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 room for the fun stuff. 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 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.

How to budget as a college student

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 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.
  • Personal expenses: Your streaming subscriptions and clothes would go on this list.
  • Infrequent expenses: Some of these are expected (plane tickets home for Thanksgiving), and some are unexpected, but still important to budget for (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 where you take all of this into account and decide where each dollar should go. This will ensure that your spending is in line with your priorities.

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 in order to save for a graduation trip, you need to rejigger 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.

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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