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7 Budgeting Tips for College Students

Here’s some valuable advice on how to budget your money successfully and avoid accumulating more student debt



By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted 2012

College Budgeting Tips
College Budgeting Tips

Like most college students, the amount of money you have available is probably limited. Between financial aid, some savings and perhaps a part-time job, you may have just enough to last the school year. So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of making it through without accumulating more debt?

Here are seven tips for living on a budget while you’re in college:

1. Budget your money. First, assess how much you’re going to have available for the school year (you can also budget by semester or quarter if you like). This includes the amount you’re starting with from savings and financial aid, as well as the amount you’ll bring in each week through work study, a part-time job or other means. Then divide the total by the number of weeks in the term, and that gives you a good idea of how much money you can spend each week.

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Remember that not every week will be exactly the same. One week you may be busy studying and spend less than the allotted amount. Another week you may have more time for entertainment and end up spending a little extra. That’s okay as long as it averages out correctly over the course of the term.

2. Track your spending. Record how much you spend each week and what you spend it on. This will help you assess where your money is going and give you ideas on where to cut back.

Most students who track their spending are surprised at how much of their money is spent on little things; $2.00 on a latte here, $3.00 on music downloads there, and before you know it half of your weekly allowance is gone. Recording where your money goes helps you understand the cumulative effect of these small impulse purchases, which will, in turn, help you resist making them.

3. Be realistic. As a student on a limited budget, you are not going to be able to afford some of the things you want. An occasional movie and $1 drafts on Friday night are probably acceptable entertainment expenses. A shopping spree at the mall and weekly pedicures probably aren’t. Accept that while you’re in college, most luxuries are going to be few and far between, and some may be eliminated completely. Realize that buying one thing means you can’t buy something else, so necessities take priority.

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4. Use credit cards only for emergencies. Credit cards frequently cause trouble for college students. The temptation to splurge on a new outfit or expensive night out is strong, especially if you’ve been living frugally for months at a time. A credit card makes doing so too easy; it doesn’t feel like you’re paying for those things when no cash leaves your pocket or bank account.

But you are paying for them. Even worse, you’re paying interest on the amount you spend. If you’re like most students, you’re going to have enough student loan debt to worry about when you graduate. Credit card debt on top of that can be absolutely crushing. If you have a credit card, use it only when necessary – unexpected car repairs, medicine when you’re sick, groceries when exams make you miss a week of work, and similar emergencies.

5. Spread out what expenses you can. The beginning of the academic year tends to bring several large expenses all at once: tuition, fees, meal plan, etc. But some costs can be spread out over the course of the term or the year.

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Textbooks are a good example. Generally, you don’t need to buy all of your books the day class starts; you probably won’t need some of them until part way – or even most of the way – through the term. So instead of adding to your start-of-the-year financial burden by purchasing them all at once, buy them as you need them. You may be able to apply this principle to expenses like car insurance and housing as well.

6. If you need help, ask for it. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, attempts to budget your money may fail. When this happens, there is a tendency to avoid asking for help, to try to work the situation out on your own. Unfortunately, this usually leads to more problems and a deeper financial hole. If you find yourself in real trouble, go to your family (or other reliable supporters) right away. Solving the problem early – and learning from your mistakes – will help mitigate the damage.

7. Let experience guide budget adjustments. After your first term living on a budget and tracking your expenses, you’ll be better able to judge how much money you’ll need in the future. Were you short almost every week, forcing you to borrow or charge more? Then maybe you need to get a part-time job or enter a work-study program. Did you always seem to have more than you really needed? Then maybe you can get by with less student loan money, which will lower the amount of debt you graduate with.

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Ultimately, that’s your goal: Finishing college successfully with as little debt as possible. These tips, coupled with the discipline to stick with them, can make that much easier. So spend wisely, and good luck in the coming school year!

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