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How To Create a Budget as a College Student

By Emily Wong

Emily Wong is a writer at Scholarships360. She’s worked as a social media manager and a content writer at several different startups, where she covered various topics including business, tech, job recruitment, and education. Emily grew up and went to school in the Chicago suburbs, where she studied economics and journalism at Northwestern University.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: September 11th, 2023
How To Create a Budget as a College Student

Between looking for a roommate and mentally preparing to start a new chapter in your life, planning for college can be overwhelming. It can be even more stressful when you realize that on top of this, you’re also going to need to know how to create a budget as a college student.

Fortunately, we’re here to help with our guide to budgeting for college students. By starting early and making a financial plan before school even starts, you can put aside your money concerns and focus on making friends and acing your classes.

Related: How to save money in college

1. List out your expenses

The first and most important step in creating a budget is making a list of all of the money that you anticipate going out. It’s also a good idea to separate the fixed or non-negotiable expenses from those that you can control so you know where you have room for adjustment in case your funds get tight.

Potential fixed expenses

  • Rent/housing
  • Utilities
  • School meal plan
  • Textbooks
  • Student organization fees/dues
  • Car insurance
  • Monthly subscriptions

Potential variable expenses

  • Groceries
  • Dining out
  • Entertainment
  • Clothing
  • Birthday/Christmas gifts
  • Gas

For each of these items, you’ll want to estimate how much you’ll spend over the course of each month or semester. That might be pretty simple for fixed expenses like rent or utilities, but you might have to do some research for others. 

For example, if you want to know how much money you’ll spend on groceries each month, you’ll probably want to figure out which grocery stores will be near you and what you’ll need to buy for your typical diet.

2. Figure out your income

After listing out all of your expenses, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to cover them. Before you leave for college, you’ll want to talk to your family about what costs you’re responsible for and what they’ll be contributing, if anything. Once you get that out of the way, you can consider other sources of income to pay for what’s left:

Potential sources of income

  • Personal savings
  • Summer job earnings
  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Student loans

If you anticipate working during the school year, you can also include that as a potential source of income. However, you’ll want to err on the side of underestimating your future earnings so that your budget isn’t thrown out of balance if something comes up and you miss some work. 

Related: How to make money in college

It’s also important not to overschedule yourself in your efforts to earn money. While it can be rewarding to have the means to support yourself, you don’t want your job to take a toll on your health or your grades.

Also read: Does financial aid count as income

3. Track your spending

Once you have your cost and income estimations finalized, you’ll want to put them into a budget in order to keep track of your progress throughout each month. You can find plenty of free options for budget templates on websites like Pinterest, or you can try this personal monthly budget spreadsheet from Microsoft Office.

There’s no point in having a budget if you don’t stick to it, so it’s important to update your spreadsheet every time you receive a paycheck or make a purchase. Some recommend checking it every day to make sure it’s up to date, while others will save their receipts and carve out some time for budgeting on the weekends. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you.

4. Save money where you can

Cutting back on costs can make your money go a lot farther, but you’ll want to do so strategically. For example, while eating ramen noodles every day may save money, it can also leave you malnourished and hungry. Therefore, you’ll want to find ways to spend less without giving up your health or happiness.

Also see: Top financial tips for college students

Find an affordable living situation

Rent or housing is probably going to be one of the most expensive items on your budget line, so it’s a good place to start when trying to save. While you might enjoy having your own space, you might want to consider getting a roommate to cut down your rent. However, you’ll want to spend some time searching for one with compatible living habits in order to avoid conflict.

You can also try to minimize your rent in the first place by looking at apartments in less “hip” or popular neighborhoods. Typically, buildings farther from campus will be significantly cheaper than those closer in, even for the same quality of facilities.

Related: How to pay for housing

Take advantage of student discounts

Many stores and restaurants offer student discounts, but it can be hard to find them. When you walk around town, look out for stickers in the window or signs advertising discounts for college students. You’ll typically need your student ID to get the deal, so you’ll want to keep that handy at all times.

Even online, you can check out websites like UniDays or StudentBeans that will give you a list of companies that offer student discounts for a variety of goods and services, from fashion to entertainment. You can also find great student deals for many subscription services, including Amazon Prime, Spotify and Apple TV+.

Also see: How to get a free laptop for college

Buy used

No matter how much you try to hold back your spending, some purchases are unavoidable. Even so, whether you’re furnishing a new apartment or buying a textbook, it’s always better to look at resale options first. Since you’ll only be using most of your stuff for four years at the most, it’s usually not worth it to buy anything brand-new.

Websites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace offer a wide variety of used goods from local sellers, so you won’t even have to pay for shipping. If you’re shopping for clothing, you can check out apps like Poshmark or Mercari.

5. Earn supplemental income

Another way to improve your budget is by increasing your income. While it’s probably not a good idea to take on a full-time job during school, you can still take advantage of odd jobs to make some extra cash. 

See also: How to find online jobs for college students

Many students will babysit or tutor in their free time, especially because you can typically set your own availability and manage your own clients. You can also check out websites like TaskRabbit or Fiverr to put your skills to work.

You can also make some extra cash by reselling clothes you haven’t worn in a while or textbooks from classes you’ve finished. Again, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace can be convenient places to list your item to sell for pickup. 

On the other hand, if you don’t mind dealing with shipping, you can try eBay or Amazon. You can also check out thrift shops or consignment stores in your area that accept drop-offs.

Keep reading: Financial tips for college students

Frequently asked questions about creating a budget as a college student

How should I prioritize my spending?

You should begin by prioritizing essential expenses such as rent, utilities, groceries, and transportation. Then you should allocate funds for savings, debt repayment and discretionary spending. You should create a balance between your needs, goals and wants.

Any additional tips for budgeting as a college student?

Yes! Here are some additional tips:
  • Build an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses
  • Be honest about your spending habits and set realistic goals
  • If you use credit cards, pay off the balance each month to avoid high-interest charges
  • Reward yourself for sticking to your budget!


How can I increase my income as a college student?

Consider taking on part-time jobs, freelancing, tutoring or finding work-study opportunities on campus. You could also explore online platforms for remote freelancing!

Should I use cash or credit cards for budgeting?

Both methods have their pros and cons. Using cash can make it easier to visualize your spending while credit cards can provide better expense tracking through statements and apps. Ultimately, choose the method that aligns with your budgeting style.

How can I manage social activities on a budget?

Look for free or low-cost entertainment options such as student events, movie nights, or campus activities. Consider hosting potluck dinners or game nights with friends instead of going out.

Is it alright to treat myself occasionally?

Yes! It is important to include some fun and treats in your budget to avoid feeling deprived. Just make sure these treats are within your allocated discretionary spending and won’t negatively impact your essential expenses or savings goals.

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