Simple Budgeting Guide for College Students

Written by: Matt Kuncaitis
Updated: 6/07/21

As a college student, your main priorities are probably school and your social life. While budgeting may not be at the top of your to-do list, carefully tracking your incoming and outgoing expenses can help ensure smart money management throughout your college years. You don’t want to come up short and have to scratch by toward the end of the month, semester or school year.

Smart budgeting can also help you spend wisely and save on college costs, helping you avoid added debts on top of student loan debts you may already have. This personal finance guide for college students explains why you need a budget and how to create a monthly budget that works for you.

Why Budgeting in College Is So Important

Paying for college isn’t just a question of paying tuition. There are also expenses like books, housing, your phone bill, transportation and entertainment (e.g., Netflix or Spotify accounts). Plus, of course, you’ll want some money for socializing. Additionally, you may want to study abroad for a semester or do a summer internship, which may not always pay much, if anything.

You may pay for these college expenses in various ways, including scholarships and financial aid (FAFSA), student loans, support from parents, summer jobs and credit cards. Keeping track of these various expenses and forms of income can get complicated. You’ll want to make sure you have the liquidity to pay for the necessities while also minimizing overspending.

Plus, you’ll want to come out of your college years with as little debt as possible, setting you up for a positive financial future in adulthood. The average public university graduate has a debt of around $30,000 by the time they graduate (from a four-year program). For private schools, which tend to have higher tuition rates, the burden might be even more.

Additionally, with a detailed budget, you may even be able to set aside savings. You can then use your emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses — like if your laptop breaks mid-semester and you need to get a new one quickly. Having a nest egg by the time you graduate can also help you set up your post-graduate life by funding steps like a move to a new city for work.

Finally, by avoiding overspending and setting up savings, a budget can help alleviate stress around money matters in general. Plus, the financial literacy skills you learn will continue to serve you well after college. Being able to make a budget and stick to it is a talent that will be handy (and save you headaches) throughout your entire adult life.

College Budgeting Basics

A basic budget tracks all of your incoming and outgoing money (income and expenses). Income could include everything from part-time job earnings to student loans. Expenses generally fall into two categories: recurring (e.g., tuition) and variable (e.g., dining out). Read on for more details about the types of income and expenses you can expect as a college student.

Tracking Your Income and Expenses in College

As you track your income and expenses, cover all your financial bases in terms of where and how money comes in and goes out. For example, your parents may deposit financial support in a checking account, while you might also get paid cash for odd jobs you do on the weekends alongside your studies.

Carefully accounting for all different means and modes of income and expenses is the first step in creating an accurate budget that will result in good money management. Additionally, before you proceed, set a time frame for your budget. You might want to set a budget for the semester and then break it down into more detail on a monthly basis, for example.

Tracking Your Income

College students may get income from various sources, including:

  • Parental support
  • Financial aid distributions
  • Scholarships
  • College savings account
  • Part-time jobs
  • Tax refunds

Also, make sure to track any extra money you get from one-off jobs. For example, if you helped a friend move and they gave you cash for the gig, this technically counts as income. Tips from odd jobs like delivering food or food servicing are also technically considered income. Every financial “plus” to your financial liquidity needs to be included in your total income tally.

Tracking Your Expenses

Once you’ve tallied up your income for the given time frame, it’s time to tackle your expenses. Again, every detail counts! Whenever you have a financial “minus,” it’s an expense. Make a list of all outgoing expenses, dividing them into two categories: recurring versus variable costs. Recurring costs are those you can anticipate, which are fixed and occur at regular intervals. Variable costs are those that aren’t foreseeable, which vary depending on activity level.

Here are some examples of recurring fixed expenses college students may face:

  • Tuition
  • Housing
  • Monthly student meal plan
  • Student loan payments
  • Cellphone bill
  • Subscription-based services like Netflix and Spotify
  • Fixed transportation costs (e.g., a month-long or semester-long public transportation pass)

Here are some examples of ongoing variable costs college students may face:

  • Groceries
  • Restaurants (or combine “groceries” and “restaurants” into a single “food” category)
  • Events (concerts, going to the movies, etc.)
  • Trips
  • Clothing
  • School supplies, textbooks, lab fees, etc.
  • Variable transportation costs (e.g., gas for your car, if you drive)

Analyzing Your Income vs. Expenses

Once you have your income and expenses listed, tally up how much money you have coming in versus going out every month and/or semester. Ideally, you will have more money coming in then going out. If not, it’s time to make some adjustments, either by upping your monthly income (e.g., picking up a part-time job) or cutting monthly expenses (e.g., eating out less).

Ideally, you’ll want your budget to meet the 50/20/30 rule. This asserts that 50% of your income should go toward fixed costs, like monthly rent, while 20% should go toward paying off debts or building savings, and the remaining 30% should go toward everyday variable costs like groceries. Having all of your expenses laid out in front of you makes it easier to identify cost-cutting possibilities.

Variable costs are generally the easiest to minimize. For example, when it comes to spending habits for things like entertainment, double-check whether there are student discounts you can take advantage of to help you save.

Managing Your Income and Expenses Over Time

Money management is an ongoing process. You don’t just create a budget once and never look at it again. You’ll need to update your budget every month or semester. There are a few ways you can do this, including:

  • Using a handwritten spending journal
  • Creating a simple spreadsheet using a tool like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets 
  • Downloading a budgeting app that lets you monitor spending, set financial goals, and more (Mint is one popular option)

You can record expenses and income in real time as they come in or sit down at the end of the month/semester and record all pluses and minuses. Beware that the latter option will require you to hang on to receipts or meticulously comb through your bank account statements to ensure you haven’t missed anything.

Financially Planning for the Future While in College

If you aren’t yet saving, it’s also good to add a “savings” column to your expenses when you create your budget. Setting aside as little as $50 per month will add up to an emergency fund of $600 within a single year. By the end of a four-year degree, you’ll have $2,400 in the bank. This little nest egg can be useful in setting you up in your “adult life” after graduation. For example, it might help cover moving expenses or go toward a deposit on a new rental apartment.

You can also set other financial goals. For example, maybe you have a credit card debt you’d like to get paid off before graduation. You can put money toward that every month to help reach your goal. There are all kinds of financial goals you can set for yourself, from saving for a trip to putting aside money for a deposit on a first home or new car.

Discover Even More Helpful Financial Advice at helps students make smart financial decisions with informative, objective resources about everything from private student loans to financial aid. Whether you’re interested in financial planning or curious about your options for borrowing for school, we have you covered. Access more resources from the experts at to help pave the way to a brighter financial future.