Creating a budget is a very grown-up and often tedious task most college students would rather put off until entering the real world. However, avoiding this undertaking is costing students dearly, with 21% of college-aged kids admitting they can “barely keep up” with daily finances.
There are tons of tools designed to make managing money easier, and yet it can be overwhelming for students already consumed by class schedules and project deadlines. The truth is, budgeting is NOT rocket science and you don’t need fancy tutorials or a degree in finance to manage saving and spending. Follow these tips to take control of your money and set yourself up for success upon graduation.
Make a list of fixed expenses.
The foundation of any budget is to know how much money you have coming in, and how much money is going out. Make a detailed list of your expenses, including housing, utilities, insurance and credit card payments. Also add a line for savings — when you treat saving money as an expense, it’s non-negotiable and you’re less tempted to spend extra funds on things you don’t need. Factor 50% of your income toward necessities like rent, transportation and groceries, 30% to wants like entertainment and 20% toward savings and debt repayment. Use this free budget template to organize your living expenses.
Track recent spending.
To accurately estimate how much you can spend on things other than bills, review your last three months’ worth of spending. Create categories to identify where the rest of your money is going. Typical spending categories include dining, clothing, entertainment and transportation. Adding up how much you spend in each area will give you a better idea of where you need to cut back if you constantly feel like you’re out of money. Track spending using a free app like Mint, which guides you through the process of entering your expenses and even connects with your bank accounts and credit cards to help monitor balances and activity.
Related: 5 Apps to Save You Money In College
Calculate total debt.
Calculating your student loan and credit card debt can be scary, and many college students hit and run at this crucial point. Considering the average college student has over $37,000 in debt upon graduation and take a decade or more to pay off balances, it’s important to be aware of your total debt and make repayment a priority. Identify exactly how much you owe, the various interest rates and whether you can make interest-only payments while you’re still in school to reduce your overall debt. If the latter is an option, add “student loan payments” to your list of fixed expenses.
Evaluate your income.
Now that you have a clear picture of where your money is going, compare it to the income you receive from a job, scholarships, or your parents, depending on your situation. Are you living within your means? Do you constantly feel like you’re out of money? If so, consider ways to pull in extra money. There are several high-paying part time jobs for college students, including assisting companies with social media and helping your university with grant requests. For more ideas, check out 50 Ways to Make Money Fast by Side Hustling.
Establish priorities and adjust spending.
Being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to skip a spring break trip or miss out on seeing a favorite artist perform. Budgeting simply helps you identify which activities you can afford so your experience isn’t sabotaged by feelings of anxiety or guilt. Determine which trips or purchases you’re most excited about and then establish spending caps on the budget categories you created to save up for what’s more important to you. Cutting back on takeout and Uber rides, for instance, will help you fund a trip back home for the holidays, or provide you with the cash needed for an upgraded pair of headphones.
Withdraw cash for fun money.
To further help you cut back on spending and save up for what’s truly important, withdraw a budgeted amount of cash for general spending. This cash can be used on whatever you want, and will help with budget-related burnout since you can treat yourself to small splurges like coffee or a new pair of shoes. Once the cash is gone, it’s gone, so this strategy forces you to be more thoughtful about your spending choices while providing the balance you need to stay on track.
Seek out ways to save.
Creating your budget is relatively straightforward; sticking to it is the real challenge! In addition to setting aside money for discretionary purchases, look for ways to save money on what you want and need. Use student discounts as often as possible to save 15 to 50% on everything from travel to apparel to professional services. Download an app like Coupon Sherpa for deals on retail and restaurant purchases, such as 15% off with an Express coupon or $2 off your Smashburger purchase of $5 or more. And shop smart for groceries: ramen isn’t the only frugal meal out there; peruse over 400 healthy recipes you can make on the cheap.
Use your credit card responsibly.
The average U.S. household carried an estimated $15,310 in credit card debt in 2015, and according to a study released this year, 35% of consumers carry revolving balances every month. Credit cards are not inherently evil, however. Using them wisely is an exercise in self-discipline, so consider leaving your plastic at home when you’re most tempted to spend, like at the bars or mall. Instead, use your credit card to pay for expenses already in your budget, and pay off the balance in full every month to show creditors how responsible you are with money. Keep in mind, a healthy credit score will make obtaining a mortgage, auto loan or other personal loan in the future easier while ensuring a low interest rate. Even some employers will review your credit score during the application process so don’t let it slide!