How to Set a College Student Budget

Last updated: Feb 3, 2020

Tuition, textbooks, groceries, laundry, transportation – the list of college expenses can sometimes seem longer than the Great Wall of China. It’s easy for students managing money on their own for the first time to become overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all, or worse yet, to overspend. Creating a solid college student budget can help keep the stress, and your finances, in check.

A woman holding a shopping basket checks her grocery list in a store aisle to stay within her budget

Why You Need a Budget

Budgeting is an important life skill, but it often takes a back seat to exams and extracurricular activities. In fact, 43 percent of college students don’t track their spending at all. So, why should you bother?

Even though it’s another task to add to your to-do list, budgeting can actually help reduce the stress that 7 out of 10 students feel about their personal finances. When you have a firm grasp on your monthly income and expenses, you can feel confident that you won’t run out of money before the end of the school year.

Budgeting also can help you avoid the financial pitfalls of credit card debt and save for things like an amazing spring break trip or unexpected car repair. Plus, it’s easier to avoid emotional impulse purchases, like last-minute concert tickets, when you can see whether they will leave you unable to pay for an important expense.

Build a College Budget in 3 Easy Steps

Developing a budget (and sticking to it) doesn’t need to be a complicated, time-consuming process. You can get the job done with a simple three-part formula:

A Female college student uses a calculator to track her expenses and update her budget

3. Create a Budget Worksheet

First, determine your sources of income, such as parents’ contributions, wages from a job, and money from scholarships or financial aid. Then gather your fixed expenses, such as tuition, housing, cell phone bill, and car insurance. Finally, list your flexible expenses such as eating out, entertainment, clothing, and textbooks. Your total expenses should be less than or equal to your income.

You may find it helpful to break your budget down by semester or by month to make it easier to manage. Here's a sample worksheet to help you organize your figures.

Sample Semester Worksheet

 

Income

$

Parents’ Contribution

$

Wages

$

Refund from Financial Aid

$

Savings

$

Total

$

 

 

Fixed Expenses

 

Tuition

$

Housing

$

Meal Plan

$

Cell Phone

$

Total

$

 

 

Flexible Expenses

 

Groceries

$

Eating Out

$

Textbooks

$

Gas

$

Entertainment

$

Clothing

$

Laundry

$

Public Transportation

$

Toiletries

$

Other

$

Total

$

 

 

INCOME – (FIXED + FLEXIBLE EXPENSES)

$

Notice that there is a line item in the sample worksheet labeled “Other”? Be sure to fund this line for unexpected college expenses, such as summer storage for your belongings if you go home during the summer months.

2. Track Your Spending

Once you arrive on campus, use online tools or apps to make tracking your spending a snap. Apps like Mint will even sync with your bank account and automatically allocate your spending into categories that you set up. It can even send alerts when a budgeted category is close to exceeding its limit.

1. Adjust as Necessary

At least once a month, check in to see whether your spending aligns with the budget you established. Checking in monthly allows you to make adjustments before spending gets too out of hand to recover.

What should you do if your expenses regularly exceed your income? Aside from cutting out some of your nonessential spending, consider ways to boost your income. Get a part-time job with an employer who offers tuition reimbursement (like Chipotle), become a resident assistant to cover some of your housing expenses, or take courses in the summer so you can graduate faster.

Three USF college students talk about their part-time jobs while at a dining hall

Tips for Saving Money and Staying on Track

Still worried about having enough money to pay for college? Here are a few of our favorite ways to save money all year long.

  • Buy used textbooks. Also, sell any textbooks you no longer need at the end of the semester.
  • Make your own coffee. Those daily Starbucks runs can add up to more than $1,000 per year.
  • Shop grocery store sales. Take advantage of buy-one-get-one deals, weekly sales, and clearance items while limiting your splurge purchases.
  • Seek out student discounts. Many businesses offer discounts to college students, from Amazon Prime to the local pizza shop.
  • Cancel streaming memberships. Try sharing a Netflix, Hulu or Prime TV account with a friend or family member.
  • Meet the conditions of your scholarships. If you have a renewable award, chances are you’ll need to earn a certain GPA or meet other requirements to maintain it.

Remember, the point of budgeting is not to stop you from spending money – it’s to make sure your must-haves are covered first so you know how much you have left for the fun stuff.

Ready to get started creating your college budget? Download our worksheet.

Download Semester Budget Worksheet

For more information about college finances, including scholarships and financial aid, visit USF’s University Scholarships & Financial Aid Services website, or contact them at 813-974-4700.