The Ultimate Guide For Building A College Budget

by Jalen
How to Budget In College

For many, college is their first real taste of independence. However, this comes at the cost of more responsibility, especially when it comes to handling your own finances. Outside of your regular curriculum, one of the most important things you will have to learn is financial literacy. Why? Because understanding money—how to save it, spend it, and budget it—is a skill that pay lifelong dividends.

The purpose of this guide is to provide you with practical tips and insights on how to craft a sustainable budget tailored for college life. We’re here to simplify the jargon, break down the numbers, and most importantly, help you master the art of smart spending. Let’s dive in!

Understanding the Basics of Budgeting

Budgeting is kind of like planning a road trip. You need to know where you’re starting (your current financial situation), your destination (your goals), and how much fuel you’ll need (how much you’d need to save).

How do I assess my finances?

The first step to building better budgeting habits is to understand where your money is coming from and where it’s going. In other words, your income and your expenses. Let’s break it down.

Understanding Your Income Sources

How are you currently making money? This could include:

  • Part/Full-time Jobs: A standard way of making money.
  • Allowances: Do you parents send you money every now and again? Start tracking this if so.
  • Scholarships: Financial aid you receive from your school that you don’t have to pay back.

If you’re interested in doing a work-study program or working on campus to increase your income, check out our guide on how to find the perfect on-campus employment opportunity for you!

Typical Fixed Expenses

These costs don’t change much:

  • Tuition: The set amount you pay to your school each quarter/semester.
  • Rent and Utilities: This is what you pay to keep a roof over your head and your phone to keep a charge.
  • Insurance: This includes, car insurance, life insurance, renters insurance, or any other policy you may have with your provider of choice. Sometimes your school provides you with health insurance that is covered in your tuition costs.

Your Variable Expenses

Its a bit harder to account for these types of expenses because they can fluctuate pretty easily:

  • Groceries: How much are you spending on food costs per month? Aim to spend no more than $450 dollars a month ($15/day) on food.
  • Entertainment: This is how much you spend during outings with friends or by yourself, your Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, or if you’re like me, videogames that you rarely end up finishing.
  • Transportation: Bus passes, gas money, or occasional Uber rides.
  • Other Stuff: This can be haircuts, fashion, the devil’s lettuce, or anything else you like to occasionally (or frequently) spend your money on.

Steps to Creating a College Budget

So now that you understand some of the basics behind creating a budget, here’s some ways that you can gather all of the needed information.

Collect Your Financial Statements

– Bank Statements: Every month, your bank should provide a summary of your account activity. This can be a physical statement they mail or an electronic one you can download. It shows every single deposits and withdrawal made within the last month, and should also provide a total net change that indicates if you have a nice surplus or if you’re running up a deficit.

– Bills and Receipts: Keep every bill you receive, whether it’s for utilities, your phone, or even streaming services. This can get pretty tedious to track manually, but luckily there are easier ways of doing this.

– Paychecks: Any sort of W-2 job that you work will provide a paycheck every 2 weeks that is the remainder of your listed payrate minus any taxes or deductions. This tells you your actual take-home amount and what you will ultimately have to budget around.

Choosing Your Budgeting Tool

While there are plenty of methods and tools for budgeting, most people nowadays use budgeting apps or manually track their budget using spreadsheet software.

– Budgeting Apps: There are loads of apps out there (like Mint or YNAB) that can link to your bank account. They automatically categorize and track your spending, making it super easy. Most are beginner-friendly, and some even offer spending insights or saving tips!

– Spreadsheets: For those who like more control, two popular spreadsheet programs are Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. Start with columns for date, description, income, and expenses. Record every transaction to the best of your ability, and you’ll start to get a glimpse of exactly where all your money has seemingly been disappearing to after about a month or so.

Adding Up Everything

Now that you’ve got your data and your budgeting tool of choice:

1. Input your income sources (like those from paystubs or allowances).

2. List your essential expenses (fixed and variable)

3. Add in your discretionary spending (your fun money)

4. Continuously track your budget, and make necessary updates to account for new expenses.

Generally speaking, try not to spend more than 10% of your income on non-essential expenses, and make sure you’re always paying your bills first and foremost.

Consider Your Financial Goals

Now that hopefully have everything written down or logged, now you can consider how to tweak your budget to match your financial goals.

