With an ounce of planning, the right college budget can free you from money worries so you can focus on your studies — and graduate with less debt.

New professors, challenging classes, and socializing with strangers — college is exciting but also anxiety-inducing.

With so much going on, it’s easy to let your finances slip through the cracks, leading to long-lasting consequences that could haunt you beyond your college years.

By planning out your finances at the beginning of each term, you can look forward to a more successful (and way less stressful) academic year. 

Here are some tips to help you graduate less broke.

1. Take inventory of your expenses

Take inventory of your expensesPerhaps you’re paying for college with student loans, savings, scholarships, or gifts, as opposed to (or in addition to) the income that you earn while going to school. Regardless of the source, you’ll want to stretch your money as far as possible.

To figure out how much money you’ll need, first you need to make a list of your expenses. 

Expenses are divided into two main categories: your fixed expenses and your miscellaneous expenses.

Your fixed expenses

You must set aside money for your fixed expenses every month, every quarter, or every year. For a college or grad school budget, these expenses may include:

  • Tuition.
  • Books.
  • Rent.
  • Utility bills.
  • Groceries.
  • Debt payments.
  • Insurance.

Miscellaneous expenses

Concerts, outings, clothes — all of these fall into the miscellaneous or “non-essential” category. These expenses are the kind of expenses that you can live without, even if you would rather not.

Although these expenses aren’t necessary, it’s important to have fun from time to time, so make sure that you account for a little bit of treating yourself in your budget!

2. Make a budget that doesn’t exceed your income

To make a realistic budget, it is important to first know how much money you have coming in.

If you take out student loans that exceed the amount you owe your school, you will receive a lump sum payout at the beginning of each academic term. This can be used to help you cover other college-related costs, like books or off-campus housing.

That said, many college students have to take on jobs and participate in work-study programs to make ends meet. To make sure that your money will last, it is important to take all of your income into account.

You’ll need to ration this money carefully. Here’s how you can do this: 

  1. Divide your total payout by the number of months in your academic term. This will help you find your monthly allowance. For example, if you are paid out each semester, you would divide the payout by four (a typical semester). 
  2. Add your monthly allowance and any other monthly income (your job, work-study, etc.) to figure out the total that you have to budget with. 
  3. Make sure that your expenses don’t exceed your monthly income. If they do, you will need to find ways to cut back or make more money.

3. Have a spending account and a reserve account

Have a spending account and a reserve accountGive yourself a paycheck every month (or every two weeks) to cover your fixed expenses, plus a set amount for miscellaneous expenses.

Leave that money in your main bank account, which will become your “spending” account. Any money that’s leftover should go into your “reserve” account.  This will help keep things tidy.

Once you deplete the funds in your spending account, you will need to wait until your next scheduled “payday” to spend.

4. Avoid temptations

Being successful with a college budget is reliant on you being disciplined with the monitoring and spending of your money.

Remind yourself that you have a specific amount and that’s it. It’s just like a business budget: even if there’s more money floating around in that savings account, you must pretend it doesn’t exist.

Thinking, “If I spend a little more in December, then I’ll just transfer more from my reserve,” means you’ll tap into next semester and could potentially end up short.

5. Set up an emergency fund

Even college students need some kind of emergency fund to fall back on. 

First, it will relieve some of the stress in case of the unexpected. Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — it will keep you from racking up credit card debt.

Setting up an emergency fund is no big deal:

  • Open a savings account that is easily accessible. Preferably, this will be with the same bank that you use for checking, so you will be able to transfer money easily in case of an emergency.
  • Save one to three months’ worth of expenses in this account. This may take some time, depending on the amount of income that you have. This is a great opportunity to put any money that was gifted to you for graduation to good use.
  • Whatever you do, don’t touch that money unless it’s a dire emergency. Tickets to see Olivia Rodrigo don’t count!

6. Use your credit card wisely

Credit cards have some of the highest interest rates out there — some even as high as 35%, plus interest starts to accrue immediately.

You don’t want to get into debt when you’re still in school. Other than your student loans (if you have any), it’s best not to dig yourself into a hole you won’t be able to crawl out of.

However, using a credit card responsibly has multiple benefits, including rewards and cash back. Also, on-time payments can help you build a positive credit history, which could have a big impact on your life after college.

To ensure that you don’t go overboard, make sure not to treat your credit card as a debit card. Additionally, be sure that you only charge as much on your credit card as you are able to pay off each month.

7. Be on the lookout for discounts

One of the perks of being a college student is that you’ll get access to many discounts that non-students can’t get. From restaurants to entertainment and transportation — and even subscriptions, you can save a lot of money just by showing off your student ID or a copy of your class schedule.

Here are some companies where you can use your student status to your advantage:

8. Buy used textbooks or consider rentals

I remember over 10 years ago that textbooks easily cost me $500 a semester and sometimes more. You can save up to 90% off the sticker price if you buy them second-hand. 

If you would rather not spend all that money, you can look into renting textbooks for the semester. For example, Amazon has thousands of textbooks available for you to rent for up to 90 days.

The best part? Books are delivered to your door and you can request an extension if you need them for longer.

9. Cash in on your textbooks

Finally, don’t forget to recoup some of your textbook budget by selling your used books when you’re done with them.

To do this, list them online on websites like eBay, Chegg, or Amazon. Alternatively, reach out to fellow students and faculty to find out if they know of anyone who is on the hunt for your specific textbooks.

10. Join associations or degree-related organizations

Organizations like the Foundation of National Student Nurses’ Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers offer students access to scholarships and other grants to help cover the costs of tuition.

Besides that, joining a degree-related association will help you network, find paid internships, and even a job after you graduate.

11. Weigh your loan options carefully

If you’re taking out a private loan, it pays to shop around, as they tend to have higher interest rates than those of federal student loans, in addition to fewer repayment options.

Your school might recommend some lenders, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best option for you.

So make sure you investigate other lenders by doing some shopping online. You can do this by checking out comparison websites like Credible.

Summary

Now that you’re ready to take charge of your college budget, here’s a quick summary of key points to remember.

First, know how much money you have for the semester between student loans, scholarships, income, and savings. If you’re using private student loans, make sure to evaluate your options to save money on interest.

Once you know how much you’ve got, subtract your total expenses. These expenses include tuition, textbooks, housing, insurance, and so on.

Then, divide that by the number of months in your semester. At the start of each month, transfer that amount from your reserve account to your spending account.

Lastly, stick to your budget, take advantage of discounts, and if you have a credit card, use it responsibly.

Following these tips can give you the peace of mind to succeed this semester along with the confidence that your budget won’t fail you either!

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About the author

David Weliver
Total Articles: 296
David Weliver is the founder of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues he faced during his first two decades as an adult. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.