college student, you might be surprised to learn about all of the discounts available to you. Keep track of the places you go to eat, where you shop, and what you do for fun. Find out if these businesses offer student discounts, or research alternative options to help you stick to your college budget.
- Entertainment | Movie theaters, aquariums, and museums often offer student discounts.
- Transportation | Students can take advantage of preferred pricing on vehicles from carmakers and tickets from transportation authorities.
- Car insurance | Most auto insurance companies offer student discounts based on academic performance.
- Music | Apple Music and Spotify offer discounted streaming plans for students.
- Technology | Buying laptops, tablets, and cellphones from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, or Microsoft can be significantly less expensive with a student discount.
- Shipping | Students are eligible for a 50 percent discount on Amazon Prime.
- Sports & Athletics | Many retailers, ski resorts, and sports teams offer college students discounts.
- Dining | Fast-food chains, such as Subway, Chipotle, and Burger King,offer discounts and even free menu items at participating locations.
- Other | The Groupon Student Program offers college students 25 percent off local deals for the first six months and then 15 percent offas long as they are a student.
Take advantage of campus resources
Many colleges and universities offer a free financial literacy and money management program to their students. The financial aid office website will also likely have links to other resources, such as worksheets, budgeting websites, and information pages about credit.
The financial aid office may also offer the option of an emergency advance. The funds can come from a school-based loan program or an emergency aid procedure. Be sure to check the terms and conditions, such as interest rates, before signing an agreement.
An on-campus food bank helps alleviate food insecurity among college students, letting you focus more on studying and less on finding food if your income is running low. Check with the student center to find out what your school offers.
Chapter 3: Student Budget Plan Examples
Once you’ve created your financial goals and armed yourself with student discounts, you can move on to filling in a college student budget template. In this step, you’ll start to see exactly where you spend money and where you can start saving. You’ll have expense categories to show you if you might be overspending on entertainment, for example. Once you’ve entered in your monthly expenses and income, a visual graph or chart will help give you a picture of your financial health.
The following college budget templates have been designed to encourage you to pursue your financial goals, spend less time worrying about income, and focus on excelling in your studies. Find one that works for you and stick to it, as following through is the key to achieving your financial goals.
Templates to track finances and spending
BalanceTrack Financial Goals Worksheet | Use this spreadsheet to describe your short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals.
Microsoft My College Budget Worksheet | This worksheet can be downloaded or edited in a browser to help you manage your monthly expenses, monthly income, and semester expenses.
Vertex42 College Budget Template | Track income and expenses on a monthly and semester basis with this comprehensive spreadsheet.
Mint College Student Budget Template | This simple yet comprehensive template can help students track monthly income, monthly expenses, and semester costs.
Templates to categorize expenses
BalanceTrack Finances for Students: Budget Worksheet | Complete the worksheet or use it as a reference to identify and categorize your expenses.
Microsoft College Expense Estimator | Familiarize yourself with the different types of expenses you’ll have as a college student.
Templates to create savings
Microsoft Savings Estimator | Download or edit in a browser this worksheet that will lay out how much you’ll need to save on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis to meet a savings goal.
Vertex42 Savings Goal Tracker | Track your progress in reaching your savings goals.
Financial Awareness Counseling Tool (FACT) | This free interactive tool educates college students on various financial topics, such as avoiding defaulting on loans and managing finances.
Federal Student Aid | Learn how to create your own college budget and view examples of tracking spreadsheets.