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Where does the money go? What happens to the missing socks? To one of these questions, you can finally get the answer. The college years are typically our first experience of managing adult finances—and while that responsibility can be empowering, it calls for conscious planning. Our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (“Can I afford to go out tonight?”) and reverberate through our futures. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 91 percent of student respondents thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their money. These eight steps will get you to a spending plan that will keep you solvent through college and life. (Those missing socks remain beyond the scope of SH101. Try a theoretical physicist?)
1. What is your actual current spending?
“The most important step is to understand where your money really is going. If you can’t get a handle on your spending, it will be difficult to take control and make changes.” —LP
Figure out your average monthly spending
1. Work through your financial statements for at least two recent, typical months. Categorize all your costs. You will probably want to include these categories and maybe others:
- School supplies
- Dining out
- General health & fitness
- Uninsured health care
- Cell phone
- Auto lease/loan
2. Add your costs in each category. Try Mint.com or a similar program.
Consider rounding up the numbers: It’s safer to overestimate than underestimate your spending.
Divide your total costs by the number of months you’ve analyzed to get your regular average monthly spending.
3. Identify your irregular or non-recurring expenses, like tuition (if you pay it yourself), car insurance, holiday costs, and vacations.
Add up these annual costs and divide by 12 to get your occasional average monthly spending.
4. Regular average monthly spending + occasional average monthly spending = average monthly spending
2. What are your goals?
“The biggest challenge to budgeting is the idea that because students have limited resources, they don’t need to take steps to take control of their finances. They do.” —BA
Identify your goals. Include goals that aren’t strictly financial but have significant financial implications. How much should you allocate each month to meet these goals?
Examples of goals
Type of goal
How much to spend or save each month
Eat out with friends 2-3 times a week
Above and beyond grocery costs (convenience is expensive)
Go to graduate school
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Develop an emergency fund to reduce financial stress
Several hundred dollars set aside to help reduce the stress of unexpected events
3. What money is coming in?
“If we lived in a society in which there was no such thing as credit, you wouldn’t be able to claim you can’t live within your income. You just would.” —LP
Figure out your average monthly income
What are your reliable sources of income? When do they come in? Include:
- Family support
- Earnings from jobs (if these are unpredictable, go with a cautious estimation)
- Student loans
- Scholarships and grants
- Any other sources
Add up your income. Round down the numbers if you want to: It’s safer to underestimate than overestimate your income. Divide your total income by 12 to get your average monthly income.
Compare your average monthly spending (step 1) and average monthly income.
4. What do you need? What do you want?
“Now that you have a handle on your cash inflows and outflows, it’s time to prioritize how you spend your money. The key is to be realistic about what you need versus what you want. The greatest value in making a budget is seeing where your actual dollars have gone. Then we realize how much of our spending is discretionary.” —LP
Identify your needs, wants, and spending limit
Identify your needs. These are costs that must be met no matter what, such as tuition, housing, groceries, health care, and transport to work or school. Calculate the average cost of your monthly needs.
Then identify your wants: those discretionary costs. Be realistic. Account for pizza nights, movies, shoes, and Netflix. (Note: You’re not making decisions yet. You’re tracking previous decisions.) Calculate the average cost of your current monthly wants.
If you’ve been overspending, consider how to reduce your discretionary costs (current monthly wants). Figure out your new monthly wants spending limit.
Anticipate temptations and how you’ll handle them. Any successful behavior change involves planning; consider phasing in these changes over several months. To judge whether or not your plan is realistic, think about what a cut would mean. For example:
- Go out once a week instead of twice
- Repair shoes instead of replacing them
- Pack lunch
- Find free entertainment on weekends
5. What’s your new weekly allowance?
“Convenience has a cost. Eating out is more expensive than making your own meals, and buying coffee is more expensive than brewing your own. This is where you have the ability to really affect your budget.” —BA
Manage your everyday spending
Divide your new spending limit by 4.5. This number is your weekly allowance.
Consider withdrawing your weekly allowance amount from your bank at the beginning of the week. Once it’s gone…it’s gone. Going cash-only makes it easier to track and adjust your spending.
Think about cash flow. Your income likely isn’t consistent each month. You need money in your account when the bills are due, even though your sources of income are less regular. Some funds, like student loans, are a one-time or two-time disbursement. You may get a large check beyond what you need that month; make sure that money is saved to meet each future month’s expenses.
