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How to Make Your College Budget in 5 Easy Steps

Posted Aug 10 2013 - 2:00pm

By now, you’ve probably ticked most of the boxes on your back-to-school to-do list: Decorate your new digs? Check. Drop a disgusting amount of dough on your required book list? Check. Catch up with all of your college buddies you didn’t get to see over the summer? Check. But if you’re like most collegiettes, chances are that you left one all-important task off of your list – mapping out a budget for the year.

If you’ve never managed your own money before, this might seem like either a daunting or trivial undertaking. In reality, it’s simple, it’s straightforward and it has the potential to save you a whole lot of trouble and moolah down the line. Better to take the extra time to ration out your cash now than to constantly find yourself scraping by on your last ten dollars until that next paycheck comes in, right? To help you all get off on the right financial foot, we’ve broken the college budget-planning process down into five easy steps.

1. Keep Track of It

First things first: in order to maintain your budget, you have to find some way to organize it and keep an eye on it. If you’re a low-tech kind of gal, a spreadsheet is an easy solution – make one column for your expenses with a brief description of what they are and one for the money you’re dedicating to them. You can use Excel (or a comparable program)’s calculating features to easily draw up totals and make sure that you have all of the funds you need to cover your expenditures. If you’re on a smart phone and want something more streamlined, there are dozens of apps at your disposal. One great free app comes from Mint.com, which not only allows you to plan your budget but securely links up to your to bank and automatically records any transactions you make. You can access and update it from both your computer and your smart phone, so you won’t have to key in your entire plan on a tiny keyboard but can still make any quick fixes you need to while you’re out and about.

Other app options include Expenditure ($1.99), which is a great tool for anyone going abroad because it has a built-in currency converter, and iReconcile ($2.99), which displays your budget on a monthly, weekly and daily level and rolls any excess money over from one month to the next, a feature that’s likely to come in handy with the unpredictability of college life. The only downside to those apps, along with the fact that you have to pay for them, is the fact that you’ll have to input every transaction you make separately and that’s like to be a bit of a hassle when you’re grabbing a snack between classes or out with your friends. Whichever method you choose, it’ll be important to keep an eye on your budget and make sure you’re not overspending. Loyola University Chicago collegiette Mary Mantia learned that firsthand: “Freshman year I didn’t keep track of my money, barely checked my bank account, and ended up with $4 in my pocket by the end of the year,” she says. “It was a disaster! It taught me though that the only way to be responsible with your money is to create a budget and to stick to it.”

2. Outline Your Expenses

While it’s impossible to predict every cost you’ll incur over the course of a year, there will be some definite expenses you’ll need to take into consideration when charting your spending. As the Indiana Department of Financial Institutions explains in their crash-course in budgeting these “fixed expenses are exact amounts due on a specific date.” This includes things like:

  • Tuition
  • Housing or rent payments
  • Any utility bills you’re accountable for
  • Food
  • Public transportation or gas money
  • Books or other supplies your classes require (art supplies, cameras, etc.)

Figure out all of the things you know you’ll definitely have to pay for and record their costs as accurately as possible. For expenses that fluctuate from month to month (such as utilities if you’re living off-campus) and expenses that you have some flexibility with (such as food, whether it be in the form of groceries or take-out) make an estimate based off of the average amount you pay and give yourself a healthy margin in case you end up with a bigger bill than usual. “There have been many occasions where I've had to pay more for books than expected, when a class has had an extra fee for field trips or special projects, or there has been something relating to the dorms I've had to pay for,” says Fordham student Katie Thokar. “They nickel and dime you and it's difficult to take that into account when budgeting.” Leaving yourself some leeway in case of those unpleasant surprises will help you avoid coming up short. For now, hold off on factoring in any financial aid you expect to receive at this point – even if you’ve been awarded a full scholarship, write down what your school-related expenses would cost you with no help at all. This will give you a sense of how much money you absolutely need in order to keep yourself out of the danger zone.

3. Determine Your Income

You might be feeling a bit overwhelmed after looking at all the money you’re expected to shell out over the course of a month, but don’t pull your hair out yet! Now it’s time to turn your attention to all of the bacon you’ll be bringing home. “Income can include your allowance from home, take-home pay from student employment, savings allocated to college expenses, grants [and] scholarships,” says the Indiana Department of Financial Institutions. If you’ve got a job, work out how much you expect to make a month (and don’t forget to factor in those pesky, pay-eating taxes). It might vary depending on tips or what hours you’re able to snag, so give it your best estimate and this time shoot for the baseline. Plan for the minimum amount of money you could make in case it’s all you manage on any given month – you don’t want to come up short in a delicately balanced budget. Also take a look at loans, scholarships or any other aid you might be getting from your family or other sources. Finally, be sure to include any fortuitous freebies like birthday or other money gifted to you (the best kind of income around) or sporadic paydays you can snag by volunteering to serve as a guinea pig in on-campus psych studies.

All that said, if you find yourself without a whole lot of cash coming in, find a way to make some! “During the summer I work like crazy, filling my time with anything I can do to make some extra cash,” Mantia says. “This summer I was working at a pizza shop, painting houses, staining decks, ANYTHING to save up cash for the school year.” Trying to work between classes can be tricky with homework and extracurriculars, so trying to accumulate money in the off-months can be helpful. But, if you find yourself in need of money while at college, on-campus jobs are a great source of income. “Just make sure your work hours don’t tract from study or class time,” she says.

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