Paying for college isn’t just about scholarships and financial aid. Creating and sticking to a college budget is crucial for college students, especially younger students who may never have been in charge of their own finances before.
While building a budget can be pretty straightforward, college can throw unexpected expenses at you.
Understanding all the potential costs of college and how to pay for them every month can keep you on track for graduation and long-term financial health.
Getting Your College Budget Started
Sitting down and planning out a college budget is one of the most important first steps of the college process.
Even before you settle on which colleges you want to apply to, you should understand your financial situation, what your college expenses are going to be, and what schools you’ll be able to afford.
A great place to start is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Gather your financial documents (recent tax returns, pay stubs, household bills, debts, and assets), create an account, and fill it out as soon as possible.
This helps colleges determine whether or not you’re eligible for certain forms of financial aid, such as grants or loans. Filling out the FAFSA will give you a solid baseline for how much financial aid you can expect each semester.
Next, look at other sources that will help you pay for college. How much money is in your college fund? Don’t forget, it’s never too late to start saving up some extra cash toward expenses – a few dollars a week can add up in even just one summer.
How much can you expect to earn each month if you work full or part-time during college? Do you have any scholarships that will help reduce the cost of tuition? How much will your family be able to contribute toward paying for college expenses?
These form the “Income” side of your budget.
Building a College Budget You Can Live With
Now that you have an idea of how much money you’ll have to put toward your college expenses, it’s time to figure out what those expenses will be. Some expenses are easy to figure out. Some might take a little research.
Tuition will be the largest part of your college expenses. Whether you’re attending a state college or an Ivy League university, tuition is a major expense.
Determine what the tuition costs will be every semester and write it down using labels like “Fall 2021” or “Spring 2022” to keep track of amounts and when certain payments will be due.
Don’t forget to include any fees, like activity fees, that the college probably adds to your bill.
The cost of a dorm room or an off-campus apartment might also be a major college expense. This cost is predictable if you plan on living in the dorms, but some colleges only guarantee access to on-campus housing for one or two years.
If the college is in a major city, the cost of renting an apartment could be significantly higher than the cost of on-campus housing. Take a look at apartment rates in the area, or look for online student groups that might share information about apartments near your college of choice.
Don’t completely trust what the college’s website says about local housing costs and expenses. A 2020 study found that colleges in the same city reported “indirect costs” (housing and other expenses) that differed by as much as $8,000.
If you’re considering living at home and commuting to classes, you’ll be able to save on this expense.
Textbook costs can surprise new students, but there are plenty of other hidden costs that come along with class requirements, including online access codes, lab coats and safety gear, or research trips.
If you don’t already have a laptop for college, add the cost of one to your expenses — it’s pretty much impossible to navigate college without one. It can be hard to put a solid number on unpredictable expenses like this.
A rule of thumb is that textbooks tend to cost 4 percent of tuition costs. Check if an open-source textbook program is available, or how to find used textbooks ahead of time. Then build in a cushion of $200-$300 more per semester for the unexpected stuff.
This includes the cost of getting to campus and moving all your stuff, plus getting home again. It might also include the cost of getting to and from class every day if you live off-campus.
If you’re going to have a car, factor in campus parking permits, gas, and auto insurance. If you’re attending a college in a big city and plan to use public transportation, see if there are student rates for monthly passes.
Many colleges offer free shuttle services for students, as well.
It’s easy enough to calculate the cost of a meal plan each semester, but also factor in the occasional indulgence, like a late-night taco run or a pizza party with classmates. Those are important parts of the college experience.
If you’ll be living off-campus, calculate the cost of groceries. Looking at USDA food cost reports, a single 20-year-old can expect to spend between $200 and $300 on groceries per month.
It’s tempting to say, “I’ll just save money on this part of the budget and not worry about entertainment.” But a budget that doesn’t include some money for entertainment is a budget you won’t (and shouldn’t!) be able to keep.
You’re a human, not a studying robot. Everyone needs to go see a movie with friends, buy a video game, do some sightseeing, or catch a baseball game once in a while.
Plus, experiencing new things and making connections with new friends is a huge part of the college experience, and missing out on that is depriving you of significant opportunities.
Of course, it’s hard to put a solid number on entertainment costs. Be realistic about what things cost in the city your college is in and what you can afford. But factor in some amount that’s just for doing fun things.
Go With the Budget Flow
It’s important to understand that in college, your budget will be ever-changing. You’ll have to track your budget every semester and constantly update it with new amounts.
You’ll take new classes every semester which means more school supplies, new textbooks, and maybe even adjusted tuition if there are any changes to your financial aid or your job situation.
This is one reason to be conservative with your budget and your choices about what colleges you think you can afford.
If your budget is calculated down to the penny, but something changed in your second semester, you may find yourself unable to afford necessary textbooks or making hard decisions between rent and food.
This is a significant enough problem that in 2020, the University of Houston partnered with a food bank to offer free groceries to students in need.
On the other hand, if you pick an affordable college and your financial situation improves, you can always transfer to your dream school later.
Most college students have to scrimp and save. To stick to your budget, you’ll have to live below your means.
Avoid extravagant or impulsive purchases, keep your credit card in your pocket for emergencies only, and stay under your semester budget.
It will be hard at times, but following your budget will help you make healthy financial choices and graduate from college with minimal debt.