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A smart spending plan helps you achieve your goals, both now and in the long run

Going to college comes with a lot of firsts. For many, it’s the first time living away from your parents, the first time having choices about what to study, and the first time managing your own finances. To help you stay on top of your money you’ll need a plan, also known as a budget.

What a budget is and isn’t

The word budget might bring to mind strict, inflexible spending rules without any flexibility. But budgeting is really about anticipating and planning for your expenses, so you have funds earmarked for the things you care about, spend less on the things you don’t, can save for your short- and long-term goals, and never feel blindsided.

Your budget is also personal, and should reflect your values and priorities for the way you want to live during college. For example, is it important to you to sample your city’s restaurant offerings, or do you prefer to save money for concert tickets? Are you satisfied with a bare-bones apartment, or do you crave a comfier home? Consider your own preferences and desires for both now and in the future as you build your college budget.

Steps to creating a college student budget

Once you’ve nailed down what your priorities are for your money, it’s time to get down to the details. Here’s our step-by-step guide and a monthly budget sheet to help you through the process:

1. Make a list of all of your expenses, including necessities like food, housing, tuition, and gas, as well as discretionary items like dinners out and entertainment. Divide the list into three categories, and put each one in order of importance:

  • School expenses. This includes anything you’re responsible for that isn’t directly paid by your parents, financial aid, or student loans. It can also include living expenses while at school such as rent, utilities, groceries, toiletries, medications, and other basics you need.
  • Personal expenses. Your streaming subscriptions, clothes and coffee runs would go on this list.
  • Infrequent expenses. Some of these are expected like plane tickets home for a holiday, and some are unexpected, but still important to budget for, like your computer breaking or car needing major repairs.

2. Then, make a list of your sources of income, their amounts after taxes have been taken out, and when in the month or year you can expect to get paid. You’ll also need to find out when funds from student loans and other financial aid will come in and how they’ll be disbursed. And if your family has saved money in a 529 Plan for your education, talk to them about how and when you’ll be able to access the money.

3. Create a budget that takes all of this into account and decide where each dollar should go. This will ensure that your spending is in line with your priorities.

One way to build a budget is to keep track of your spending for a week. Tracking groceries, transportation, socializing, and other miscellaneous expenses can reveal that you may spend more than you think. From this list, you can better estimate how much your monthly expenses are, which can help you set a budget.

Creating a budget may also be a little bit of an experiment, especially as you settle into the semester. You may find expenses you didn’t anticipate as you build your college budget, like dues for an extracurricular activity.

Simple monthly college student budget example



Actual cost

Housing $550 $550
Utilities $150 $150
Groceries $100 $90
Toiletries $40 $40
Gas and transportation $120 $120
Phone $50 $50
Clothes $50 $25
Subscriptions $40 $40
Coffee/eating out $200 $210
Socializing $100 $180
Miscellaneous $100 $175
Laptop repair $0 $400
TOTAL $1,500 $2,030

It can be easy to overspend your budget each month if you don’t keep track of your actual cost compared to what you planned for. Don’t forget to count one-off expenses, like setting aside money if your laptop stops working the week you’re writing your midterm papers. And this number may be higher if you live in a city, live off campus and are cooking all your own meals, or are frequently socializing. If you track your budget against your actual cost, you can see if you’re exceeding your budget each month.

Of course, the actual cost total can be lower, too, which would be great. Either way, knowing how much money you tend to spend each month can give you the data you need to build the right budget for you.

Actually sticking to it

Creating a college budget is only half the battle. The other half is sticking with it. Here are a few smart strategies to help with that.

  1. Make sure your plan is realistic. For example, if you’ve decided that you’re going to eliminate takeout to save for a graduation trip, you need to rework your daily schedule to allow for shopping, cooking, and cleanup. Cutting that expense in half might be more doable than getting rid of it altogether.
  2. Automate your spending. For fixed recurring bills, like rent or insurance premiums, set up automatic payments and time them to occur after your paycheck gets direct-deposited. If the money spends very little time in your account, you won’t be tempted to spend it elsewhere.
  3. Put savings on autopilot, too. Whether you’re starting to save for retirement, want to build up an emergency fund, or anticipate a big purchase in your short-term future, setting automatic transfers from your checking account to a savings account can help you stay on track.

Take advantage of budgeting resources

If your college offers budgeting and personal finance classes, take advantage of them. And if you’re feeling behind on your budget, look for what financial resources are available on campus.

You can also talk about budgets with your friends. It’s totally fine to suggest hanging out in the dorms rather than heading to a restaurant if your money is running low that month. If you live with roommates, be honest about expectations and contributions when it comes to household items—it’s not fair if one person is always buying communal supplies, like paper towels. Building smart personal finance habits in college will make it easier to adapt when you graduate and are managing a paycheck.

Adapt as you go

College is a time of personal growth and change, so it’s natural that your priorities might shift over time. Your budget can shift with it. If you realize that you don't have money for something you really want to do, look at your budget and figure out which items are holding you back. When you order your expenses by importance, you can quickly make the decision to cut the least important items from your spending, giving you the flexibility to pursue the things you want.

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