Money 101: The College Student Budget

Last updated: Apr 7, 2020

College is about dreams, and dreams take planning, or filling in blanks: You want to be … So you …

You will choose your dream, or it will choose you. That will give you a goal. Achieving it —that’s all about the details. For most people, the path to that dream includes college, and the detail that ultimately enables the academic experience is money. The good news is that there are myriad ways and means for financing a college education. The great news is that managing those finances is a study in common sense that as a college prep class could be named Money 101: The College Student Budget.

A female college student listening to music while on her laptop

Position Yourself for Financial Successes

Crafting and following a budget are the easy parts of this process. The hard part is optimizing your fiscal and monetary choices. Simply put, fiscal is about budgets and monetary is about the money or resources you’re budgeting — what you have and expect to have and how you will spend it. Here are the underpinnings of a solid monetary policy behind a smart college budget:

Start Your College Savings Account Early

There are countless college savings plans, and your parents may have chosen one before you started kindergarten. If they did and you still don’t know the details, it’s time to talk to them about paying for college. If you haven’t been socking away cash for college, it’s time to start, especially if you will be responsible for most or all of the costs.

Find Ways to Make Money in College

Working your way through college is a point of pride that inspires smart spending informed by good budgeting. Perhaps you have a job in high school with a company that has job opportunities in your college town; if not, explore job options while researching the campus and community.

Remember, there are myriad ways to make money that don’t involve punching a clock, from blogging to walking dogs to tutoring.

Choose Your School Wisely

Choosing a school without knowing your financial constraints is akin to thinking about the depth of a swimming pool after you dive in. The bottom line: Don’t get in over your head. That means you should know how to research your targets, and:

  • Gauge the financial realities of each school you are considering. Do a thorough comparison of costs, and decide accordingly.
  • Make smart choices on housing, with a keen eye on campus amenities, from dining options to services such as medical care on campus and in the community.
  • Assess costs related to your choice, including the cost of traveling home and transportation on and off campus.

Maximize Financial Aid

Leave no opportunity for scholarships or grants unexplored, and make sure you know what your school of choice can do to ease your financial burden. Working with your high school college counselor will give you an early edge in the hunt for financial aid.

Consider these ideas for maximizing financial aid:

Steer Clear of Dead Ends

Time is money, particularly time spent in a school, degree program, or class that proves to be a dead end. There are no guarantees you’ll make all the right choices, but informed choices make bad decisions less likely.

Consider it money saved if you choose the right school the first time. Same goes for your major.

Avoid Common Money Mistakes

One common financial mistake students make is failing to sidestep surprises. That’s why a good budget tries to account for hidden costs, from parking fees and medical expenses to entertainment.

And ask yourself:

  • Do you really need to have a car on campus?
  • Do you really need new textbooks, and can you afford not to sell your textbooks after using them?
  • Do you really need a gym membership when the school has a less snazzy but perfectly good workout space and equipment?
  • Do you really need to buy coffee and snacks every day?

There are more tips on saving money in college than you have time to read, but the essence of all those tips is thoughtful spending. A good budget is the best way to guide that spending.

Four USF students taking a bike ride down a road lined with palm trees

Disciplined Budgeting Is How You Close the Deal

A budget is a map that details obstacles and goals and keeps you from getting lost financially. It only works if it’s thorough, honest, and followed.

The U.S. Department of Education offers this template for designing and executing a good budget:

  • Budget for a given time.
  • Choose good tools (apps, devices, programs) to manage your budget.
  • Monitor your budget regularly.
  • Identify income.
  • Identify expenses.
  • Build in a cushion for unexpected costs.
  • Balance your budget. Basically, don’t spend more than you have.
  • Maintain and update your budget regularly.

If the Department of Education’s budgeting guidelines don’t cover all the bases for you, try these:

Budgeting is about bottom lines, and the true bottom line here is leaving college with as little debt as possible. What you know about your school of choice and your potential costs will determine how good your budget will be. Mustering the discipline to live by your budget will determine its efficacy and put your dreams within reach.

If you want to know more about the ways USF ensures the overall well-being of freshmen, the Office of Admissions is ready to engage. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.