A Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Budget in College

As they go away to college for the first time, many students find themselves slightly unprepared to be handling their own finances. While you may have had some experience in high school with managing money, the odds are good that you’ve never been entirely responsible for your own budget the way you are in college. You’ll have to figure out how much you can spend in certain areas without going overboard and landing yourself in financial trouble. Just because you’re on your own, though, doesn’t mean you have to be without a plan, or that you can’t learn how creating a budget work.

Coins scattered on a budget report with a stack of coins in the center.

First Step to Creating a Budget

The first step to any budget outline—or, really, any financial plan in general—is to determine your priorities. What is most important, and when do you need it? For most college students, there are two categories that are far more important than others: housing (including utilities) and meals. If you’re a first-semester freshman, odds are you’ll be living on campus and your housing and meals will be taken care of. However, as you move along with your college career, you’ll probably find yourself confronted with the option to move off-campus. This means that you’ll have more freedom, fewer restrictions on what you can do with your living space, and, likely, it will be cheaper than living on campus.

Once you move off campus from on-campus, though, you’ll probably be without a meal plan for the first time. Most colleges dovetail housing and meal plans, meaning that if you don’t live on campus, your meal plan will be more expensive and not worth the cost. It’s time to get out those cookbooks and head down to your local supermarket because you’re going to be learning to cook for yourself. If you’re like me, and you won’t be finding yourself on the Food Network anytime soon, that’s okay too. You’ll budget for cheaper, easier-to-make meals and slowly work your way up. As long as you can boil water, you can make pasta or mac ’n’ cheese, and there’s always fresh vegetables available to make a salad.

Price Range

Of course, it’s important to keep your price range in mind while you’re shopping. Before you go to the store, you should have an idea of what you’re willing to spend, and where to go to get food that will make the most financial sense. You can clip coupons or join a shopper’s club, and factor these discounts and save into your budget. This way, you can get everything you need while remaining under your threshold for the month.

Set Aside and Save

At the beginning of each month, you should set aside the money you need for rent and utilities, like gas and electricity, in order to ensure that you have it when it’s needed. The last thing you want to do is fall behind on your rent or other bills. Landlords don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to college students, especially because off-campus housing is constantly in such high demand. The best thing to do is factoring in your rent and other money for necessities right away and spend around it. Nothing else is as important, and this way, you’ll know it’ll be there when your landlord comes knocking.

Be Frugal

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, don’t spend money on things you don’t need or aren’t worth it. That collector’s edition Breaking Bad chess set might look appealing, but how often are you actually going to use it? (I’ll answer from experience: once). You have to be responsible and save your money, and if you find yourself with a surplus at the end of the month, feel free to treat yourself. Until then, though, stick exactly to your budget and everything will end up falling into line.

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