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budgeting for college students

How to Create a College Student Budget in 3 Simple Steps

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Budget-building is an important skill at any age, but the earlier you build good habits, the better. College is often one of the first times that students are independently making purchases for themselves, and learning how much things actually cost. 

Between paying for housing, food, and school, students also have to learn how to keep their non-necessary spending in line. It is important to be proactive and make a budget before your spending gets the better of you.

Have a Discussion About Money and Student Loans Before College Starts

One of the most important factors in your college budget will be tuition itself. Before deciding where you want to go to school, figure out how much you are willing to spend, and where the tuition money is coming from.

Will parents, family, or loved ones help pay for college?

While it might be uncomfortable to talk about money, it is important to know before the bill comes in who is going to be pitching in. Maybe your parents had a 529 savings account set up for you a long time ago? Or maybe a grandparent would like to buy your flights home freshman year? Are you taking on student loans and do you know what interest rate you might expect?

You won’t know until you have asked and are on the same page with everyone who might play a role in your college budgeting. Once you know if anyone else will be contributing to your education expenses, you can start figuring out how much is on you. 

Will you be earning income during college?

If you haven’t built a budget before, you need a budget in high school, before college starts. Consider what your monthly expenses will be like while in school, and decide if you will need further income to support yourself. 

Many on-campus jobs offer flexible hours, as student schedules often change every 10 to 15 weeks. Not sure if you would be able to balance a part-time job while going to school full-time? You might also consider working full-time in the summer to build up a cash reserve to draw from during the school year.  Even if you don’t think you need the extra money on hand, it can be good to have for unexpected expenses you didn’t see coming (or just to have extra spending money). 

Do you have any existing debt? 

Do you already have a car loan, cell phone bill, or credit card debt? Before you add on student loan debt to your credit report, you might consider making headway on existing debt. While previous federal student debt will go into deferment if you are returning to school, other debts will still need to be paid off in a timely fashion.

Calculate Your College Expenses 

When searching for the cost of a school, you might notice a cost of attendance that is larger than the tuition figure. This is the school’s estimated additional costs that will go into your education spending. 

It is important to calculate the total costs that will go into attendance and understand the financial gap between how you’re paying for college and how much college costs. 


When you search online for a school, the first number associated might be the cost of tuition. This is also a number you will hope to bring down through financial aid and scholarships. 

College fees

Your selected institution might also have further fees that are not included in the tuition sticker price. These could include orientation fees, campus fees, graduation fees, tech center fees, etc.    

Housing and food

Depending on where you are going to school, you might not have a lot of options when it comes to housing. On-campus might have to be treated like a fixed cost if there are no alternatives near campus. Some schools also require freshmen to be on-campus for at least a year. 

If off-campus living is an option, be sure to weigh the pros and cons of commuting to school. There are some schools that subsidize the cost of on-campus housing, so off-campus isn’t always a way to save money. 

Finally, take a look at all the meal plan options and decide which is best for you. If you live on-campus you might be required to sign up for a plan, but it could also be a cost-effective solution for commuter students who would otherwise eat out.

Books and supplies

The average student will need to budget around $1240 for books and supplies each year they enroll full-time in a four-year school. If you are taking a course that requires a lab or technology center you might also have to pay an additional fee. 

One option to try and minimize the dent books could make in your budget is to rent your textbooks. You could also reach out to the teacher or TA before the first day and ask if a previous edition could be used instead. 

Transportation and travel

If you are a commuter student, make sure to factor in the cost of getting to and from campus into your monthly budget. You may consider getting a bike or car to get around a larger campus. If you have to fly home for the holidays you will want to buy those tickets early to get a deal. 

Discretionary spending

There are plenty of opportunities to spend more money while attending school. Even if it is just for a break from the on-campus food, you will want to be realistic about how much you are expecting to spend on non-essentials, or that figure could sneak up on you.

3 Steps to Create a College Student Budget

At this point you have made a number of financial decisions; you know who is paying for school, what your known costs will be, and if you will need to work while in school. The final step is putting all these pieces together and maximizing your dollars while in college with a budget. 

1. Track your spending

Start to get in the habit of tracking your spending before heading to school to understand your current spending habits. This will give you a baseline spending model to start with and a way to build your own financial goals. 

Budgeting apps like Mint are easy-to-use options that directly follow your spending and monthly income when you input your bank account information. It is important to factor your cash-based spending on these apps as well. 

2. Cut back on living expenses

Once you know what you are spending, you can take a hard look and what you can cut out of your college budget. Maybe you bought more meals off-campus than you expected, consider why that happened and what you can change to use your meal plan more effectively.

Being aware of where you are overspending is the first big step, but sticking to the plan is a life skill.

3. Build an emergency fund

Not all expenses can be planned for. Having a cash reserve for surprise costs that pop up could save you time and money in the long run. It is also important to practice discipline with this fund. A last-minute spring break trip is not an emergency expense that your fund should be used to cover. 

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.