How to Make a Budget in College

College is the perfect time to start sticking to a budget. Not quite sure how to do that? These tips can help you get started.

When you’re in high school, chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about money. If you have the funds for what you need—whether from an after-school job or your parents—you’re pretty much good to go. Unfortunately, your financial situation changes significantly after graduation. If you didn’t budget in high school, it will quickly become second nature once you’re in college. This doesn’t mean you’re financially cut off from Mom and Dad—in fact, they could still be one of your main income sources! The whole purpose of budgeting is to be aware of your income versus your expenses—basically, making sure you spend less than you make each month. It sounds boring and difficult, but if you’re living on a limited income, it’s important to keep track of your spending. You don’t want to go into debt, which can have permanent consequences, and pulling yourself out can be a long, slow process. 

Getting started

While you’re in college, don’t forget to save a little for your long-term, post-grad future. (You won’t be a student forever!) When you do get paid, always pay yourself first by putting some of your earnings in a savings account, even if it’s $20 here or $50 there. Every little bit will help after you graduate, especially if it takes a few months to find a job or you have unforeseen expenses, like major repair work on your car. When setting up a budget, you should first know how much you’ll be making each month. Include all income, whether it’s from an on- or off-campus job, parents’ allowance, work-study income, savings, or a combination of sources. Next, write down each of your bills so you know exactly where your money is currently going. For example, most students have the following expenses:

  • Cell phone bill
  • Car insurance
  • Car payment
  • Health insurance (if you’re on your own plan)

You may also pay some or all of your tuition, room, board, and books, so include those costs as well. Then factor in other expenses such as:

  • Groceries
  • Meals out
  • Rent (if you live off campus)
  • Miscellaneous (for those unforeseen events)

Be sure to record how much you spend on those items, even if it’s an approximate figure. You may not realize how much you spend on certain things, and having the numbers right in front of you can be eye opening.

Related: 5 Financial Strategies You Should Learn Before College

I know where my money’s going—now what?

Next, identify where you can spend less or, better yet, cut expenses out completely. This is where a personal finance and budgeting app can help you stay on track. One of the best is, a free site that allows users to create budgets, track and pay bills, and monitor credit scores. It also alerts users of any suspicious account activity and offers helpful tips for spending and saving money. The site syncs with your bank accounts, so all information is kept current.

Another app,, allows users to create a “digital envelope system” in which you split your money into digital “envelopes” or categories based on wants and needs. For example, if you want to allot $50 for eating out or $100 for gas, you can track expenses from that particular “envelope.” The app’s basic free membership is great for a college student, but it also has paid membership levels you can choose as you earn more and have more expenses to track.

Related: Budgeting Basics for College Students, Plus Example Spreadsheet

Do I get a discount?

If you’re committed to sticking to your budget, don’t forget to take your school ID wherever you go so you can take advantage of student discounts! This is a great way to save money as you venture off campus into the community. From pizza joints to art galleries to local gyms, you can find student discounts everywhere, so research the best places to find good deals. Living on a budget takes some getting used to, but college is a great time to get into the habit. After graduation, you’ll have additional expenses like rent, groceries, and student loan payments, so having a grasp on your spending habits now will help you become a financially responsible adult later.

What are some budget-savvy tips you have? Let us know in the comments!

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About Sara Karnish

Sara Karnish is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. 


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