How I Budget in College

While it’s often joked about in casual conversation, the “broke college student” trope is very real. When you take into consideration tuition, housing fees, textbooks, parking permits, groceries or meal plan fees, club or greek life dues, Adobe Creative Cloud, and other monthly expenses, the price tag of college may seem a lot higher than the estimated cost of attendance listed on the school’s website. Plus, if you’re a first-generation student, a person of color, and/or grew up in a low-income household, your chances of being able to afford college upfront may drop, depending on your unique situation and upbringing.

While my parents would consider ourselves “working class,” we’re still taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for my brother and me to attend CSU Channel Islands and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, respectively. There are so many times when I would catch myself feeling envious of my peers who grew up in wealthy families, whose parents attended prestigious universities and therefore have the knowledge to help them apply for and get into the nation’s top colleges, and/or don’t have to take out loans or apply for financial aid to afford college.

(Side note: It’s important, however, to remind myself that many of my colleagues grew up with generational wealth, while my mom and dad immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 80s/90s. Our backgrounds are vastly different, placing us in situations we can’t control and families we shouldn’t be ashamed of.)

Nonetheless, the one thing I can control as a college student is how much money I spend and earn, as well as how I manage my finances through budgeting, investing, and saving. I’m by no means a financial expert – I still love dropping cash on lululemon leggings and arbitrary items on Amazon every once in a while – but I’ve compiled several tips throughout my two years in college that have helped me save some money while living comfortably as a college student.

Here are those tips:

Keep track of all your expenses and income every month.
If you’re new to the realm of ~personal finance~, I would recommend starting by writing down everything (yes, everything) you purchase (expenses) and how much money you earn (income) over the course of one month. I suggest using apps like Fudget to help keep track of your money, or you can also download your bank’s smartphone app (if they have one) and check your spending history through that. I prefer to write everything down in a notebook or journal specifically dedicated to my finances. That way, I can record where my money is going and what expenses took out the most cash.
Don’t underestimate your spending habits if it’s more extreme than you thought; own them! You wanted an item, and you used precious dollars to buy said item. Additionally, don’t overestimate how much money you earn from your job, allowance from your parents or guardians, etc. You want to lay out a realistic map of where your money goes so you can budget according to your wants and needs.

Examine your expenses and weed out the things you don’t need.
Take a look at what you’re spending money on and think critically about which ones are necessary versus dispensable. For example, I need to pay for groceries, gas, therapy and psychiatry appointments, and medications. These are my non-negotiable expenses, or the core items I need to function every day.
I also subscribe to several news organizations like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The Tribune, and New York Times, as well as pay for Disney+, Amazon Prime, and a monthly car cleaning service. These are not necessarily core expenditures, but being plugged into the news, having sources of entertainment when I’m not studying or when I’m with friends and family, and having a clean car are all important to me. All of these are typically fixed payments every month. Other people may need to take into account how much they spend on electricity, utilities, rent, or other expenses.
Now look closely at your nonessential expenses. Are you spending a lot of money on coffee from Starbucks when you can make your own at home? Do you eat out at restaurants more often than you cook your own meals? Do you shop around for jeans when you already have 10 pairs sitting in your closet? Whatever those disposable expenses are for you, avoid spending as much money on them so you can save up.
Speaking of savings…

Transfer a percentage of your income to your savings every time you get paid.
I get paid every two weeks, so as soon as that direct deposit hits, I transfer 20% of my income to my savings account. I do this almost immediately after I get paid so I’m not tempted to drop all my money at once on nonessential items.
Additionally, you don’t have to save 20% of your income like me. I find 20% works best for me since I like to have enough money in my bank account for the next two weeks, but you can always save more or less, depending on your financial goals (more on that in the next tip).
In addition to transferring 20% of my income to my savings account, I transfer another 10% towards my investments. I invest using Robinhood, a free app on your smartphone that allows you to invest in stocks, ETFs, and other options. I’m not a master at investing, but this app helped me get started on my investments while I’m young so I can take advantage of compound interest, which Albert Einstein reportedly called “one of the wonders of the world.”

Have specific, calculable financial goals.
It’s nice to have goals such as “I want to save more money” or “I want to earn more income,” but I find that it’s better to have concrete, calculable financial goals like “I want to save $50 a week for the next six months so I can travel in December” or “I want to earn x amount of dollars every two weeks from my day job and x amount of dollars every month from my side hustle.” That way, it will be easier for you to create a roadmap for yourself on how to reach those specific goals and how to monitor your expenses and income every week, month, etc. to accomplish them.

Take advantage of student discounts, coupons, and deals.
There are a plethora of companies, websites, and apps that provide discount codes and special deals for college students. Some of my favorite businesses and brands that offer student discounts include UNiDAYS, Honey, UNIQLO, Amazon Prime, and Levi’s. I’ve noticed that many student deals may be hidden in the company’s website though, especially if it’s a popular clothing brand like Banana Republic or Urban Outfitters, so you might have to do some digging to snag a good deal.
It’s also a great idea to check if your university provides exclusive deals for students. For instance, Cal Poly students get 50% off an Amazon Prime membership per year; students living on campus have free access to HBO GO; and students can save 15% off on Amtrak tickets when they show their Cal Poly ID to the train conductor. Cal Poly’s student-run news and PR organization, Mustang Media Group, also hands out coupon books every few months with discounts for local shops throughout San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, which is another useful way to save some cash.
An additional way to save money is to simply ask an associate if they offer student discounts when you’re checking out in-store. There’s no harm in asking, especially if you’re living in a college town that sees many students touring the city at the beginning of the school year or during holiday season when students are buying gifts for their loved ones before winter break. Plus, if the store doesn’t offer any student discounts, they might be able to hook you up with another discount to help you save, so don’t be shy!

Don’t forget to have fun in college!
Let’s face it: for many students, college is so much more than just studying at the library every day or attending classes. Going to college means making new friends, joining clubs or sports, and going out whenever you have free time, which can also mean spending money at restaurants, paying to participate in certain club events or activities, and splurging on a cute dress.
I think it’s so important to make memories and cultivate lasting friendships while you’re still in college. And if that means purchasing an expensive music festival ticket or buying a lavish gift for your friend’s birthday, don’t feel guilty! Some of the best memories I’ve had thus far at Cal Poly have included going to concerts, eating Korean barbecue with my friends, and attending formal events, all of which entailed spending money.
Of course, if you need to stick to a more stringent budget due to personal circumstances, that’s perfectly fine, too! But if you can afford to go out every once in a while and take a break from studying and going to classes, I’d highly recommend doing so. At the end of the day, it’s all about maintaining a work-life balance and having a meaningful college experience that you can look back on and have no regrets.

I hope you found some of these tips helpful. And if you have any other wealthy words of wisdom, I’d love to hear them!

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