college student budget
college student budget

If we played a word association game, we might shout out “broke” when we hear the word “college student”, as the terms have become so synonymous. In fact, over 64% of undergraduates say that they’ve run out of money before the end of a semester at least once.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. In fact, with the right budgeting tips, you could even leave college with a surplus. Let’s talk about how to design a proper college student budget in 2021.

Important Factors in a College Student Budget

Creating a budget in college is tricky. Income is limited and expenses are varied. However, if we know the key factors to our budget, it will make our budgeting efforts a lot easier. Here are the most important factors related to your budget.


Let’s get in the habit of looking at our income at a monthly level instead of between paychecks. Most of our bill cycles occur monthly, so let’s focus on that.

Determine your monthly net income by adding up your take-home pay to the equivalent of 4 weeks. If you are paid biweekly, add two checks, and if you are paid weekly, add 4.

There will be months where you receive an extra check, but in most cases, this is your total monthly income from which you will need to set your budget.


Expenses are the other half of a budget. Many college students who finally gain independence from their families are amazed by just how quickly money goes away. A savings account may sound high if it’s in the thousands, but if you aren’t careful, it could be in the tens within a matter of weeks.


Ask yourself, how much time do you have to spare during an ordinary week without making any major sacrifices? The average student has about 4 hours of leisure time per day, so you might be able to work with that.

As a college student, time is your most valuable resource. If you’re trying to juggle a job along with your schooling, then your time is very valuable. If you need to study for exams, maintain your social life, and play a sport, then your time is very limited to earn extra money.

On the flip side, you should also be considering your free time. Too much free time often leads to spending too much money, and this time could be spent earning more.

Fun Money

You’re in college or entering college for an education, first and foremost. However, college students are known to have fun from time to time, and that isn’t something to feel bad for doing.

However, wasting excessive amounts of money while in college is something that you will want to avoid if you want to leave college on good footing. Establishing a clear recreation budget and sticking to it is important.

For many college students, these are the expenses that could be reduced the most. This includes taking Ubers or other public transportation to social events, going out to eat, and “party materials”. Take all of these expenses into account.


We don’t just mean your current savings, as you will want to avoid spending that at all costs. We’re also talking about your savings goals.

While the idea of saving money in college may sound impossible, it doesn’t have to be! Imagine walking out of college with a surplus in your bank account. Doesn’t that sound like it’s worth a try?

How To Write A Budget In College

Okay, so now that we know the factors to consider when creating your budget, we can talk about the design. Here is how to create a college student budget and stick to it!

Determine Where Your Money Is Going

Writing a budget without looking at your expenses is like completing an obstacle course with a blindfold on. Sure, you can do it, but it will take a lot longer and cause a lot more stress.

If you usually pay with a credit or debit card instead of cash, then you’re in luck. All you have to do is analyze your monthly statement and determine the expense of various categories. If you pay with cash often, write down purchases as you make them in your phone or a notebook.

Create categories and subcategories as possible. At the minimum, you should have categories such as bills, transportation, leisure, subscriptions, and miscellaneous purchases (Amazon orders, clothing, etc.). On top of that, you can add subcategories like:

  • Restaurants
  • Uber/Lyft
  • Auto (car payment, insurance, gas, etc.)
  • School materials
  • Utilities
  • Rent
  • Food
  • Coffee

You should also add any other subcategory that’s using up at least 1% to 2% of your monthly income. Remember, small things add up.

Cut Expenses

Cutting expenses is the most important and obvious step to saving money, but it does require some discipline and self-control. Although, in some cases, it’s as easy as clicking a simple cancelation button on your phone!


It is harder to cut bills from your overall expenses, and it isn’t even possible for some. However, trying to save money on groceries, downsizing your apartment, using fewer utilities, and cutting some subscriptions could go a long way.

Everybody’s bills look different, especially in college. Every student has completely different expenses and financial situations, but it’s good to take a serious look at our regular monthly expenses and see where we can save.

For example, if you drive a car, you could save money by switching insurances, driving less, or refinancing your auto loan. Take a look for yourself and see where you can save!

Ideally, you want to aim as close to a 50/30/20 budget as possible. This means 50% of your income goes toward things you need, 30% toward things you want, and 20% into savings or investments.

When we say “needs”, we mean expenses like rent, utilities, and groceries. “Wants” are Netflix subscriptions, Amazon orders, and burritos. The remaining 20% should go into a savings account or some type of investment.

