Budgeting Tips for College Students

Kathleen Esposito
Coins for College

For most students, college represents a crash course on how to manage money and organize a budget. If a student has never paid for his or her living expenses, the experience can often be frightening and overwhelming. Stick to a budget while at college to enjoy life without sacrificing comfort or taking away from the experience.

College: A Crash Course in Personal Economics

You'll need to do a little prep work before you can write your budget. Before you head off to school, collect your receipts for a couple months to see what you spend your money on. Use budget forms to get started tracking your spending.

If you're not sure what your budget will be when you start school, ask friends or online forum users who are current students how much they spend and what they tend to buy. If you're moving away to attend college, use a cost of living calculator to find out if the new area will be less or more expensive than what you are used to now.

If your room and board are paid through scholarships or your parents, you can leave housing and meal expenses blank for the most part. Include them if you're financing them using student loans. Don't forget to budget for meals out and any extra snacks you'd like to have in your room. If will not have much income, be prepared to live frugally.

Making Your Budget

A basic budgeting form will look like a table with rows and columns.

  1. First, make categories for all of your spending, using the headings below as a guide.
  2. Label each row with one of the categories.
  3. Next, categorize each item on your receipts and assign it an appropriate category. Typical categories might include gas or bus fare, entertainment expenses, and clothing. If something doesn't fit, add a new category called, "miscellaneous expenses" and put it there.
  4. Total up the costs for each category and put the dollar amount in its respective row. Each column should represent a different month so you can see how your spending changes over time.

Once you have all your expenses in your budget, calculate your income (or what it will be when you start school). Include paychecks, regular monetary gifts and student loan income that does not go directly to tuition. Then, you can simply add up your income and subtract your expenses. This will show you how much income you have left over or how far in the red you are. If it quickly becomes apparent that you will not have enough money to cover your expenses, you need to either increase your income, decrease your spending, or both.

Sticking to Your Budget

Decreasing the money you spend on items you need can significantly help your financial situation while in college. Use the tips below to keep your finances in check.


Textbooks represent a substantial chunk of expendable cash that college students spend every school year.

  • If you have friends who are a year ahead of you in the same major, ask to borrow their textbooks.
  • Find a used bookstore near the university or college and hunt for the textbooks you need.
  • Save a fortune by buying and selling textbooks online at websites like Textbooks.com, Barnes & Noble Used Textbooks, Abe Books, or Amazon.com's New & Used Textbook category.
  • Buy books mid-semester if possible, before prices peak at the beginning and end of each semester.
  • Go to the library and check out the books you need for free.
  • Download textbooks to your e-reader instead of buying print versions.

Room and Board

Most colleges factor in room and board with tuition. You may be able to save a significant amount of money by living off-campus, especially if you rent a house or large apartment and split the cost with several roommates. Just make sure appliances are included and utility costs are low. If you pay utilities, find ways to economize so you're not wasting energy and money. Compare the cost for both living on and off campus and see what makes the most sense for you.

The cost of doing laundry -especially at a coin laundromat- can add up. The following tips can reduce your laundry costs:

  • Recycle clothes. Shirts can be worn for two days, and jeans often even longer, if you don't spill on them. Alternate which day you wear them and no one will notice. Don't skimp out on socks and underwear, though!
  • Maximize loads. Depending on the type of clothes you have, you might be able to save money by having just two loads--lights and darks--instead of sorting into many cycles. If you have small loads, split them with friends.
  • Hang a clothesline in your room or apartment. Air-drying your clothes might be better than paying for dryer time, especially if the weather is good. You can invest in a drying rack for not a lot of money.


Insurance, fuel, repairs and maintenance can use up much-needed funds. It may feel like a burden to not have a car while at college, but most students manage just fine. Bus fare to get around is relatively cheap, and some universities even offer free transportation. Or catch a ride with friends and offer to help with fuel costs. If you live where the weather is usually nice, save a bundle and get in shape by walking or biking to class.

Food, Drink and Entertainment

Most often students are better off selecting the meal plan that offers just one or two meals a day instead of three. If you have a kitchen, you can save more money by cooking and foregoing the meal plan altogether.

  • Buy food at markets that are more economical and provide two or three meals in one package.
  • Buy food at the local grocery store that can provide many inexpensive meals, such as noodles.
  • Purchase food in bulk and use coupons to save a fortune.
  • Get a part-time job at an eatery that offers free or reduced-cost meals to employees.
  • Cook meals for friends instead of eating out at restaurants. It'll be more fun, and it'll cost much less. You can also host pot lucks.

Look for entertainment venues that offer steep discounts to students. Always ask for student discounts, and when you find the cheapest places in the area for low-cost (or no-cost) entertainment, go there often. Plan activities outdoors with friends too, like bike rides or picnics.

Watch Your Dollars

The best way to dramatically improve any budget is to fit a job into your schedule, if you can. Find a job that allows for quality study time while also earning an income, such as working at a hotel reception desk or at a library. You can also look into on-campus employment.

Also make sure you've exhausted all possible scholarship opportunities, and continue applying for new ones. Maintain that budget spreadsheet, track all of your expenses, and avoid using credit if at all possible. Don't take out loans for things that you don't need or get caught up with relying on a credit card.

You don't want to graduate with lot of debt to pay off. Maintaining a healthy budget in college will provide you with a powerful financial kick-start once you graduate and begin your career.

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Budgeting Tips for College Students