Of many things college students typically don’t enjoy doing, three things stick out in my mind: tackling adult responsibilities, finding a job, and budgeting. Budgeting seems to be the last thing that anyone wants to do, yet it’s one of the most important life skills to have. After all, knowing how to budget in college can mean the difference between sitting at home stressing about money or taking that vacation you’ve been dreaming about.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a boring how-to on creating an actual budget or a comprehensive guide to money and finances (although those are helpful!). Rather, I’m here to help you start budgeting for something slightly different: your own happiness. While it may seem like money and happiness go hand-in-hand for some people (the more you have, the happier you’ll be, right?), budgeting for your happiness doesn’t necessarily have to mean touching every penny you earn or spending a lot — especially in college when it makes sense to save.
Whether you’re budgeting for brunch, a weekend trip with your BFFs, or even “budgeting” 30 minutes of your week to read a new book (for pleasure, I mean — put the textbook down!), here’s how you can start budgeting for your own happiness in college and beyond.
consider what makes you happy & where to direct your resources
In college, we all have things that we need to dedicate money toward, like bills, food, and other necessities, not to mention everything you need to be prepared for class each semester. In your monthly (or weekly, depending on your pay schedule) budget, those items are non-negotiable (trust me, you really shouldn’t go without dinner all week!). However, life doesn’t have to exist only around those necessities. Whether you’re a full-time college student, working a salaried job with benefits, working part-time, or freelancing, it’s totally possible to use your resources wisely while also budgeting for your happiness.
So, what does it mean to budget for your happiness? For you, it might mean setting aside money for future travel or saving up for the newest tech item you’ve got your eye on. For others, budgeting for happiness means taking those 30 minutes they’d normally spend aimlessly scrolling on Instagram and putting them towards something else that’s ultimately more fulfilling.
If you’re stuck figuring out what exactly makes you happy, try making a list of what makes you smile. Does being outside in nature bring you joy? What about spending time with friends? Do you love volunteering and helping other people? Is there a passion project you’ve always wanted to start, but haven’t found the time to begin? Maybe now’s the time to plan for it.
“Invest in things that make you feel the most ‘you,’ and actively remove the things that don’t,” says Samhita Sen, a junior at the University of California at Berkeley. “Budget your money, time and effort for the things that feel good and away from the things that don’t.” According to a 2018 study of well-being published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, engaging in activities you enjoy can help boost your long-term happiness, so know that by setting aside time for these things, you’re doing yourself — and your health — a big favor.
In college, your needs and wants are always changing, so know that you can be flexible with how you choose to budget your money and time. Plus, you can always alter your “happiness budget” if you find that it’s no longer working for you. Rae Oliver, the Editor-in-Chief of Truly Experiences, a company that helps connect people with meaningful cultural experiences and excursions, says budgeting is all about figuring out what you value the most. She tells Her Campus, “I think budgeting for happiness means deciding what is most important to you at that stage in your life, and how you can change your spending habits to work towards your goal,” she says, “whether that be a fancy sports car or a three-month yoga retreat in India.”
What makes you happy doesn’t have to be a fancy car or yoga retreat, though, especially if you’re in college and are just trying to get through life one day at a time! And for some, happiness doesn’t come from a material item or fancy trip abroad — it might come simply from helping others. Lewis Keegan, the creator of Skill Scouter, says that serving a greater cause can be a meaningful use of your money, time, and resources. “Living your life while making others happy is the best way to live rather than just wasting your money and resources on material things,” he says. “[A]t the end of the day, we will not be remembered by the clothes we wore or the perfume we used — we will be remembered by how we made people feel.”
According to extensive positive psychology research conducted by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, setting aside time for things that give you meaning can significantly improve your long-term happiness and well-being. Whether it’s music, travel, spending time with loved ones, pursuing a creative project, or all of the above, remember to focus on the things that make you happy — they can actually improve your health in the long-term!
Make a list of what makes you happy & start planning
Once you’ve made a list of things that bring you the most happiness, it’s time to do some reflection. What does your weekly or monthly budget look like right now? Is there something in the budget that can be altered or adjusted? Do you even have the money for your future goals? If not, how can you get there? Where can you spend less money so that you can save up for something else? How much time will you need for this goal?
For David Foley, the founder of Unify Cosmos and a teacher who helps clients live more positive, fulfilling lives, accepting the idea of delayed gratification is a key part of the budgeting process. He tells Her Campus, “I’ve always been a big believer in delayed gratification. In my world, making sacrifices for something bigger down the road is always worth it.” He continues to say that he considers himself a “minimalist” and is willing to sacrifice spending for material items in order to create more experiences and memories.
And while minimalism can be a helpful approach to budgeting, you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice certain things if you don’t want to. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all to budgeting for your happiness — for some people, the fancy cup of coffee is equally as valuable as a vacation to the beach.
Rather than adhering to the “delayed gratification” model, Samantha Moss, Editor and Content Ambassador at Romantific, prefers an opposite method that’s all about instant gratification. She suggests setting aside unallocated money that you can spend on whatever you want. Moss tells Her Campus, “Budgeting for happiness is neither saving more elsewhere and spending more, nor is it spending less to live more. It’s a matter of having the freedom to spend what you need in order to make you happy.”
At the end of the day, navigating college life can be difficult and overwhelming. You might be juggling a heavy course load, working a job (or multiple!) that you don’t necessarily enjoy, on top of having to balance brand new friendships, relationships, expectations, and responsibilities. That said, your happiness still matters, and it’s important to budget for it in college so that you can take steps toward your long-term well-being.
If you’re a college student, I know how impossible this may seem, especially if you feel like you can barely tackle your never-ending to-do list, or you’re staring at your bank account wondering if it’ll ever increase. It can also feel discouraging if your schedule is jam-packed and you’re putting in long hours at your job, seemingly without much reward. However, at the end of the day, remember to set aside time and resources for your happiness and well-being. Even budgeting a few minutes of your day to rest, doodle, listen to music, or work on a passion project can make a world of a difference — and it’ll bring a greater sense of joy into your life.
Samhita Sen, University of California at Berkeley
Seligman, M. E. (2019). Positive psychology: A personal history. Annual review of clinical psychology, 15, 1-23.
Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), 333-335.