Adulting 101: How to Budget in College as an Undergrad

Key Takeaways

First, Congratulations!

You did it! You survived high school! You’re on to bigger and better things!

Work Hard, Play Hard

You want to do both, right? You’ll need to budget if you don’t want MORE debt and a maxed out credit card.

Get Some Professional Help

Start strong so you can finish strong (and not get screwed after graduation).

We’ve all heard the stereotypes of living on ramen noodles by desk light in college. But what if I told you, as a fairly recent graduate, that you can totally live it up without breaking the bank?

Contrary to popular belief (and all the memes) having the full college experience doesn’t have to equate to graduating under a mountain of crushing debt. Or, at the very least, you can avoid adding to your student debt.

You just have to strategize and budget. And it’s just as easily said as done.

how to budget for college

Step 1: Figure Out Your “Income”

Everyone’s financial life is different. Some of us get financial help from family, others have tons of scholarships, and many of us are trying to make it entirely on our own.

Before you start budgeting, you need to determine how much “income” you actually have. I put income in quotations because it can include many things, like:

  • Monthly allowance
  • Student loans/FAFSA
  • Scholarships/grants
  • Part-time job
  • Savings from a summer job

If your family is pitching in, talk to them about what they plan to help with.

If you’ve been saving up throughout high school with a part-time job, figure out how you need to divide it up so it lasts as long as possible.

If you’re surviving solely on FAFSA, figure out how much you have left over after tuition is paid.

When it comes to your day-to-day expenses (everything other than books and tuition, basically) it’s easiest to set a monthly budget. From there, you can determine how much you can spend on essentials and non-essentials.

Prepping for College? Not Sure How to Budget?

A Credit Union Can Help.

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Step 2: What Are Your Essential and Non-Essential Expenses?

For me, my essentials could be summed up as:

  • Tuition
  • Textbooks
  • Room and board
  • Food
  • Transportation

My non-essentials were:

  • Daily coffees
  • Clothes
  • Dorm decor
  • Snacks and entertainment

Your list could look totally different from mine or be very similar, but it’s important to distinguish what is essential and non-essential. This will help you determine where you can most easily cut corners.

Key words: most easily.

Just because an expense is essential, doesn’t mean you can’t lower the cost.

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Step 3: Reduce the Total Amount of Your Essentials

Be ready to have your mind blown.

1. Textbooks

Textbooks are a necessity, yes, but the $400/semester dent in your pocket? Absolutely not.

If you’re buying textbooks brand new, you’re just doing it wrong. Amazon, Chegg and many other online sources have discounted, gently used textbooks for purchase or rental. Yes, you can rent your textbooks!

2. Food and Coffee

Living off campus? Save money by not having a meal plan and doing your own grocery shopping.

If you are on campus, reevaluate which meal plan you’re on. Often students are automatically enrolled in one, but there could be a cheaper option that works better for you.

Keep a Keurig (or better yet, just a regular coffee pot) in your dorm or apartment to save money and time getting coffee every day before class.

snow white coffee gif

3. Transportation

Consider leaving your car at home and using public transportation. Bus systems often have free or discounted passes for local college students. That way, you can save big on gas and parking passes (which are WAY too expensive). Or, if you live on campus or close by, invest in a bike!

You don’t want to leave your car at home to save money only to rack up a big Lyft bill every weekend after a night out. If you plan to live off campus, ask every apartment you tour if they have a bus to and from the bars. Many university buses go to the bars, but stop running at 10 PM. But some apartments that mainly serve students have free buses that go between bars and the apartments until 2 AM so you get a free ride there and back.

4. Become an RA

Most college RAs get free room and board in a single room, along with a stipend, free meal plan and other financial benefits. It is a big responsibility, and money shouldn’t be the only reason you apply to be an RA, but it’s been one of the most rewarding jobs (in every sense) I’ve ever held.

5. Scholarships

Applying for scholarships shouldn’t end after high school. There are plenty of scholarships and grants you can apply for throughout your college career. Do research every semester and see what you can apply for. Every little scholarship you find can knock off a student loan payment or two.

And remember to reapply for FAFSA every year. It’s a life saver, especially in private schools with high tuition costs.

6. Smart Shopping

Facebook may be out, but the one thing it’s still good for is Marketplace and Groups. Join Groups of students from your school or city and browse the Marketplace to see what students are selling. You can find anything from textbooks and room decor to clothes and technology.

thrift shop gif

For clothing, of course hit the sales racks and local thrift stores, but also keep an eye out for school-sponsored events with free swag. Most of my casual closet is university-branded attire I got at pep rallies, guest speaker events and games. This is also a great way to score some cheap entertainment and free food and socialize with friends. Yay, multitasking!

There’s a lot more tricks for how to budget in college, and the bottom line is you don’t have to sacrifice your college experience to save money. Check out this post for more little ways to save big.

Step 4: Track Your Spending

Whether on paper or Excel or in a budgeting app

track 👏your 👏 spending 👏

Sometimes, a month of tracking is the slap in the face you need to see how much money you’re putting towards pizza, wings and dorm decor from Urban.

This visual of your spending (especially if you use an app like Clarity or Mint) will help you 1. see where you can cut corners and 2. keep you accountable for sticking to your budget, e.g. “I already bought three grande pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks this week. No more allowed until next week. I’ll use my Keurig.”

Step 5: Consult a Financial Advisor in Your Credit Union

When budgeting, it’s also a good idea to keep your future self in mind. You don’t want to graduate and realize you have nothing to fall back on. Budgeting can be hard, but saving is harder. Especially when everyone around you seems to be asking you to do things that cost money.

You could get a summer job to save up for the next year (definitely a good idea) but getting professional help might be the actual key to making sure you don’t fall flat on your ass after graduation.

A lot of credit unions have financial advisors who genuinely want to help you reach your goals. They can help you budget, manage student and personal loans and set up a savings account for post-grad life.

Good Grades and Good Finances.

Enjoy better interest rates, fewer fees and more accessible financial services with a credit union.

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