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How to Budget in College

March 09, 2021 · 3 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

How to Budget in College

Oh, college. It’s filled with caffeinated nights, Saturday game days, Easy Mac, and ramen. While all your money seems to be going toward tuition and books, it’s essential to learn how to budget in college to make the most of what you have.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a grasp on your beer budget? Buy more than cans of soup for lunch? If so, a budget comes into play.

You may not have a full-time job yet, or even know your college major, but managing your money early on could help you save for spring break, uncover monthly savings, and avoid taking out additional student loans.

Listing Your Expenses

There’s a little homework involved to learn how to make a budget in college, but it’s all about learning your spending habits. If you’re game for this task, take an evening to list all of your college-related expenses and their cost each month.

Don’t forget about things like sporting event tickets and going out to eat.

Are you involved in Greek life? You might have sorority or fraternity dues. If you have a car, you most likely have at least some car-related expenses.

Here are a few common expenses to consider:

•   Apartment or dorm rent
•   Utilities
•   Books
•   Food
•   Gas
•   Car maintenance
•   Clothes
•   Bars
•   Greek life or other social organization dues
•   Season athletic tickets

Necessary Expenses

Once you have a big list of expenditures going, parse out the expenses that you know for sure that you have to pay. These are essentials, like:

•   Rent
•   Utilities
•   Cell phone bill
•   Books
•   Tuition
•   Food
•   Gas

Fun Money

It’s college, so you want to make sure you have room for a little fun money. List all of your expenses that are related to fun and entertainment. These could include:

•   Restaurants
•   Bars
•   Athletic tickets
•   Spring break or other vacations
•   Clothes

A note on clothes: It’s not mandatory to buy every piece of spirit wear you find at the student union. You can keep it simple with your wardrobe.

These are not mandatory expenses, but a pretty sweet addition to the college budget.

Any Loan Expenses

When learning how to budget in college, you may want to consider trying to build your savings.

It’s a good idea to double-check if any student loans of yours have interest that needs to be paid immediately. Even if interest payments are deferred, it’s smart to start paying down student loan debt now—every little bit helps.

Once you get a grasp on how to budget in college, you may see how you can make room for spaghetti nights vs. microwave dinners, and how to be more prepared to tackle student loans when you graduate.

By the way, the average student loan balance is about $37,700, according to recent figures. Something to keep in mind.

If in Doubt, Estimate Expenses

You can ballpark how much you spend on each category if you aren’t sure by looking at checking account or credit card statements and seeing what you’ve spent in past months.

Your past spending habits are a good indicator of how you might spend money in the future.

Three Ways to Budget in College

There are at least three good ways to help you budget in college:

•   Whiteboards
•   Budget-tracking apps
•   Spreadsheets

All three methods work similarly. You’ll record your income and expenses for the month. At the end of the month, you’ll look back on how much you brought in and how much you spent so you can make adjustments for the next month.

A whiteboard works particularly well if you have roommates and split your bills. It helps keep everyone accountable and serves as a good reminder to pay your bills on time. In the whiteboard scenario, you can record what you spent for the day, and update your totals every day. It’s best to put the whiteboard in a spot where you can see it, such as by your desk or on the fridge.

A budget-tracking app on your phone lets you take your budget on the go. Budget apps can link to your bank and credit card accounts, so every time you make a transaction, the app automatically records it.

You can set up your budget by adding new categories, and maybe allow notifications so you get a warning when you’re close to going over on your burrito budget. Because burritos are life.

You can also learn how to make a budget in college with a simple spreadsheet. Build a virtual spreadsheet with Google Sheets or Excel, using a new tab for each month in the year so you can separate monthly expenses.

This method is more manual than an app, requiring you to look at your bank or credit card statements and manually record each transaction in your budget.

The Takeaway

How to budget in college? If this is your first time taking financial ownership, you might not know how to track income and expenditures—or want to—but budgeting could help you afford to eat more than ramen and lessen debt.

Centralizing your expenses and balances with an app can give you a good look at your financial situation.

SoFi Relay tracks all of your money in one place. Set monthly spending targets, see your top spending categories, and get weekly credit score updates—at no cost.


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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
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