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“Why am I running out of money?”
That’s the question students ask most when they visit the student money management center at University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia.
“When I ask them about a spending plan or a budget, they’ll typically say, ‘Yeah, I know what I spend my money on,’” says the center’s coordinator, Jean Cyprien. “But when I show them a spreadsheet with different categories for spending, they’ll say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I was spending that on eating out’ or ‘I forgot about that music app that I’m paying for.’”
You may have income from a part-time job, or you may start the semester with a lump sum. No matter your source, you have to make your spending money last all semester.
Here’s how to budget in college.
Set expectations with your parents
Before school starts, have a conversation with your parents about who’s paying for what.
“You don’t want to be in a situation where it’s kind of up in the air,” says Philip Schuman, senior director of financial literacy at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. “Having that first initial conversation will help go a long way toward having students become more financially independent from their parents.”
For example, your parents may agree to cover tuition and supplies, but you’ll have to pay for living expenses.
Separate needs and wants
Paying for your wants shouldn’t come at the expense of your needs. To prioritize spending, start with a list of expenses you are certain of during the semester, such as a trip home at Thanksgiving or filling your car with gas every two weeks.
Subtract those expenses from the amount of money you have for the semester. What’s left is your discretionary spending money.
Now divide that remaining amount by the number of weeks you need to cover. For example, if you have $800 available over a 15-week semester, that’s a little over $50 a week you could spend.
Use leftover financial aid wisely
If you borrow student loans to pay for college, there may be remaining funds you can use for personal expenses after covering tuition and fees, as well as room and board.
But avoid spending loan money on nonessentials, like streaming services, vacations or delivered food. Paying for those expenses with financial aid can be costly, since you’ll have to pay back the money you borrow, with interest.
Find a tracking tool you’ll use
There are endless ways to track spending, including phone apps, online budgeting worksheets, an Excel spreadsheet or a paper and pen.
It doesn’t matter what tool you use, so long as you find something that works for you, college budgeting experts say. If maintaining an Excel spreadsheet isn’t your thing, try an app that links to your bank account.
Tracking your money can help you make smarter spending choices.
“You’ve got to take responsibility to say, ‘I can't go out and spend money to go to the bar or pizza place, because I’m not going to have enough money for the books that I need,’” says Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling organization.
What to do if you slip up
Overspending is probably going to happen. You might budget $50 a week, but one weekend you end up spending double or triple that amount.
You don’t necessarily need to work more hours at a part-time job or send an SOS to your parents to get back on track. Instead, adjust your budget. There are two effective ways to do it:
Stop spending. Plan to skip a few weeks of spending to stick with your current budget. If you spent three weeks of your allotment in one weekend, for example, then curtail spending for two weeks.
Start over. Add up all of the money you have left for the semester and divide by the number of weeks left. This is the new amount available to spend each week.