Budgeting in College
As you prepare for a new year at college, managing your money may be the last thing on your mind. But, college is the perfect time to instill strong and healthy financial habits, such as budgeting and living within your means. While we all know that having a budget is important, it's easy to forget to sit down and dedicate time to creating and maintaining one — especially if you're in college. But when it comes to managing personal finances, creating and using a budget is absolutely essential. By starting on the right foot with good saving and spending habits, you'll have a good chance to set yourself up for a life of financial success.
What areas do you spend the most in? What goals are you saving for? As a student, you'll have a different set of priorities and financial responsibilities than if you were in the workforce. You may have a part-time job or rely on your parents to help cover expenses. It's important to remember that your expenses will extend beyond tuition. Here are a few categories to keep in mind as you create a budget and continue to track costs at the end of each semester:
Living with family while you attend college can be a great way to save money. If that isn't possible, you have a couple of options:
- Off-campus housing – If you're planning on living off campus, look for a place as far in advance as possible. Compare your options, taking cost and convenience into account. Remember that sharing a room with a friend or another student can help you cover housing costs. In addition to choosing somewhere affordable, ensure the place you select makes campus easily accessible. Consider these tips for off-campus housing:
- Start by finding roommates that are financially responsible. Keep in mind that if you’re on a lease together, in the event they fail to pay their share, the rent may fall on you.
- Then determine a budget. After tuition, food and books, how much do you have to spend on rent? Don’t forget the deposit and utilities.
- Now you can look for an apartment. Your on-campus housing office should have informations to off-campus apartments. It may also help to explore your social network to see if anyone knows of people leaving their apartments.
- Do not rent an apartment without seeing it. Make sure your new landlord is available to show you the place. Also make note of any pre-existing damages to ensure the landlord addresses them before your move-in — and doesn’t charge you for them after the end of your move-out.
- Know the difference between renting and leasing. Renting involves you paying a deposit, agreeing to take care of the space, and giving the landlord a month’s notice before moving out. Leasing requires a contract for a specific time frame (typically a year) that details rules regarding property maintenance. You cannot break the lease until the year is up. Be sure to read the lease carefully before signing it. Ask about parking, trash pickup, snow removal and pets.
- On-campus housing – Living on campus allows you to be close to classes and to live with other students your age. Whether it is dorm life or a fraternity or sorority, living on campus can be more convenient. However, on-campus housing is often more expensive. Consider these tips for on-campus housing:
- Before you get to campus, your school should reach out with information about on-campus housing. From traditional residence halls, to apartment-style housing, you may have options.
- Be sure to weigh your wants and needs when choosing housing.
- As an upperclassman, you may have the opportunity to serve as an RA, or Residence Assistant, whose job it is to supervise students living in on-campus residence halls. More often than not, Residence Assistants can live rent-free in return for their work.
Even if your parents provide the money needed for housing or food, budgeting those items is a good idea. Working on developing smart habits and taking accountability for how you save and spend during your college years will benefit you in the long run.
Textbooks can be an expensive addition to your budget. With the average cost of textbooks at $1,298 a year, books are a cost that shouldn't be overlooked. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to spend less on textbooks. Buying a gently used textbook rather than a brand-new one — or buying an e-book instead of a printed textbook — can save big bucks. Many retailers online or on-campus offer the option to rent books for a reduced price. You can also make some of your money back by reselling your textbooks at the end of the year to certain retailers or fellow students. Or cut costs entirely by looking into whether your school provides a free book exchange with other students.
Budgeting for food will depend largely on whether or not your housing offers meal plans. If it does, you will likely be charged a one- or two-part payment. Most schools offer several tiers of meal plans, so you can choose what's right for you without overspending. If you aren't relying on a meal plan, explore all of the stores around you for the best deals on groceries — some stores will sell the same product at a higher markup than others. You may also be able to find coupons and deals either in-store or online. Of course, being in college doesn't mean you can't indulge yourself. Take the bite out of restaurant costs by choosing water over expensive drinks, or splitting an appetizer (and its cost) with your friends. Decide what makes the most sense for you between classes, whether it's packing a lunch you can eat on campus, stopping at a cafe, or picking up a bargain takeout meal. Download the free Lunch Tracker App for iOS to track how much you spend on lunch and find out what you're able to save. Whether a store-bought burrito or a homemade meal, it adds up.
At college there are plenty of opportunities to have fun without spending loads of money. Keep up-to-date on upcoming school events, many of which may be cheap or free. Cooking meals with friends can be a great form of socializing while saving, but if you decide to treat yourself and want to go out to eat or see a show, remember to take advantage of any discounts that may be available for college students.
In most college towns, having a car can become an inconvenience. If possible, save the money you would spend on parking, insurance and gas, or use public transportation instead. Parking can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year. If you don't need to travel far, ride a bike or walk. It will save you money and it's the perfect way to get exercise — for free.
Budgeting isn't just about expenses — remember that if you're working part-time or have a paid internship, the income you make should be logged in your budget. Tracking this money will give you a better picture of your financial situation overall, and you'll be able to see exactly what happens to the money you work hard for. If you're eligible, Federal Work-Study provides jobs for students with financial needs, giving them the opportunity to earn money to pay for their education while they're still in school. Keep in mind that while part-time work is a great way to support yourself, the education you're paying for should come first.
It may sound impossible to start investing while you are still in school, but there are a lot of millennial-friendly mobile apps that can help you start investing small amounts that can add up in the future. Saving for retirement or paying back student loans may be the last thing on your mind while you are a student, but mobile apps can help you start investing in small increments while learning about the market.
For additional information on what a budget is or how to create one, visit Budgeting.