When I got to Boulder in the fall, I was living a frugal lifestyle. I thought my bank account was full of graduation money and summer job income. It turns out it runs out quickly. I spent all my money on clothes, eating out, room decor, and haircuts. I am not going to lie to you, I spent $550 on my hair last semester. My hair looked great. My bank account did not. By the end of the semester, I had to face the embarrassment of declined debit cards and begging my parents for money. Money and budgeting are big stressors, but they don’t have to be. Learning to be responsible with money now, while you’re still in college, will free you from a lifetime of stress.
- Download your bank account history, you can go back as far as you feel fits.
For me, I downloaded my bank account history from late August to mid-December (first semester). This way, you can see where and when you spent the most money, and whether they are avoidable costs or not.
- Make categories and calculate how much you spent on each.
For example, my categories were Groceries, Haircuts, Starbucks, Eating Out, Clothes, Gifts, Recreation, Plane Tickets, Lyft, Miscellaneous, and a few others. I then calculated how much I spent on each over the course of the semester. These categories will look a little different for everyone. Just be honest with what you spend your money on. This way, you can maintain your budget, and not idealize how you spend.
- Combine your total spent and find your average monthly spending.
Track how much you have spent in total, and then divide it by your chosen time period. This will allow you to see how much money is going out each month on average. Don’t feel stressed out if this number is high. That is why you’re budgeting — take a deep breath.
- Next, do the same with monthly income.
Be specific. Where is this money coming from, is it a gift, or is it consistent? If you get some sort of an allowance from your loved ones or if all of your money is a series of inconsistent gifts, you may want to adjust your budgeting decisions. This allows you to see how much money is coming in each month.
- Use those same categories and set honest/realistic amounts of money you want to spend in each.
It is unrealistic for me to not go to Starbucks, so I set aside $40 a month to indulge my coffee addiction. Cut out expenses or change your habits in other categories. For me, I now go to a different hair salon. Make sure to set aside money for sporadic expenses. Whether this is travel or savings, set that money aside.
- Monitor and track your spending.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Keep yourself accountable in order to maintain your budget. I use Notion, but there are countless free apps you can download to track your spending. Pick one that works for you and work to track your money as you go, you’ll usually have your phone with you and it takes two seconds.
- Determine whether you need more income or if you are willing to spend less money.
I decided that in order to maintain the lifestyle I enjoy, it made the most sense to get a job. I now work 10 hours a week which is completely manageable. If you decide spending less money is the best option for you, then you should consider minimizing/eliminating some of your categories. At this point, you can decide if that is practical for you. It is all about balance.
Budgeting does not have to include cutting out coupons and saving receipts (though it can if that works for you). The key to budgeting is being honest with yourself. There is no one-size-fits-all budget. Do what works for you, and have fun with it. My stress and guilt around money and spending habits have gone way down. The habits you instill now will carry you through life. That’s a lot of pressure, but it doesn’t have to be. Break it up and don’t be too hard on yourself.