6 Tips for Managing Your Money in College
Sound money habits—like sticking to a budget—will save you from financial stress and running out of cash freshman year.
Managing your money in college isn't easy. In fact, 52% of college students said they were at least moderately stressed about having enough money to last the semester, according to a 2019 survey by AIG Retirement Services and EVERFI. Along with all the new responsibilities (and freedom!) you'll have as a college student, you'll need to keep track of your college money, whether your parents are footing the bill or you are juggling college loans, scholarships, and a job. These six tips can help.
1. Create a (Realistic) Budget Before You Leave for College
Creating a budget will be the last thing on your mind once you start college, so do it before the school year gets underway. Until you start living the life of a college student, it's hard to know how much things will cost and what your spending habits will be like. But do your best to estimate (using the college's Cost of Attendance as a guide), and revise your budget after your first month on campus.
Consider using a free budgeting app or template, or an Excel spreadsheet. Your budget should include:
- Your monthly income. In college, your income usually comes from a combination of sources: loans, scholarships, grants, a job, and contributions from parents and/or your savings. Colleges usually disperse your loan and scholarship payments, taking what's required for tuition and fees and sending the rest directly to you, so you can pay for your remaining college expenses.
- Your required spending. The amount you will spend on anything required for college and life (after tuition and fees). This includes your rent, books, room and board, cell phone service, laundry, prescriptions, etc.
- Your optional spending. What you think you'll need for extras, like eating out, movies, concerts, travel, gaming, gifts, and so on.
2. Budget for Saving, Splurges, and Surprises
Opportunities come up and emergencies happen, so allocate some money for these in your budget, too. Do you want to travel over spring break? Add a "savings" category to your budget and set aside what you'll need to save each month to reach your goal. Also include cash in your budget for an occasional splurge on something you enjoy. That way, you're more likely to stay within your budget and not charge spontaneous purchases to your credit card.
3. Track Your Spending
Once you get to college, record everything (yes, everything!) you spend money on for an entire month. A mobile app will make this easier, but you can also save receipts. Once you see exactly where your money is going, adjust your budget as needed.
4. Review Your Budget—a Lot
Some financial experts say you should review your spending against your budget every week. You'll have a lot on your plate, but find a way to fit in a regular budget review. Set up an appointment in your calendar, or take time before or after a scheduled activity you never miss, such as a weekly study group or yoga class.
Take a look at both your required spending and your optional spending for the week. If you are starting to run low on spending money, you'll need to cut back somewhere. The obvious place is your optional spending, but you might find ways to reduce your required spending, too. For example, switching to a cheaper meal plan or renting textbooks. See How to Stretch Your College Dough for more money-saving ideas.
5. Set up Direct Deposit
You can keep track of your money by setting up three bank accounts: one for bills, one for spending, and one for savings. Have the money you've budgeted for each category automatically deposited into these accounts. This way, you'll be less likely to tap into your savings account or spend money allocated for bills. When your spending account is empty, it's empty. No more midnight pizza runs for you!
6. Use Credit Cards Wisely
Use only one low-limit credit card and charge only things you purchase regularly and have budgeted for. Paying your bill in full and on time each month will prevent you from racking up fees and debt at a high interest rate.
Your Budget is Your Friend
Sticking to a budget doesn't have to ruin your college life. Living within your means can feel good, reduce stress, and put you on the right path to a sound financial future. Best of all, you'll be able to enjoy your college memories all the more knowing you can actually pay for them.