In the event that you’re able to get your bills and necessary expenses under 50%, that doesn’t mean you should go on a spending spree. Saving that money as an emergency fund is always a good idea.

Unexpected college costs occur for every student. You could have a high copay for a hospital visit, your car could break down, or there could be an issue with financial aid. Having extra money prepared for life’s curveballs, instead of dipping into your savings, is always a responsible idea.

Fun Money

If you find that you’re spending too much money shopping with friends, going out to eat, or partying, then it’s time to take your finances more into consideration. This will require some sacrifice.

Money is easy to spend and difficult to earn. Plan out a budget based on a percentage of your income that you want to allocate toward recreation. Again, 25% to 30% is reasonable, especially if you have a portion going into savings. Once you’ve set a percentage, it will be easier to prioritize where your “fun money” is going!

Increase Your Income

We know that this is easier said than done, but there are ways to earn more money as a college student. Getting a part-time job is always an option, but that isn’t always enough.

If you need some extra income, look into taking on a side hustle. Anything that you can do on your own time and that won’t conflict with your busy schedule.

Driving for Uber/Lyft or delivering with Doordash are very easy ways to earn some extra cash if you have your own vehicle. In fact, all you need is a bicycle for Doordash in certain cities! Nighttime is also the busiest for these platforms, so if you’re done with class and homework for the day, you can make an extra buck!

You can also ask for extra hours or a raise at work, which will help you increase your income.

Are you a good writer? Take the writing skills you learned in college and put them to use by writing blog articles online! Look for odd jobs on Craigslist. There are many options for earning some extra cash on the side that can really boost your savings and take some stress off of your back.

Earning extra income could also mean earning rewards on your regular purchases. There are student credit cards that offer cashback rewards. Get creative!

Boost Your Savings

The best time to increase your income and boost your savings as a college student is when you have the most time. Summer break is undoubtedly your best bet.

Working as a lifeguard, summer camp counselor, landscaper, or an internship that’s relevant to your major is an excellent way to boost your savings account when you aren’t busy.

Alternatively, you can try doing gigs as we mentioned before. That way, you can take on as many hours as you want and even get some extra income during winter break and spring break. Try to put this money into a separate account and avoid touching it during the school year, if you can.

Use a Template or App

There are college student budget templates available to help you determine your budget with more accuracy. There are also helpful smartphone apps like Mint that help you determine where your money is going, how much you can spend, and where you can save!

Stay Motivated

Always have a “why” when trying to improve your life circumstances. Hitting a few bumps in the road is bound to happen, and that’s perfectly fine. However, it’s important that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and continue.

Think of budgeting like a diet. Eating a muffin isn’t going to ruin your results if you’re truly planning to stick to the diet over the long term. The same logic applies to your budget. One bad month will only be a small bump in the road over the course of a lifetime.

Develop a Post-College Plan

Nobody wants to move back in with their parents after college, struggle to find a job, or lose their footing early on. An average college student in the US will be leaving school with around $26,000 in debt after 4 years.

Not only that, but if you’re in a private school, taking an extra year to finish your degree, or enrolling in a graduate program, you know that those numbers go a lot higher. Adding credit card debt or a checking account with a negative balance to that debt is a recipe for disaster.

Having a plan in place for after graduation is the best way to ensure your own financial security, and even if you’re only entering Freshman year, you should already be thinking about this.

The best way to set yourself up for success is to maintain good grades, apply for a number of (preferably paid) internship programs as early as possible, and try to save money during school.

You should also try reducing your overall debt while you’re in school by applying for pell grants, paying off part of your tuition as you go, and avoiding unnecessary debt.

Use this as motivation when your financial situation becomes challenging, and remember that even saving small amounts of money will add up over time. If you are able to save even $10 a week over the course of 4 years, that adds up to $2,080, and $20 a week is $4,160!

That’s enough to get you started in a new apartment and give you some freedom while you start your new job, or even take a chunk out of your student loans. Don’t underestimate the importance of saving money during school.

When In Doubt, Write It Out!

Now that you know the best practices to set a college student budget, you should really consider writing it out and keeping it with you. Having a visual reminder is always a good idea to ensure you remain diligent and continue to hold yourself accountable. Stay up to date with our latest budgeting advice and find out how to pay for college!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *