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How to Budget as a College Student

What you'll learn: Things to consider when making a college budget


You did it! You made it into the college of your choice. Most likely this will be the first time you will be living on your own, away from your family; which may be the first time you’ve had to manage money entirely on your own.

Good budgeting can be a challenge for all of us but having a reasonable college budget in place can help you avoid financial stress — which allows you to focus on your studies instead. Ideally, that means you would plan on a budget before heading off to college but if you missed that deadline, it’s never too late to start a budget to help you spend smartly.

Unlike the typical household budget, which is often built around the monthly schedule on which bills are due, it probably makes more sense to build a college budget per semester — since that is typically the schedule when tuition and books (a student’s largest costs) need to be paid for. Let’s look at what you’ll need to consider when building a college budget.


Most budgets start with how much money you’re bringing in and then fitting expenses into it, but when budgeting for college, which you’ll probably be paying for through several different methods, it may make more sense to look at what it’s going to cost first. When you’re figuring your costs, be sure to consider not only tuition, but also books, fees, room and board, and personal expenses to get a complete look at how much you’ll be spending.

Be sure to consider everything you’re likely to spend here, from groceries to meals out, to movies. Be realistic, because anything that isn’t part of this budget you won’t have money set aside for. It can be hard to estimate just how much you’ll spend if you’re just getting started with living on your own but make your best estimate — asking for help from friends and family can be a good way to measure what a reasonable estimate for a college budget is if you aren’t sure.


You know how much money you need, so now it’s time to consider how much money you’re making. Add up the money from scholarships, grants, work-study programs, loans, and any part-time work you have. What you want is income that meets all of your expenses, which can be challenging for a student with limited income.

The toughest part of making a college budget is making it balance so you aren’t spending more money than you have to spend. If your income doesn’t meet your expenses, it’s time to start rethinking things. Are you over-estimating your expenses? Did you miss an income source that will help you meet those expenses? Are there ways to save — from buying used books to getting a roommate — that you haven’t considered? Whatever you do, you’ll want to make sure your budget balances, so your income is higher than your expenses. If you don’t manage to make a balanced budget, you’re setting yourself up for financial problems later.


Even though it can be hard to make ends meet as a student, it’s important to set money aside for savings, too. Having money saved up will help you through emergency expenses you didn’t plan for, from unexpected car repairs to medical problems. Savings will be the difference between putting emergency expenses on a credit card — possibly at high interest rates — and being able to shrug it off as no big deal.


Even harder than making your college budget is sticking to it. Once you’ve carefully plotted out just how much you have to spend, you have to make sure you stay inside the guidelines you set for yourself. And to know whether you’re sticking to your budget, it’s important to keep track of what you’re spending, whether using a spreadsheet, an app, or a pen and paper. If you find yourself outspending your budget, you may need to rethink your shopping habits — or rework your budget.

Just remember, learning how to budget as a college student will set you up with good habits for the future and save you money in the long run.