10 Budgeting Tips for College Students in 2023-24

August 9, 2023

budgeting tips for college students, budget

Going to college introduces a new level of independence into many students’ lives. It means living with people your own age and outside the purview of your parents or guardians. It’s exciting, and at the same time, it entails a whole range of new responsibilities. Chief among these new responsibilities is managing a college budget. Managing a college student budget involves considerations that will be new to many students. These include budgeting for food, clothing, school supplies, and a wide variety of personal needs. When no one is telling you exactly how much money you have to spend and what you need to spend it on, it can be difficult to cover all of your bases. Not to mention the added pressure of schoolwork and the time management issues it can create. For these reasons many college students find themselves skimping on groceries and other essentials.

These budgeting tips for college students will help to use your time and money intentionally and effectively.

1) Budgeting Tips for College Students — Setting Up Your Dorm

The prospect of moving out of your parent’s house and into a dorm can be daunting. Planning ahead and purchasing a range of dorm essentials will make this transition easier. These essentials are not the same across the board, as different schools will provide different things to their students. With some items, such as furniture and cooking supplies, it will be best to see the room layout and what the dorm provides before making purchases of your own. It is, however, good to arrive at school with as many necessities as you can bring. This will make managing your college budget easier moving forward. It will also help you to make a comfortable, settled space early on. With the whirlwind of social activity that comes with the start of college, you will be grateful to have a space of your own to return to.

The academic side of college can also ramp up quickly and you will save yourself some stress by showing up to campus with your preferred school supplies. This will also include electronics, such as a laptop and extension cords. The main categories to keep in mind when planning your move-in are bedding/furniture, electronics, clothing, school supplies, and toiletries. (And for parents and friends, this is a great time to find a gift for the college student in your life.) Try to get these expenses out of the way as early as possible. This is the first of our budgeting tips for college students because it will make things much easier going forward.

2) Budgeting Tips for College Students — Course Books

For new students, the price of books, and textbooks in particular, can be an unexpectedly large portion of a college student’s budget. These are often far more expensive than anticipated, with the average college textbook costing $105.37. According to the Education Data Initiative, “25% of students reported they worked extra hours to pay for their books and materials; 11% skipped meals in order to afford books and course materials.”

While these figures are quite bleak, there are a number of ways to lower costs in this area of your college budget. Again according to the Education Data Initiative, “the average ebook is 31.9% less expensive than its hard copy counterpart.” If ebooks work for you that’s great, but many students quite reasonably find that they prefer to work with hard copies. Luckily, many college bookstores offer used or rental copies of the books needed for specific courses. Or, if not at the college bookstore, these books can often be found used online at cheaper prices. If ordering online you should be sure to plan ahead. Books will often take a fair amount of time to arrive, especially when coming from secondhand sources.

Another way of acquiring discounted books is through previous students. Students will often advertise on places like Facebook Marketplace if they have course books they’d like to resell. You could also ask around if you know people that have already taken the class you’re in. It benefits both your own college student budget and theirs, so no need to be shy. And, of course, you can be on the seller’s side as well when a course is finished. It should be noted, though, that it’s a good idea to hold onto books you can see yourself returning to.

3) Budgeting Tips for College Students — Take Advantage of Your College Library

Finally, when it comes to course books, don’t forget about your college library. College libraries are excellent resources and the sooner you become familiar with your library the better. College librarians are also a tremendous resource that most students fail to take advantage of. Don’t hesitate to ask questions when it comes to navigating the library system or in regard to specific research needs.

Checking the library for the books you need is an excellent first step upon receiving a syllabus. The books may be right on the shelves or you may need to order them through an inter-library loan. An inter-library loan can take some time to come through, so it’s best to plan ahead. Either way, using your library is a great way to save your college student’s budget.

4) Budgeting Tips for College Students — Food and Drinks

 Food and drinks make up a very significant portion of any college budget. The specifics will be different for each student and it’s important to take all of these into consideration. For some students eating out and grabbing coffee with friends will be especially important social activities. For others, going to concerts or movies will be necessary expenses.

Much of your food and drinks college budget will depend on whether or not you are on a meal plan and what that meal plan provides. You should be intentional when it comes to choosing a meal plan. Many students get sick of dining hall food and end up with a number of leftover meals. These, generally, cannot be reimbursed at the end of the semester. If you like cooking or are living off-campus, it will be a good idea to coordinate with your housemates and to make a grocery budget.

5) Budgeting Tips for College Students — Other Expenses

Entertainment and activities, clothing, transportation, phone service, and streaming services are some other typical expenses in a college student’s budget. Housing is another potentially large expense. If living off-campus be sure to factor in monthly rent and utilities. It’s a good idea to make a spreadsheet or budgeting template with all of these expenses. Otherwise, it will be hard to keep track of them. Now, put more succinctly, here are the next five tips that are more of the big-picture/philosophical variety.

6) Be Honest (Talk About It)

Have an honest talk about money and figure out your precise college budget, based on savings, income, and other factors. This also means being honest about how much you are spending and what your needs are. Always air on the safe side when it comes to estimating income and costs. And don’t forget to include tax!

7) Be Thorough (Make a Spreadsheet)

Keep a thorough accounting of your spending and how it factors into your overall budget. It’s a good idea to keep this in one place. We highly recommend making a spreadsheet or another type of template that you update regularly. Once you get in the habit this becomes easy. The template should include your overall budget, anticipated income and expenses, and all other types of spending. Also, be sure to leave some wiggle room for unplanned expenses. These can come up on you fast.

Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are two popular and easy-to-learn programs for making spreadsheets. There is also a wide range of apps that are designed to help with budgeting.

8) Ask for Help (Find a Trusted Advisor)

Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. Budgeting is hard and you shouldn’t get down on yourself if you’re struggling to keep things in check. We’ve all been through it and there’s no shame in asking for help. It’s important to find someone that you trust, whether a financial advisor or someone in your life who you can rely on.

9) Step Back and Assess

It’s easy to fall into a spending pattern, often following the habits of those around you, even if it’s not particularly sustainable. Staying organized and keeping a thorough accounting of your spending habits will allow you to step back and assess the bigger picture. It’s a good idea to compare how much you are spending in different areas and to then determine if that’s the right balance for you. Are you spending too much on clothes or entertainment? If so, you could try going to thrift stores and looking for student discounts. Or maybe there are interesting events happening on campus. Are you spending too much at restaurants and cafes? If so, try cooking at home. And always look into ways that you might use campus resources to your advantage.

10) Create a Spending Plan

Based on your budget and expected expenses, it’s smart to create a spending plan and stick to it. You can break this down into categories such as basic needs, unnecessary items, and savings. A common spending breakdown is 50/30/20, where 50% of your college student budget goes towards basic needs, 30% goes towards unnecessary items, and 20% goes towards savings.

Budgeting Tips for College Students — Final Thoughts

Going to college involves both increased independence and increased responsibility. The two necessarily go hand in hand, and while the new responsibilities may be daunting, there’s no way around them. While tasks like cooking or shopping or doing your own laundry may at first seem tedious and frustrating, there’s a satisfaction that comes out of being self-sufficient. There’s an immense pleasure to be had in taking care of ourselves when we come to view these responsibilities as opportunities rather than chores. Though managing a college budget, on its face, might seem like a dreary project, it can also serve as a foundation for happiness that is not beholden to economic anxieties.