Edited By Eric Garneau
Plan Your Budget
Carefully planning your budget is a crucial first step that can save you a lot of stress down the road. Start by determining your time frame. Are you planning a month, a term or a whole year ahead? It's easiest to time your budget to your income. If you're living off student loans, you'll probably want to plan out a whole term. If you're earning a paycheck, you can budget for the length of your pay period.
Next, figure out your total income for that time frame. For most students, that's some combination of student loans, a paycheck and maybe some help from mom and dad. This is the fun part: figuring out how much money you have. Once you've totaled your income, it's time for the not-so-fun part: figuring out how much money you need to spend.
Expenses for students may include:
- Tuition and school fees: If these are automatically deducted from your financial aid disbursement, make sure to subtract this amount when you're calculating your income. Don't forget lab and student activities fees, meal plans and costs like student health insurance.
- Books: It can difficult to predict how much your books are going to cost each term. A good bet is to look at the most you've spent on books so far and budget a little over that amount.
- Rent: This expense is automatically taken out of financial aid for most students who live on campus. Don't forget, off-campus rent is usually less expensive than student housing.
- Bills: For students who live off-campus, this category typically includes utilities and Internet. Common bills for all students include cell phone plans, car insurance and parking permits. Students who don't drive should also budget for their public transportation costs.
- Groceries: Again, this is an expense that's rolled into school fees for on-campus students, but most people spend less on their groceries than the cost of a typical meal plan.
Subtract your total expenses from your total income and you have your spending money! This is a pretty small number for most students, but don't worry - there are lots of ways to keep your expenses down and maximize that free cash.
By the way, if you're dreading all this number crunching, there are lots of tools to help. Aspiring accountants may try heavy-duty software like Quicken, but for the rest of us there are easy and affordable alternatives like Pear Budget and Mint.
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The first step to getting more mileage out of your income is to reduce your expenses. There isn't much you can do about costs like tuition, fees and books, so let's focus on the rest:
- Rent: Off-campus housing is usually cheaper than on-campus housing, and shared housing is always cheaper than living alone. The more roommates you have, the lower your rent will be, but even students who need a little solitude can cut costs by sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Seeking out cheaper neighborhoods can also help, though that typically means moving a little farther away from school. Find a place on a major bus route and you can save hundreds of dollars with just a short increase in your commute.
- Bills: Just like with rent, the more roommates you have, the lower your utilities will be. You can also save money by following basic energy conservation tips and reconsidering your needs. Can you make do with fewer minutes on that mobile plan?
- Groceries: Shop at budget supermarkets and keep an eye out for sales. Buy in bulk when possible. Learn to cook economy meals and make 'em big so you have plenty of leftovers. If you live with roommates, work out a food-sharing plan - even sharing something as simple as mustard can save a lot of money.
Stretch Your Spending Money
Ok, so now you've reduced your expenses as much as you can, but you still aren't feeling like Donald Trump. Here are a few tips for maximizing your spending money:
- Be careful with credit. A credit card can be a good back-up for emergencies or to help spread out large costs over several months, but every dollar you spend with credit you'll owe back, plus interest. Look for cards with low interest rates, avoid high penalties like late fees and avoid using credit whenever possible.
- Look for student discounts. Many entertainment venues like movie theaters and museums offer big discounts for students. Check the neighborhood around your school for deals at restaurants, coffee shops and even night clubs. Transportation systems like trains or the Greyhound also typically offer student rates.
- Keep an eye on bargain websites. Many companies offer short-term sales or discounts for buying online. You can also find surprising treasures like restaurant gift cards for just a fraction of their face value.
- Buy second-hand. From hip used clothing stores to websites like Amazon and Half.com, you can find a lot of great deals on really unique items. You could also find better deals on your schoolbooks than on the used shelf at your student bookstore.
- Be a happy hour expert. How do poor students spend so much time in bars? Cheap beer night and free pool. A lot of restaurants also offer delicious afternoon discounts.
- Think before you spend. This is really the underlying philosophy of all of these tips. Always ask yourself: Do I really need it? Can I afford it? The point of having spending money is to have a little fun, but you don't want to blow all your money in one place.
Planning For the Future
College is a difficult time to save money, but if you start when you're young even a little savings can go a long way. Personal finance blogs like Get Rich Slowly can help you figure out things like money-market accounts, Roth IRAs and plain old high-yield savings accounts. Start planning your financial future now and you won't be a broke college student for long.
Students aren't the only ones who have a hard time managing their finances - it's tricky for universities too.