How to Make and Stick to a Student Budget in College

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A college student budget can be easy to set up and manage because there may be fewer sources of income and expenses to track. Even though you may not have a lot of income as a college student, learning how to budget may wind up being one of the most valuable skills you pick up.

How to budget for students

While the basic budgeting process requires you to track your income and expenses, the deeper fundamentals can be more difficult. You’ll want to identify and set goals, and then figure out how to budget and save money to make progress toward achieving those goals. Here are four steps you can take to start.

1. Estimate your monthly expenses
2. Determine your monthly income
3. Track your spending
4. Remember to set some money aside

Plus:
Example of a college budget template
More budgeting tips for college students

1. Estimate your monthly expenses

College expenses can vary greatly depending on where you go to school, your program, extracurriculars and your arrangements for room and board. You can start estimating how much you spend each month by writing down all the potential expense categories, including:

  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Entertainment
  • Clothing
  • Books and supplies
  • Rent
  • Utilities

Depending on how precise you want your student budget to be, you can break the categories into subcategories as well. For example, you might create subcategories under food for groceries, coffee, eating out and eating in the dining hall.

Over time, you’ll figure out your average monthly expenses for each category and can make sure you plan ahead and have enough money to cover your bills — or have a plan for cutting back and saving money. But to start, write down an estimated amount next to each category.

2. Determine your monthly income

The average college student’s income may be fairly low. While more than 70% of college students work while enrolled, many take on part-time jobs, have limited work-study awards or work during the summer to build their savings. Some students may also have “income” from their parents. You should try to openly discuss how much money you can expect to receive and whether it’s a steady amount for living expenses or only for emergencies.

Student loans can also seem like income, as you may be able to use the money for living expenses. However, while a loan can give you money to spend, remember that you’ll also have to repay the loans plus interest. Limiting how much you borrow now can make budgeting trickier, but it’ll also help you save money later.

If you don’t have a steady income and are relying on savings or loans, it can be tricky to figure out what you should use for your monthly income in your student budget. Consider dividing what you have by the number of months you need to make it last. For example, if you save up $3,000 over the summer and have eight months of school, you can divide the $3,000 by eight and set your monthly “income” at $375.

In the end, you want your monthly expenses and income to at least match up. When you have more expenses, you’ll need to find ways to save money or increase your income. And when you have more income, you can put the extra money into one of your savings goals.

3. Track your spending

After you have your estimates for your expenses and income, you can start tracking your spending. Over time, the data you collect can help you better understand and control your finances. There aren’t many specific budgeting apps for college students, but the top budgeting apps can work well for students and graduates alike.

You may have semi-regular expenses, such as payments for room and board, that are due at the beginning of each semester or quarter. Similar to your income, you may want to split up and track the expense monthly. Or, you may want to subtract the expense from your income at the start of each term and use the remaining difference as the starting point for your monthly income. Learning how to deal with these semi-regular expenses is a standard part of budgeting after graduation as well. Many major expenses, including insurance and registration, get charged semiannually or annually.

Try to track every expense at first — even if you spend $1 on a snack — but don’t get discouraged if you forget sometimes or find your monthly income doesn’t cover all your monthly expenses.

Getting into the habit of budgeting and adjusting the numbers as you go is part of the process. Although, if you find you’re spending hundreds of dollars going out every weekend, part of the adjustment may be a lifestyle change. Either find additional income or cut back on your expenses.

4. Remember to set some money aside

Another important part of budgeting is making sure you’re saving money for life’s necessities and pleasures.

You can do this by adding different savings goals as expenses within your budget, and allocating your income to cover the “expense” every month. In practice, you can move the money into a separate savings account if you don’t spend it that month.

You might not know how much to save each month, but try to save up several hundred dollars in an emergency fund. You can use the money to:

  • Repair your vehicle
  • Buy a last-minute flight home
  • Cover another unexpected crisis

Other goals may be a little more fun:

  • Saving up for a semester abroad
  • Traveling during spring break
  • Collecting a security deposit for off-campus housing

Or, if you’re taking a long-term approach to your finances, perhaps you want to pay off student loans early (or avoid taking them out altogether) to save money on interest.

Example of a college budget template

Basic budgeting worksheets for students will have spaces for fixed and flexible expenses, and you can compare these expenses to your income. You can find college student budget templates online or create your own using a spreadsheet.

Or, you may find a budgeting app is easier to use and keep up to date. Mint is a popular free option, and there are many paid options that offer free trials.

More budgeting tips for college students

Here are some more budgeting tips that that can help you stay the course by increasing your income, decreasing your expenses and wisely using your money:

  • Be cautious with credit. You may have access to a credit card or student loans, but try to plan ahead before you swipe your card or take a disbursement. Remember, you’ll need to repay the money you spend plus interest, which can strain your budget in the future.
  • Rent or buy used textbooks. Renting textbooks, or buying used books, is a tried-and-true way to save money in college. Start by asking around to see if anyone you know recently finished the course in which you’re interested, and buy directly from the person rather than the campus bookstore.
  • Take advantage of student discounts. Many retailers and restaurants offer a student discount if you show your student ID or have a .edu email address. These can help you save money on clothing, electronics, food and more.
  • Look for freebies. Online marketplaces such as Craigslist often have freebie sections, and you can join local Facebook groups devoted to giving away (rather than selling) unwanted products. It’s a great way to save money and reuse something that may otherwise wind up in the trash.
  • Become a rewards member. Airlines, movie theaters, restaurants and other stores have loyalty programs, and you can join many of them at no cost. You might receive instant savings or earn rewards that you can redeem later. But don’t stop comparison shopping.
  • Start a side gig. Sometimes it’s easier to earn money than to cut back, especially if you’re already fairly frugal. There are many side gigs available to college students, and some of them can even become lucrative small businesses. Ask around campus as well, as some college departments may pay you to participate in research studies.
  • Use your school’s resources. Part of your tuition goes toward funding school programs, and you should learn about and use these resources. There may be no-cost tutors, health care, career advisors and emergency loans or grants available, but you have to ask for help first.

Elyssa Kirkham contributed to this report.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 6 lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.99% – 5.64%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.89% – 5.90%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.25% – 6.09%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.89% – 6.77%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

2.39% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

1.99% – 5.41%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.earnest.com/eligibility. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 2.98% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.79% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.64% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of July 31, 2020, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 7/31/2020. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest.com/terms-of-service, email us at [email protected], or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

© 2020 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved. Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries, including Earnest Operations LLC, are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.


2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.

KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

This information is current as of September 9, 2020. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
 


3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 2.99% APR to 6.09% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.09% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.25% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 0.18% plus 2.32% margin minus 0.25% ACH discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. See eligibility details. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. 

4 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount.

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of September 10, 2020.


5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. ‍All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.16% effective August 10, 2020.

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.