hand holding a calculator making a budget for college student

College Success

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 one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for future success. College can be very expensive, so it’s important to make sure you are taking out as few student loans as possible and making good financial decisions. This will put you in a better financial position 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 Types of Income and Expenses Can a College Student Have?

When trying to understand finances in college, there can be different types of income and expenses that will vary from student to student. But here are a few ideas for some common income and college costs to help with budgeting, especially if you’re doing a budget for the first time:

Common Income Sources

  • Financial Aid

  • Employment

  • Scholarships

Common Expenses

  • Tuition

  • Rent/Dorm expenses

  • Food

  • Books and School Supplies

  • Utilities and Internet

  • Gas and Vehicle Expenses

  • Childcare Expenses

  • Cell Phone

  • Fun Money

How Do I Make 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 this step in a pleasant setting, like a coffee shop with your favorite drink.

  • Gather your info as listed above - 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 put down everything you can think of.

  • 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 often 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 that income. Food is another variable expense.

  • Do the math. Crunch those numbers and see where you are.

  • If you aren’t where you need to be, don’t panic! We will get to that part in a minute.

Budget Tracking Tools 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.

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

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

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

Saving Money as a College Student

If you weren’t happy with how your budget turned out, don’t panic. Now is the time to take control of your spending habits. You can save money in a number of ways and make more money.

Increasing Your Income

This 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. But here are some ways to increase without much – or any – increase in your workload.

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. Look here for some tips on how to negotiate a raise.

Look for scholarships

Many scholarships go unclaimed every year. Start with your own school. Many colleges have one deadline for all the scholarships – make sure you don’t miss it. Another thing to consider is not overlooking small scholarships. One $100 scholarship may not make that much of a difference, but twenty of those might.

Switch jobs

Unless you are doing work that will help you build your final 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.

Increase your workload

You can up your work hours after the school year or during vacations like spring break. First off, if you don't have work, getting a job while in college is possible. You might be able to increase your hours at your current job or take on another part-time job. If you have children who are home from school, think about doing online freelance work from a reputable organization during times when they are busy or asleep.

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. Become an RA

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.

2. 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 be helpful, and a roommate may be able to help you with other expenses like utilities and the internet.

3. Look at your tuition.

Consider substituting expensive general ed courses with transferable Outlier credits (or community college). Outlier has some great online courses that fit into most general education programs and can save you a great deal of money. Our Founder Aaron Rasmussen did this with a local community college to save money and pay for school. It's why he had the initial idea for Outlier!

5 Budgeting Tips to Save Money on Smaller Expenses

We are often so caught up in cutting big expenses that we forget how much trimming little living expenses can make a difference.

1. Cut food expenses

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 stores that are less expensive.

  • 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! There are always campus events going on that 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, think about a few things.

  • Seek out used textbooks.

  • If this is a general education class, and the book is expensive even when it’s used, think about renting the book.

4. Rethink that latte

Coffee drinks can be very expensive. 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 child care 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.

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.