Tuition. Textbooks. Bus fare. Breakfast. College is expensive, and with so much to buy and only so much money, budgeting wisely is a must. How to prioritize? You have no doubt heard stories about students who ate noodles for a week so that they could afford textbooks; others who pulled all-nighters so that they could cram for Orgo and make it to work on time - and have a blast on spring break. No doubt you will have to give up some luxuries and forgo some opportunities in the interest of saving money. But with careful planning and discipline, you can cover your needs as a student and still have a social life - and have money left over so that you can eat more than noodles.
The first step in setting a budget is to determine your fixed income, which is a consistent amount of money available to you (e.g. the $200 you make every two weeks from work-study) and your fixed expenses (e.g. the $400 you will have to pay for textbooks each semester). Then you will have to estimate variable income and expenses as best as possible. For example, will your parents offer financial support from time to time? How much? If you don't have a prepaid meal plan, how much will you spend on groceries every week? How often will you eat out? How much will the electricity bill cost in the winter, compared with the rest of the year? These costs may seem overwhelming to predict, but it is often these variable costs that provide the most opportunity to save. Think: Brewing coffee at home every day instead of buying it at a shop; going to a free museum on the weekend instead of a concert; and renting or swapping textbooks instead of buying them full-price at the campus bookstore. To get started, check out textbook options here and find tips for saving on groceries here.
As this article from The College Board points out, there are several basic cost components to attending school full time:
Tuition and Fees
Tuition and fees are the costs of your education, and they can vary based on the academic program and number of credit hours a student elects. If the tuition is not the same for all full-time students, you may have to calculate your own tuition based on the charge per credit hour.
Room and Board
If you decide to live in housing provided by your college and sign up for a meal plan through your university, these costs will be tacked on to your quarterly or semester bill. The charges will vary depending on the room and meal plan you choose, and if you plan to live off campus, you will have to estimate the cost of rent and groceries.
Books and Supplies
This expense covers your course materials, from reading materials to lab fees to No. 2 pencils. The College Board says that the national average at four-year public colleges for books and supplies in 2009-10 is $1,122.
Personal expenses are items that contribute toward your general maintenance, such as laundry and monthly cell phone bill. The College Board says the national average for four-year public colleges (and on-campus students) in 2009-10 is $1,974.
Transportation should include any fee made on a regular basis that goes toward your commute to and from campus. Will you live within walking distance of your college or university? Does your college provide a free transportation service? If not, you should add about $100 per month to your budget for public transportation. Keep in mind there that for students attending college in major cities, there is typically a discount rate plan. If you drive a car, there is likely a fee for parking on campus. Don't forget gas, insurance and other costs.
The College Board notes that the national average for four-year public colleges in 2009-10 is $1,079. If you attend college hundreds of miles away from home, make your own estimate based on how and how often you plan to travel.
This Budget Calculator from BankRate is specifically designed to help students understand their expenses and income. It helps calculate expenses and income for an eight-month school year running from September through April.
Slightly more complex is Mint.com, which is free personal finance software to assist you in managing your money, financial planning, and budget planning tools. This handy site calculates your average spending in any category, and can turn it into a budget with one click.
Living on a budget can require discipline and research, especially if you are trying to cut back on the amount you are used to spending and the ways you are used to spending. Here are some tips:
Compare and shop online
Always compare prices before making a purchase. Chances are you can find what you need online, often for much cheaper than at retail outlets. While this is not always the most practical approach, sites such as Amazon and Half.com can help with less time-sensitive items.
Become a member
For perishable and bulk items, such as groceries, it may be easier on your wallet to get a membership at a wholesale club, such as Sam's Club or Costco. From toothbrushes to pens to bananas, prices at such outlets are often much lower than at chain grocery stores.
Look for coupons
Coupon clipping these days doesn't have to mean scouring the newspaper for an hour with scissors. Check out deals online and, in a lot of cases, download them onto your mobile phone for instant use when you shop. What a breeze!
Browse outlet malls
Just because you’re being frugal doesn’t mean you can't be fashionable. See where an outlet mall is located near you, and you may be surprised at the bargains you find.
Spring Break is coming up in a few months, and you don't want the way you've been spending to stand in the way of you and the beach! If you know a big purchase is coming up, start saving early. Set aside extra money in advance and make deliberate efforts to cut back on spending where you reasonably can. As with any big purchase or expensive trip, research your options carefully in advance, so you don't feel pressured at the last minute to cobble together a plan hastily - and pay more than you wanted.
Paper vs. Plastic
It may help to get a credit card, rather than paying for everyday expenses with cash. In addition to helping build a credit history, credit cards can help some people spend less than when they have cash on hand, and are more aware of their purchases. You can check out this article for more information on applying for a credit card and finding one that is right for you.
With exams to study for, holiday break plans outstanding and an afternoon job, it can be easy put off balancing the checkbook. Still, whether tallying income and expenditures in an actual check book or log, or verifying transactions posted online by your bank or credit card company, it is a good idea to stay aware of how much you are spending and making. Not only is managing your money a good habit to have for the rest of your life, it is often when people get too relaxed about or detached from their financial situation that they run into the most trouble!