6 Tips for Creating a Student Budget (w/ Example)

College is an exciting time for any young person. For most, it represents their first experience with independence and financial freedom, which can be exhilarating while also presenting some challenges. 

At Addition Financial, we work with our members as they plan a college education for themselves or their children. One of the things we get asked about most often is creating a student budget.

Since even students who have learned about financial literacy at home may struggle with budgeting at college, we’ve created this guide with six tips to help you create a student budget. We’ve even included an example to help you out! Here’s what you need to know.

#1: Know What College Expenses to Expect

Let’s start with what the average college student should expect to see for expenses. Major expenses such as tuition, room & board and books may be covered by parents, but some students may need to budget for these things themselves.

Here are some of the line items that we would include on a college student budget:

  • Tuition 
  • Room and Board
  • Utilities (may not be included in room & board)
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Entertainment

Depending on how a student is financing their tuition, room and board, they may not need to include these items on a budget. For example, a student who has a full ride or financial aid from a college or whose parents are taking care of those expenses can eliminate them and focus on the other expenses listed.

#2: Use the Average Cost of College as a Benchmark

Calculating average costs for college students can be tricky because tuition varies wildly depending on where you attend school. Tuition at a top-tier private university may be $60,000 per year or more, while attending a community college may cost less than $5,000 per year.

We still think it’s useful to look at national averages. According to EducationData.org, the average total cost of college in the United States as of 2022 can range from $25,487 per year for a four-year degree from an in-state college, all the way up to $43,161 per year for a four-year degree from an out-of-state college.

Here are some averages for expenses that should be included in your student budget:

  • Tuition – The average cost per year for all four-year colleges is $28,775. For two-year colleges, the average annual cost for tuition is $3,621.
  • Room & Board – The average cost at a four-year college ranges from $9,395 to $12,540. For two-year schools, it can be between $7,008 to $12,730. (Keep in mind these numbers include students who rent off-campus.)
  • Books & Supplies – Costs typically range from $1,000 to $1,500 per year regardless of which type of school you attend.
  • Additional Expenses – Additional annual costs may include food outside of school, entertainment, clothing, and transportation. Costs can vary greatly depending on where you attend school and whether you live on or off campus, but in most cases, you can expect to spend between $2,500 and $5,000 per year.

Keep in mind that these categories encompass both fixed expenses and variable expenses, so you should be prepared to build some wiggle room into your budget to ensure you have extra money to pay for the unexpected.

#3: Choose the Right Budgeting Tools

One of the best things about attending college in the 21st century is that students have access to an array of digital tools that they can use to create a budget. Of course, you can choose to keep your budgeting analog, but most people prefer the ease of using a budgeting app that they keep on their phone.

Parents and students may benefit from planning how much they need to save for college. You’ll need to know the current tuition at the school you want to attend, plus how many years it will take to get your degree and how much money you have saved now.

Here are some other tools that can be useful for creating a college student budget. Each of these can serve as a spending tracker to help you stick to your budget:

  • Mint is a free budgeting app from Intuit, the same company that makes QuickBooks. You can connect the app to your bank account and view a spreadsheet of your spending, which is useful if you need to adjust your budget.
  • EveryDollar is another free app that uses financial expert Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps to create a zero dollar budget (meaning that it deducts spending until you reach zero.) The one thing we don’t love is that this app doesn’t link to your bank which means you’ll need to enter transactions manually.
  • Goodbudget is an app with both free and paid versions. The paid version costs $7 per month or $60 per year if you pay in advance. It uses the envelope method where money in each category gets placed in a digital envelope. Once the envelope is empty, you can’t spend any more money in that category until the next month.

There are dozens of other apps to choose from. You can keep track using a Google sheet if you prefer not to install an app.

We also want to mention two Addition Financial resources that can help you with your college budget. We have written blog posts about finding an affordable college apartment and how to find a paid internship to help you with your expenses.

back to school savings checklist

#4: Create a Budget Spreadsheet

Even if you intend to use an app for budgeting, it may be useful to create a spreadsheet first to figure out your spending categories and play with the numbers.

The spreadsheet you create should include any income you have from employment and other sources, such as an allowance provided by your parents. We’re going to give you an example. For this example, we'll use a student whose tuition is covered by their parents and/or financial aid, and who lives off campus. 










Total Income









Books & supplies





















Put into savings



Total Outgoing




As you can see, your total outgoing should equal your total incoming, accounting for any money you might put into savings. You may choose to add additional categories. For example, you might want to invest some of your money or donate some to charity. You might also want to budget for travel on your break.

It is important to budget for unexpected expenses. If you don’t incur any, you can always move that money into savings at the end of the month.

#5: Create an Emergency Fund

We believe that everybody should have an emergency fund. It’s particularly important for college students, who may be relying on a job or parental support to pay their expenses. If you should lose your job or one of your parents does, you may find yourself short. We recommend having six months’ worth of expenses saved.

As a student, your monthly expenses may be low or high depending on where you go to school and what your living situation is. Many college students share an apartment with several people, which can help to keep rent costs low. However, you should still have an emergency fund on hand in case something unexpected happens.

Our hypothetical student would need a minimum of $9,600 in savings (we’ve excluded the line item for savings to calculate the amount needed) to be safe. 

#6: Make a Detailed Spending Plan

Your budget will help you understand how much you have to spend in each category, but we also suggest making a detailed spending plan that will help you save money wherever possible.

For example, most college students can expect a student discount on certain things. You might get a discount at local restaurants or on entertainment items such as movie and theater tickets. Finding out where those discounts are available can help you save money every month.

You can save money on books by buying used ones or renting textbooks instead of buying them. New textbooks are expensive and you may be surprised by how much you can save if you’re willing to consider alternatives. You can also sell your textbooks when you’re done using them to put a little money back into your pocket.

It’s also worthwhile to scope out the local grocery stores and transportation options to save money on those line items. The grocery store that’s the closest to your dorm or apartment may not be the most affordable. You may want to consider sharing a Costco membership with your roommates or friends, so you can buy staple items in bulk.

Many colleges offer free transportation on and off campus. If you don’t have a car, you may want to check out the cost of monthly passes for public transit or have a plan for sharing Ubers and Lyfts whenever possible.

Finally, if you have roommates who share expenses for utilities, you should talk about how to minimize your expenses. Your power company may offer a lower rate for off-peak usage and that can save you money every month.

Budgeting for college can help you make sense of your spending habits and avoid overspending and getting into debt. The six tips and sample budget we have included here can serve as a jumping-off point for you to create a student budget and spending plan that works for you.

Are you looking for a checking account that’s designed for college students? Addition Financial’s Aspire Checking is just what you need to manage your finances throughout your college career. Click here to learn more.

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