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How to Make Your College Budget in 5 Easy Steps

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.
4. Balance Your Budget

This is where things start to get a bit more complex. Once you’ve determined your expenditures and how much money you have to work with, it’s time to start figuring out exactly where your money is going. The first thing you should do is line up your financial aid and any money your parents have agreed to kick in with the expenses they cancel out, whether they be housing or tuition or books. From there, total up the amount of money you’ll need to pay out of pocket to cover the rest of your inflexible expenses. Hopefully you’ll find yourself with some money left over at this point, because otherwise it’s probably time to beg the ‘rents for an added allowance. While many collegiettes would like to think that they can limit their spending to necessities alone, the odds that you’ll be able to resist the lure of a girls’ day out or a little shopping spree every once in a while are slim – and understandably so. This is college after all and there is nothing wrong with a little bit of fun to balance out the stress of trying to hit a home run in all of your classes and participate in all of the extracurriculars necessary to build a killer resume. So, plan to buy that perfect little black dress you’ll find when you’re “just looking” or splurge on a mani-pedi with your gals once in a while. Also consider things like haircuts, for when your mane gets a bit too unruly to put it off until break, or gifts for your friends – expenses that pop up and here and there over the course of a semester. And, of course, there is the spare-change spending on things like coffee and snacks that is so easy to overlook on a daily basis like, but can deal a serious blow to your bank account. “A $3 drink from Dunkin Donuts might not seem like a lot but twice a week over 9 months and suddenly you’ve spent over $200 on a coffee!” Mantia warns. “They will sneakily chip away from your budget.” You may have to prioritize depending on how much money you have to work with, but do try to set aside some funds for those miscellaneous expenses. “It’s really important to know the difference between wants and needs when budgeting,” Citizen’s Bank points out in their student budgeting tips, but they also stress the importance of “[rewarding] yourself with something fun.”

“It’s also a good idea to set aside some money each month for emergency purposes, such as unexpected car repairs,” they suggest. You may not have a car on campus, but other “emergencies” are bound to befall you – laptops and phones break much more frequently, and if you’ve ever found yourself without one of the two you know it’s the sort of weird social experiment you don’t want to suffer through. You’ll be thankful to have the funds to get them repaired ASAP instead of trying to survive without texting (trust me, it’s harder than it sounds). If you don’t end up using the money you set aside for it, roll it over to the next month or drop it into your savings.

Another good tip if you find yourself with a lot of extra spending money: save some! It’s not a bad idea to put a portion of your paycheck into your savings account if you can spare it in case an unplanned adventure pops up, like studying abroad or a summer internship away from home. You’ll be glad for the forethought and it could mean the difference between an all-business, no-play experience and one with endless possibilities. If the excess is pretty standard in your budget, decide upon a specific amount you want to save each month and make it an inflexible expense – that way you won’t be tempted to dip into it when you find yourself short on shopping-trip funds.

5. Stick to It and Adjust Accordingly

What use is a budget if you ignore it? Do a month-long trial and really try to stick to your plan. “A student budget requires flexibility to adapt to the changing circumstances of college life,” the Indiana Department for Financial Institutions says. “Keep a daily record of your expenditures for a few weeks to better estimate the kind and amounts of your flexible expenses.” Note any places where you may have devoted too much or two little of your money. At the end of the month, tweak your plan to better fit your spending habits.

It may be a few months before you get it exactly right, but once you do you’ll be glad for the spending structure instead of getting by on your last few dollars. And, as Thokar points out, it’s better to figure out finances now than find yourself clueless once you’ve got that coveted college diploma: “It’s important learn how to do it properly now while we have the safety net of college so we don’t trip up when there are more consequences.”

So, buckle down and make your plan for safe spending a priority. Better to fumble now than once you’re a real-life grown up making it in the big, wide world. Happy budgeting, collegiettes!

Devin is majoring in Journalism at Loyola University Chicago and minoring in both English and Film. She spent the past year working as the Diversions editor at the Loyola Phoenix where she had the opportunity to interview a handful of movie stars, including Jonah Hill, Michael Fassbender and Josh Hutcherson. This summer she'll be interning at Us Weekly and living the dream in New York City. Her idea of a good time is take-out chinese food, working on her novel series and rocking out to either Coldplay or Kanye West. After college she hopes to land a job writing at an entertainment magazine where she can make a living off of consuming absurd quantities of pop culture and then blabbing about it for the enjoyment of others.