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How To Create a Budget for College Students and Save Money

02.23.2022 • 7 min read

Jennifer Rivera

Subject Matter Expert

This article overviews budgeting for college students, why it is important, how to create a budget, tools, and tips to save money.

In This Article

  1. What Types of Income and Expenses Can a College Student Have?

  2. How Do I Make a Budget?

  3. Budget Tracking Tools for College Students

  4. Saving Money as a College Student

  5. College Student Budget Example

Being organized with your money is critical to setting yourself up for future success. College can be ‌expensive. Make sure you ‌are taking out as few student loans as possible and making good financial decisions.

Creating a college budget will put you in a better financial position in college and after you graduate. Let’s go through the different parts of a budget and then go over some tips on how to save money.

What Is a Budget?

A budget is a personal finance plan outlining how you earn and spend money. A good budget will help keep your finances in line with your goals. Typically, a budget is planned out where income and expenses are kept track of each month. This means you know exactly how much money you have in your checking and savings accounts before making any purchases.

Importance of Student Budgeting

Having a budget as a student is just as important as good time management. By having a budget as a student you will have insight into exactly what you can and can’t afford. This may sound restricting, but it is actually quite freeing. A student budget allows you to live without questioning each of your purchases and wondering if you can pay for what you really need.

How To Start a Budget

Making a budget can seem overwhelming at first, but it only requires a few steps. If dealing with money makes you nervous, do these steps in a pleasant setting, like a coffee shop with your favorite drink.

1. Gather Your Information

Gather your info—all the income and expenses you can think of. Don’t worry now about whether it seems to be too much or too little. Just get everything in one place.

2. Categorize Your Income and Expenses

Once you have all your expenses, put them into categories

  • Use categories like food, rent, childcare, scholarships, etc.

  • Note which expenses and income are not monthly expenses. For example, you generally buy books at the beginning of the semester. Scholarship money ‌comes in at the beginning of the semester as well.

  • Note which expenses are fixed expenses and which are variable—meaning they can change from month to month. If your work hours vary, this might be the case for work income. Something like food can be variable or fixed depending on your situation.

3. Do the Math

Crunch those numbers and see where you are—what you spend and what you make. If you aren’t where you need to be, don’t panic! We will get to that part in a minute.

4 Budgeting Tips for College Students

If you weren’t happy with how your budget turned out, now is the time to take control of your spending habits. You can save money in several ways and make more money if you need to.

Increasing your income can be tricky. You don’t want to work so much that you end up not doing well in your classes. That is a huge waste of tuition dollars - probably one of your biggest expenses.

Here are some ways to increase your income without much – or any – increase in your workload.

1. Ask for a Raise

Have you been working at the same job for a while? Ask for a raise. Don’t underestimate your worth to an organization.

It can be helpful to create a list of attributes that you bring to the company you work for. Then figure out what you need to make before going to talk to your boss.

2. Look for Scholarships

Many scholarships go unclaimed every year. Start with your own school. Most colleges have one deadline for all the scholarships—make sure you don’t miss it.

Don’t overlook small scholarships. One $100 scholarship may not make that much of a difference, but twenty of those will. Be sure to check in with your financial aid office to find out how to apply for scholarships.

3. Switch Jobs

Unless you are doing work that will help you build your career, think about switching jobs to one that has higher pay. Before you do though, be sure the new job is willing to work with your school schedule.

4. Take Advantage of Breaks

You might be able to increase your hours at your current job or take on another part-time job during summer or winter break. If you have children who are home from school, think about doing online freelance work from a reputable organization during times when the kids are busy or asleep.

By making a bit more money in the short term you can pad your budget to meet your financial goals in the future.

3 Budgeting Tips To Save Money on Big Expenses

Cutting your expenses is where you can really make a huge difference. Often we don’t think about where we can cut expenses until we really dig into them.

1. Look at Your Tuition

If you are taking general education courses, perhaps go to a less expensive school to get those done. Golden Gate University's Degrees+ powered by Outlier.org provides a student experience unlike any other. At $149 per credit, Outlier’s courses can save you a great deal of money and fit into your busy schedule.

2. Become an RA (if on campus)

If you live in campus housing, consider becoming a residential assistant (RA). Often RAs get their room and their meal plans for free or at a very reduced cost.

3. Get a Roommate

If you live in your own house and have an extra room, consider taking on a roommate. Getting help with the mortgage can relieve financial strain, and a roommate may be able to help you with other expenses like utilities and the internet.

6 Budgeting Tips To Save Money on Smaller Expenses

We forget how much trimming little living expenses can make a difference.

1. Cut Back on Food Costs

Food expenses are a great place to cut. How much does a university student spend on food each month? It depends. If you are a linebacker on the football team, your food expenses are probably going to be higher than others. But there are still places to cut.

  • Think about where you shop, and find less expensive stores.

  • Cook at home with real food. Create a list of recipes that are easy to cook and have a small number of inexpensive ingredients.

  • Find free food! Campus events are always going on and offer pizza, tacos, and other goodies.

2. Use Discounts and Coupons

Many places offer student discounts and coupons. This isn’t only true for restaurants, but for movie theaters and grocery stores as well.

3. Be Smart About Your Textbooks

At the end of the semester, think about the textbooks you have purchased. Is this an important book for your field? Keep it. But if this is a book for a general education class—which you will never use again—best to sell it.

When you go to purchase your textbooks, consider these options:

  • Seek out used textbooks

  • Rent the book—if for a general education class and the book is expensive even when used

4. Rethink That Latte

Coffee drinks can be very expensive and add up quickly. Instead of having that latte every morning, save the expensive drinks for special occasions or special motivators – like the morning of a test. Drink plain coffee the rest of the time. This is a great way to curb overspending.

5. Consider a Childcare Co-Op

Childcare is one of the biggest living expenses a family can have. If you know other families who may have flexible schedules, consider forming a childcare co-op where one person is responsible for the childcare each day of the week or at certain times of the day. That can be a great way for all families involved to save a good amount of money.

6. Pay off Your Credit Card

Credit cards can be a great way to pay for your expenses, but not paying them off each month can really hurt in the long run. When you stick to a budget you don’t spend money you don’t have in your bank account.

The average college student not only graduates with student loan debt but also thousands of dollars in credit card debt. This proves when you have good money management habits in college you set yourself up better for your future.

3 Budgeting Apps for College Students

Making a budget isn’t enough. You need to make sure you are following it. The great news is there are many apps and tools that can help you with that. Here are a couple of the best budget apps for college students.

1. Truebill

Truebill is a great way to not only track your spending but find and cancel any forgotten subscriptions you aren't using.

2. Mint

Mint is one of the most popular apps for budgeting, and depending on what you use, it might integrate well with your tax software.

3. Excel or Sheets

Not an app person? Excel and Google Sheets both have great templates for tracking your budget without using an app.

College Student Budget Example

Sometimes it can be helpful to have an example when you are getting started budgeting. Below is an example of a college student budget worksheet, but be sure to adapt it to your own circumstances.

List of ExpensesBudget for the Semester (6 months)Monthly Budget
Tuition$4000Payment plan $1000
Books$400Paid beginning of the semester
Vehicle Expenses$2100$350
Fun & Entertainment$1500$250

Don’t be afraid of working on a budget. A budget can help you navigate finances in college and get you close to your financial goals so you are in the best place possible when you graduate.