6. What’s your savings account situation?
As a student, you’re not expected to save money for retirement. But you do need to manage your cash flow and prepare for those irregular or infrequent bills.
Use your savings account to manage your spending
When you receive a large payment, like the portion of a student loan intended for living expenses (a “refund check”), deposit it into your savings account.
Refer back to your occasional average monthly spending—your anticipated irregular expenses (step 1). Also consider any goals (step 2) that require you to save. You will need to hold some funds and make monthly transfers to your checking account to cover your budgeted monthly expenses or for budgeted occasional expenses as they occur.
7. What’s your checking account situation?
Figure out how much money to transfer to your checking account each month to cover your expenses. Refer back to your regular average monthly spending (step 1), adjusted to take account of your new monthly wants spending limit (step 4).
Each month, automatically transfer the appropriate amount to your checking account. This way, your lump sums function like a regular paycheck, so you won’t spend money that you’ll need for future expenses.
Depending on your income sources and how often your money comes in, you will need to adjust the amount you’re transferring. The amount of money available to you for regular spending each month should be reasonably consistent.
8. What’s the easiest way to monitor your progress?
“Every time your wallet comes out, ask yourself, ‘Do I need to spend this money? Between your graduation and your retirement, if you save $10 a day, and invest it in the stock market, when you retire you will likely have $1 million from those savings alone.” —LP
Keep track of what you spend. You can do this in a notebook, on your phone, or with an app like Mint. Tally or check your spending and account balances regularly: at the end of each day, twice a week, or once a week.
Mint.com: Your most popular tool for planning your spending
Mint.com is the digital program most frequently recommended by students in a recent Student Health 101 survey. It’s a free online tool and app that connects securely to your banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, pulls the relevant info, and organizes it for you in one place.
Mint.com makes it easy to track your spending and create a realistic, adaptable budget. It sorts your expenses into categories, which you can customize. You’ll need to check and adjust the categorization, especially in the early days. Mint.com can learn your habits over time.
How to make a credit card work for you
“Credit cards are too convenient. We tend to forget we need to pay the money back at the end of the month, which exposes us to steeply increasing interest payments. I have customers who are thousands of dollars in debt because a credit card doesn’t feel like real money.” —LP
“Credit scores are increasingly important. Employers, rental agencies, and mortgage companies are likely to check them. We’re seeing value in students beginning to build credit.” —BA
How to use a credit card to establish a credit score:
- Choose a low credit limit
- Use the credit card for a regular expense—e.g., groceries—and otherwise leave it at home
- Pay it off in full every month
Your top 10 strategies for a shatterproof budget
In our student survey, two budget tips were the runaway winners:
- Being aware of my bank balance
- Realistically anticipating (or overestimating) my expenses
Your top 10 strategies also included:
- Tracking my expenses
- Taking advantage of student discounts
- Sticking to my shopping list
- Avoiding places and activities that involve costs
- Having an emergency fund
- Using a digital budgeting or finances tool
- Using cash, not cards
- Paying down my debt
Student Health 101 survey. 1,130 students answered this question
Your favorite online money tools and apps
“I would highly recommend Mint.com. It is really simple to use and all your transactions go in automatically. It really makes it simple to see where your money is going.”
—Zach D., Michigan Technological University
“The AllBudget2 app for students details the common expenses that college students are expected to worry about, and has a simple user interface.”
—Petah S., Georgia Gwinnett College
“Mint.com, LearnVest.com, and CreditKarma.com are great for tracking your current cash flow, and have well-written articles.”
—J. W., Valencia College, Florida
“YNAB [You Need a Budget] costs money but is powerful and teaches good budgeting principles.”
—Chris C., University of Rochester, New York
“A regular computer spreadsheet can be helpful. Most programs offer templates to get you started. You also don’t have to be online to access it.”
—Elizabeth M., Western Carolina University, North Carolina
“See if your bank or credit union offers an app. It’s the quickest and most direct way to monitor your money.”
—Nathan J., University of North Alabama
Bryan Ashton, BSBA, assistant director, Student Life Student Wellness Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus
Larry Pike, CFA, financial planner and principal of Client Priority Financial Advisors LLC, Needham, Massachusetts