The College Student Budget That Lets You Eat More Than Cereal

As a college student, it’s important to learn how to live on a budget. Between attending classes, reading, and writing papers, you will have only a limited number of hours each week to work. And unless you have an unlimited budget from your family, you’ll need to economize.

One of the most common questions we get from our student members is:

"How can I create a college student budget that lets me enjoy the college experience?"

We love getting that question because we know we can help. In this post, we’ll share our advice on which categories your budget should have as well as how to allocate your money, so you don’t have to eat Easy Mac every night.

Budget Categories to Consider

Every college student is different, but they all have some things in common. Before you start to allocate money, give some thought to the things you need and want. Here are some categories that must be in your budget:

  • Room and board. Unless you’re living at home, you’ll need to budget money either for living on campus or renting an apartment off campus.
  • Food. If you live on campus, you can buy a meal plan. You may be able to have some of your meals on campus even if you rent an apartment, but you’ll also need to budget for groceries.
  • Books and school supplies. The average cost of books for one semester is $1,250. You can reduce those costs somewhat by buying used books or renting textbooks.
  • Transportation. If you’re living on campus, your transportation costs may be relatively low and confined to trips off campus. But if you’re living off campus and not within walking distance of your classes, you’ll need to budget for either a car, car insurance, and gas, or for a public transit pass.
  • Clothing. You may arrive at school with plenty of clothes, but it’s likely you’ll need some money set aside for school sweatshirts and attire, seasonal clothing, and clothing for job fairs.

In addition to these categories, you’ll also need to set aside some money for discretionary spending, which might include money for dining out, movies, concerts, travel, and other social activities.

How to Create a Preliminary Budget

Once you know the categories of spending you need to budget for, you should talk out your budget with anybody who’s involved in financing your education, including your parents. You’ll also need to estimate your expenses. Here are the two steps to follow to get started:

  1. Decide who will pay for what. Your parents may be willing to commit to paying for textbooks, for example, while you agree to get a part-time job to pay for your entertainment. It’s important to be clear about where the money is coming from before you create a budget.
  2. Estimate the amount you will need for each category in your budget. You may decide to use the national average for textbooks ($1,250) and choose a meal plan to start with. At this stage, your best bet is to be conservative to ensure you have funds for any additional things you need.

Keep in mind that this preliminary budget is likely to change once you’re in school.

Financial Planning 101: Crash Course for College Students

Track Your Expenses

When you arrive at school, set up a system to track your expenses. You may decide to use a budgeting app or just a notebook, but it’s important to know how much you’re spending. Once you’ve got a handle on how much things really cost, you can adjust your budget accordingly.

For example, say that you are able to find used textbooks for most of your classes. That should reduce the amount of money you need for books and school supplies.

Likewise, you might end up spending more or less on housing than you anticipated. Or you might get a job that provides you with dinner, such as waiting tables at the faculty club. Any of these things may affect your budget.

Recalibrate Your Budget As Needed

The final step is to make common-sense adjustments to your college student budget as the need arises. Let’s look at a few scenarios.

First, let’s say that you find an apartment that’s less expensive than the amount you have budgeted. You may be able to purchase a meal plan with the money you save or buy a Costco membership with your roommates, so you can reduce the amount you spend on groceries. (That’s where you can avoid the Easy Mac!)

Or you might realize that you have overspent on entertainment and need to economize in other areas. The key is to start with preliminary numbers and then be realistic about what actually happens with your money.

Creating a college student budget that allows you to pay your expenses and have a social life is the ultimate goal. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll have no problem living within your budget.

To learn about Addition Financial’s Aspire Checking Account and how it can help you make the most of your budget, please click here.

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