Understand Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals:

– Short-Term Goals: These are things you aim to save for within the next month or two. This could be something like new shoes, a new laptop, or just a really fun night out.

– Long-Term Goals: These are your bigger picture aims that might take a year or more to accomplish. This could be saving up for a post-graduation trip, an emergency fund, or even starting to save a bit for future big-ticket items (like a car or grad school).

Crafting Realistic and Achievable Goals:

– Be Specific: Instead of saying, “I want to save money,” specify, “I want to save $300 for a summer trip.” This gives you a clear target.

– Break It Down: For a $300 summer trip, you need to save $100 each month in spring. Seeing smaller chunks can make it feel more manageable.

– Stay Flexible: Life is unpredictable! Sometimes you might not be able to save the full amount for one month. Maybe you tried to impress that attractive person from your chemistry class by spending too much on a date. (it happens to the best of us) It’s okay! All you have to do is adjust and move forward.

By sticking to your goals, you’re setting up for both fun today and stability tomorrow.

Frugal Tips to Reduce Your Living Expenses

While cutting back on drinking coffee and eating less “avocado toast” will definitely help you save your dollars throughout the week, contrary to what the boomer crowd might believe, the majority of your expenses outside of rent and tuition most likely comes from technology, textbooks, and clothes. Luckily, the ideal Frugal Student can find ways to cut costs in this area as well with the techniques of thrifting, borrowing, and renting! Let’s dive into some top thrifty tips:

Thrift Store Shopping:  

Don’t underestimate the power of a good thrift store! 

– Clothing: you can find unique, vintage, or even designer pieces at a fraction of the retail price at your local thrift stores. Plus, it’s eco-friendly! 

– Essentials: Beyond clothes, thrift stores can be treasure troves for dishes, decor, books, and more. Need a coffee pot or a lamp? Check thrift shops first.

Rent or Borrow Before Buying:  

– Textbooks: Textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars each, and you may have to purchase a few each quarter/semester. A great service for renting textbooks for cheap is through VitalSource. They offer up to 80% discounts on textbooks, and carry books from all the major academic publishers! (This is an affiliate link, but nevertheless a useful service). Amazon also offers textbook rentals, and you can also check your school’s library as well.

– Tech Gadgets: Need a camera for a project? Some colleges offer technology rentals. If not, consider borrowing or renting from local shops or online platforms.

-Dressy Outfits: Formal event coming up? Instead of buying an outfit you’ll wear once, consider renting. Websites like Rent the Runway can be a godsend.

Share & Swap:

Organize swap events with friends or dorm-mates. Exchange clothes, accessories, books, or even video games. It’s a fun way to refresh your belongings without spending a dime. Make sure the stuff you’re swapping out or receiving is kept in good quality.

DIY & Upcycling:  

Got a ripped shirt or broken chair? Before tossing it, see if you can repurpose or fix it. YouTube has countless tutorials to turn “trash” into treasures.

Consider Digital Over Physical:  

For music, movies, or books, digital is often cheaper. Platforms like Spotify, Netflix, or Kindle can save you money in the long run.

How to Find Student Discounts

Another hack to reducing your expenditures as a Frugal Student is realizing that your student status gives you access to a wide range of discounts from companies and services that are not simply not available to the general public. These opportunities are  waiting to be tapped into by you! 

Software Savings:

Many software companies offer hefty discounts for students.

– Academic Software: Microsoft Office, Adobe Suite, and many others often have student versions or discounts. Check their official websites or your campus IT center.

– Coding & Design Tools: Platforms like GitHub Student Developer Pack offer free access to premium coding tools.

Entertainment on a Budget: 

– Movies: Many cinemas offer student-priced tickets. Just flash your student ID!

– Streaming Services: Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music often have student subscription rates, sometimes bundled with other services like Hulu.

Transport Discounts:  

– Public Transit: Many cities offer reduced fares for students on buses, trams, or subways.

– Bikes: Some campuses have bike-sharing programs which can be cheaper than other transport modes.

– Rideshares: Check apps like Uber or Lyft; occasionally, they offer student promotions.

Embrace Campus Facilities:  

Opting for campus amenities can lead to major savings.

– Fitness: Instead of an expensive gym membership, use the campus rec center.

– Studying Spaces: Why buy coffee at a café when you can use a library or student lounge for free? Some even provide free printing!

– Events & Activities: From free movie nights to guest lectures and concerts, campuses are bustling with no-cost entertainment.

