Budgeting During College

Today’s topic is a tough one. Money. Considering a good portion of college students are broke or at least close to it, budgeting can be stressful and at times it may seem impossible. But let me tell you, it is doable—and the more you get used to it now, the easier it will be later on as you actually have money to spend and need to allocate your resources properly.

My first semester of college was at a community college when I was 16 years old, meaning I still lived at home and didn’t have a bunch of living expenses to incur yet. But I still kept track of where my money was going. I worked part-time as a cook at Pizza Hut (we all have to start somewhere, right?) while attending my college classes and was already paying for my own cell phone bill, car insurance, and gas. I had to budget my money wisely so I didn’t end up with my cell service being shut off or my car running out of gas on my way to work, while still having some fun money and savings set aside. It’s funny how having the freedom to drive and use a cell phone also comes with loads of responsibility—though I am grateful I learned it when I was young.

After completing one semester of community college I moved out of state and started working full-time as a receptionist at an orthodontics office. I worked for one year while I saved up to go to university. At this point I also decided to get braces, something I had always wanted to do (I inherited some lovely English teeth from my dad), and began paying that monthly bill in addition to the ones previously noted.

Side note: Yes, I paid for my own braces and I am glad I did! I have seen way too many parents pay for their kids’ braces and have those children neglect their oral hygiene, rubber-band wearing, and retainer-wearing. Their teeth end up back where they started because they don’t seem to care to maintain their smiles after thousands of dollars of work, because they weren’t the ones that paid for it. I took great care of my teeth both during and after my braces because I am the one who had to cough up the money for it. This is an awesome principle that applies to many areas of life.

Once I finished that year of working I went off to university at 17 years old. At this point I already had work experience, I knew how to pay my bills, and of course how to budget. I was off to a pretty good start!

With the savings I had set aside along with my grants and scholarships (see my post about ways to pay for school, Graduating Debt-Free) I was pretty much financially set for my college career, as long as I didn’t blow through my money. I had to carefully plan my monthly bills. My second semester of university I started working part-time, so that little bit of extra income gave me some leeway. Here is a rough outline of my budget in college, specifically as a single student. Things get a little different once you get married, obviously. Keep in mind that these amounts will vary greatly depending on geographic region.


My rent was mid-range as a single student. I lived in a newer apartment complex close to campus with a range of amenities (a gym and other recreational facilities), and all utilities were included. To me it was worth the money. But you can probably find a place for closer to $250-$300 a month that lack some of the luxuries I appreciated during college.

My phone bill was again, a bit steep, but it had unlimited everything. You might be able to find single lines for around $50 a month.

The groceries and toiletries category for me included everything from food to toilet paper to makeup. I did my best to keep this bill low because it was one of the ones I could control, unlike my rent or phone bill that were fixed costs. About $150 of this category was made up of food. I refused to live off of ramen, so I typically had fresher foods stocked in my fridge. People think eating healthy is expensive—and it is if you are eating organic everything and choose to buy name-brand items. But pay attention to store ads, buy the fruits and veggies that are on sale or just generally cheap (gala or fuji apples, bananas, and carrots are all pretty safe bets), and buy knock-off brands.

As for cosmetics, ladies, lay off of the MAC foundation. Expensive shampoos, makeups, or perfumes should be considered low priority when you are in college. I have always used brands like Covergirl, Garnier, Almay, and other mid-level brands you can find in your local Walmart. It saves you loads of money, and occasionally you will find a coupon to make it even cheaper! They may not be “top-of-the-line” products, but they will fit into your budget much more nicely than those MAC eyeshadow palettes will.

Now, you may have noticed my car insurance was super expensive. It was. That right there is a perk of being a young teenage driver. It is also the reason why I chose not to have my car with me at college. I left it at home along with it my insurance and gas bills. I simply put it on the budget to give you an idea of what it could cost you to have it with you at school, though depending on how often you drive, your age, and your MPG, the bill could be much higher or lower.

Renters insurance! A must-have for college. It is fairly cheap and will cover you in case of theft or damage to your belongings. Bear in mind there is still a deductible to be paid before your insurance will payout on anything, but if your apartment complex has a fire (which, considering the amount of young people there are trying to cook, it is quite possible) you’ll be glad you had the insurance.

Eating out and entertainment are again, some of those variable costs that are in your control. Be mindful of how often you are eating out and seeing movies with friends—it adds up really quickly if you aren’t paying attention. These amounts were what I stuck to on a monthly basis, which allowed me to eat out once to twice a week (depending on if it was Taco Bell vs. a sit-down restaurant) and go see a couple movies every month (or whatever other form of entertainment I sought). Luckily my roommates generally looked for cheaper things to do, so I rarely even used up this budget.

This budget is not a one-size-fits-all or all-inclusive one. It is very basic, but is intended to give an idea of what to expect during those college years and what areas you can cut back on. Create a rough budget, track your spending, and adjust your budget as needed. Be tough on yourself, but not so tough that you are pinching your pennies so tightly you can’t even afford an ice cream cone. I have tested a few different budgeting methods, and feel my most effective so far has been simply tracking my spending via my online banking portal and adding up amounts on a weekly basis using an Excel spreadsheet. Don’t wait to add it all up until the end of the month or else you will most likely have spent over your budget! If you are an avid consumer, you may want to try something like the Dave Ramsey envelope system to help you be stricter with yourself.

Thanks for reading and happy budgeting!

Image: http://blog.quizzle.com/2011/01/organize-your-monthly-budget-planner-in-5-simple-steps/

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