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How to Budget in College: A Step-by-Step Guide

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College is the best time to get started with a budget. It’s one of those skills that will be with you long after graduation.

Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily something that everyone learns in college. But fret not, budgeting is easier than you think. 

In just 20 minutes, you can have a workable budget and be on the path to better spending. Let’s get started!

Budgeting Essentials

Pen and paper is always an option, but there are so many apps and tools out there to help you stay on track. Here are three of our favorites.

Excel & Google Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are an easy way to organize your expenses and build functions that automatically update as you input the numbers. Google Sheets is free for anyone that has a Gmail account, and a free version of excel typically comes on student laptops. 

A simple Google search will lead you to free template you can use as your starting point. 

Mint

If you want something a little more in-depth that tracks your money as you spend it, Mint is a great option. It’s an app that syncs to your bank and credit card accounts and keeps track of the budget you set.

Mint is helpful because it sends you alerts when you’ve gone over budget and offers an at-a-glance look at your monthly spending.

PocketGuard

Similar to Mint, PocketGuard will help you build and keep an at-a-glance budget. For those that might need a little extra help knowing where to start, PocketGuard offers you the option to let it make your budget for you. 

These tools are great to have if you feel intimidated by starting a budget on your own. But before you jump into an app, try figuring your budget out on your own, so you understand the process. 

Building Your Budget

Track Your Spending

Start with tracking where your money is going. First, log into your bank account and take a look at everything you spent money in the last month.

Some banks even offer an easy chart that categorizes your expenses, similar to the one below we pulled from Mint. 

This chart will give you an idea of where your money is going. Dig deeper into each one of these categories to make sure it’s accurate. This will also give you a better sense of where your money is going.

Also, pay attention to the money that’s coming into your account. Why? Because that’s the next step in building your budget.

Estimate Your Income

Sometimes what you make each month is cut and dry. With college students, it tends to be a little harder to estimate. There are several ways money might be flowing into your account.

Here are a few income streams you should be aware of.

  • Financial Aid Money – Depending on the amount of aid you receive, you may be using it to pay for some of your living expenses. Factor the amount you use each month into your income.
  • Student Loans – Some students use student loans to help them pay for additional college expenses. If that’s you, include how much you use monthly in your income.
  • Work-Study Programs – If you’re getting paid as part of a work-study program, factor the additional amount into your income.
  • Additional Wages/Allowance/ etc. – Any extra earned income, whether from a second job or allowance from your parents should be included in income as well. 

Once you know where all of your income streams are coming from, add them up. That final number will be your estimated monthly income.

List Expenses

Here’s where taking a look at your bank account comes in. Use the categories provided by your bank and list how much you’re spending in each category every month. 

Click here for an example of how to list your expenses within categories.

As you’re going through, mark whether something is a Need or a Want.

What is a Need?

A need is something like rent, food, utilities, transportation, and essentials for your education (textbooks/school supplies). They are things you need to be able to live your life.


What is a Want?

A want is something you’d like to spend your money on but isn’t necessary to your survival. Going to the movies, morning coffee, or having cable tv, for example.

Once you have everything outlined, add up all your Need-based expenses and subtract that from your Income

That number is your Discretionary Income. 

Discretionary Income

Discretionary income is your income after your essential deductions (living expenses and taxes). This is the money you absolutely must have set aside every month to survive. 

If this number is negative, you need to start going through your budget and seeing where you can cut things out. 

The goal of a budget is to keep your income from going negative and, hopefully, have a little bit left over to put into savings or spend on things you want. 

If the number is positive, that means you’re doing great. Put some of that money away to pay off your student loans or treat yourself to a movie. 

REMINDER: You can absolutely build fun spending into your budget, too. Just make sure it’s separate from all of the essential expenses you have to take care of. 

You’re done!

Congrats, you created your first budget! Make sure to come back to it every month and track your spending (or use one of the apps we listed above). 

Learning to stay on track with your budget will help when the time comes for you to be fully responsible for all of your expenses.

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We are not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, makes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form and assistance available to the public for free at fafsa.gov.