Be Alert & Ask: 

Whenever shopping, dining, or considering a service, always ask if they offer a student discount. You’d be surprised how often the answer is yes!

Utilize Student Discount Platforms:  

Websites and apps like UNiDAYS or Student Beans regularly update available discounts for students, covering everything from fashion to tech.

Seeking Additional Financial Education

If you’ve ever felt lost amidst terms like “credit scores” or “compound interest” don’t worry, you’re not alone! Although we here at Frugal Student aim to make all of these terms more easily digestible for college students like yourself, if you prefer an in-person learning experience, luckily there is a whole world of financial workshops and seminars hosted by third party organizations and/or your own college tailored just for students like you! 

Financial Literacy Workshops: 

Financial literacy workshops are great for getting hands-on experience in understanding the basics of money management. These sessions typically cover:

– Basics of budgeting

– Understanding credit and loans

– The art of saving

Investing Seminars:  

Think investing is only for the wealthy, older folks, or your econ professor? Think again! Starting young can lead to significant returns in the future. Time in the market tends to beat timing the market over the long run! Seminars on campus often break down:

– Basics of the stock market

– The power of compound interest

– Risk and reward in investing

Debt Management Classes:  

Student loans and credit cards can be confusing. These classes provide insights into:

– How to manage and pay off debts efficiently

– The implications of interest rates

– Strategies to avoid accumulating harmful debt

The knowledge you’ll gain from these sort of events isn’t the only way you’ll find value. You’ll meet like-minded students, share tips, and perhaps even find mentors who can guide you further.

Tapping into Campus Resources: 

Your college likely has a financial aid or student services office. These centers may host free or low-cost workshops and seminars. Additionally, they might have brochures, books, or online resources you can tap into.

In essence, investing a little time now in understanding finances can save you not only money but also future headaches. So, take that initiative, use those campus resources, and set yourself on a path to a more secure financial future!

Books & Other Online Resources

If you’re looking to explore other online resources for financial education outside of the Frugal Student realm (It’s ok, we don’t mind!), although somewhat less curated for college students, here are some other helpful online voices in this space that have provided a lot of value to me throughout my college years.


– “The Price You Pay for College” by Ron Lieber: Don’t get scared off by the title, this book mainly focuses on student loans and other aspects of paying for college. This is written specifically for college students.

– “Your Money Life: Your 20s” by Peter Dunn: This is apart of a book series (each focusing on a particular decade in your life) that covers financial decisions and considerations you’d likely have as a young 20-something year old. Its a short read and highly recommended.

If you’d like a longer, more exhaustive list of good reads about personal finance for college students and young adults, check out our top 10 recommended reads.


NerdWallet: This site breaks down all things money. From credit card comparisons to tips on saving, it’s a financial encyclopedia made easy.

Investopedia: Feeling lost in the jargon? Investopedia has a vast library of articles and tutorials, starting from the basics of budgeting to intricate investment strategies.

The Simple Dollar: This blog simplifies complex financial topics, perfect for beginners. Plus, it regularly reviews tools and apps that can help manage your money better.

Broke Millennial: Written in a relatable tone, it offers advice on navigating common financial hurdles faced by young adults.

YouTube Channels:  

– The Financial Diet: Think of it as a friendly chat about money. The channel discusses everything from budget hacks to insights on broader economic topics.

– Graham Stephan: A younger voice in finance, Graham combines advice on savings, investing, and real estate with a sprinkle of entertainment.

One thing you should note however, is that not all financial education resources are equal. Unfortunately there are a lot of bad actors in this space who promise to give you value but only end up taking it from you in the form of “masterclasses” and get-rich-quick schemes that only end up wasting your time and your money. It is virtuous to be eager about learning how to save and make more money, but it is also good practice to approach any online resource, including us, with an air of caution and skepticism. Always remember that if something is too good to be true, that’s because it likely is!

Final Word

Now that you’ve been armed with the essentials of budgeting, have actionable steps for crafting your own budget, and have been provided with further resources to continue your financial education, you have everything you need to start building better financial habits. A balanced budget today is the foundation of tomorrow’s financial freedom!

Want more golden nuggets on stretching your dollars? Subscribe to the Frugal Student Newsletter! Trust us, your wallet will thank you. Also, keep an eye out for more budget-friendly wisdom coming your way in future blog posts. Stay smart and save on!

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