How to Budget while in College

The first time living away from your parents can be an exciting time. However, as the economy shrinks and college tuition and expenses rise, many college students have to economize on living expenses. Here are some tips on how to economize.

1. Do not take too much out in loans. While it is easy to think of the flat screen TV as needed college expenses,it will seem much less of a ‘must have’ twenty years from now when the TV is in landfill and you have a huge student loan debt. In general, colleges figure the average living costs. If possible, stick to that number (or less if you can).

2. Do budget month-to month. In October, when that student loan check comes through, you might think you have a bonanza. However, that check must buy all your macaroni and cheese, gas money and travel expenses for the semester. Figure out the costs of monthly expenses. For example, if your rent is $500, then put aside $2000 in your account. Write out the checks and mark the money gone on in your checkbook. Repeat for other expenses you must pay, for example your cell phone bill, electric bill, etc. After you have written all the checks for the semester, put them in a safe space. Deduct all the checks written from your account, and if you have not paid any school expenses (books, sorority fees,etc) deduct those fees as well. Now, divide the remaining amount for the months you have until the next student loan check (usually February, check with your school). That is the amount of money you have to spend each month. It may be helpful to ‘pay yourself’ each month when you pay your rent and other monthly expenses. That way your are reminded that that monthly allowance must last until your next ‘pay.’.

3. Don’t forget to eat. $400 a month may seem like loads of money to live on. Living in your parents home, it would have been. But in college world, things cost money. Toilet paper, groceries and entertainment funds must all come out of that money, not to mention unexpected class supplies and expenses. If you have a meal plan, your may get by on a relatively small food budget. If you have an apartment and cook for yourself, remember even butter costs money. One good way to budget for food is to your colleges ‘Flex Dollars’ or related account that allows you to put money on your student ID and then ‘charge’ at local grocery stores, drug stores, and pizza places. Figure out how much you have to spend on food, eating out, and toilet paper for the semester and put that amount on the card. Do not recharge it with more money (you are stealing from other accounts). Every time you make a charge using your ‘Flex Dollars’ be sure to keep track. Also, be careful note to waste too much money on pizza and other fast food options. While a late night treat once in a while is normal college spending, eating pizza every night is sure budget breaker.

4. Entertainment can be had for free. Colleges offer a wide range of free and low cost entertainment. Before spending your own money, be sure to check out movies, and other free things to do on campus. You may be surprised how many fun things you can do, and you can meet people at the same time.

5. Trade for things you need. Organize a ‘trade day’ where you trade school supplies, textbooks, clothes and other things you no longer need but others might. This is an excellent club activity or dorm thing to do, and you will be amazed at the cool, and free stuff you discover in other people’s castaways.

6. Don’t automatically buy all the books. Ask the professor or read the syllabus to find out how the textbook will be used. If it is a literature course where many books are need and you may use books for only one class, consider the library, where books are often on reserve or can be checked out.

7. Never buy books at the bookstore. There are so many cheap places on-line to purchase books. Get your book lists and go elsewhere. Don’t forget upperclassmen in the same major who may be willing to sell their books or even loan them for a fraction of the cost of new.

8. Stock up at back to school sales. Buy your pencils, erasers, notebooks and all the stuff at bargain rates. Don’t forget to also get some low cost markers, scissors, crayons, etc for sign making and club activities. Your budget will thank you later.

9. Get Movie Coupons. Many colleges sell discount coupons for movie tickets. Use them and save $5.00 or more at the box office.

10. Find your local dollar store and figure out what they have. They are likely the best place to buy munchies, pencils, club supplies and other needs.

11. Don’t feel shy about asking your parents for help BEFORE you are in trouble. If you are having trouble budgeting, talk to them. It may be you really don’t have enough each month or it could be the $4.00 Latte you need before your 8:00 class each day. In any event, talking to them while it is a little problem is much better than bringing home a $5000 credit card bill.

12. Don’t do credit cards. Just don’t. One for an emergency is not a bad thing but only if it is for emergencies. If you can’t help yourself, leave the card at home, literally in the freezer (I had one friend who kept it under her mattress, taped down with duct tape), or other inconvenient place. If you do not have the money to pay it back the same month, you cannot afford it.

13. Finally, don’ t be a martyr. Don’t eat only ramen noodles for four months or refuse to go shopping with friends because you are on a ‘budget’. College is about having fun, exploring and learning, and now is the time to do so. If you really can’t afford anything but ramen, it may be the time to re-think your budget or consider a part-time job. Also, remember there is no harm in window shopping. While some of your friends are sure to splurge on tons of clothes, bags and accessories,remember, the more they buy, the more likely they are too have cool,free, and hardly used cast-off stuff for your bargain savvy self.