Mind Over Money: Getting your college budget together

College Budget

By Jessica Dye
05/06/2015
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You’ve got the laundry part down, and you’ve mastered the art of getting a pizza to your dorm room at 1 a.m. But that’s not all it’s going to take to live on your own—one of the most critical parts of the college transition is figuring out how to manage your own money. Whether you come with a trust fund or just the sweatshirt on your back, you’re susceptible to the overworked, over-tired over-spending that plagues all college students.

The average American college education can induce some serious sticker shock. The College Board reports that tuition at both state and private schools went up 6.6 percent in 2007. But most students will spend as much—possibly more—just covering living expenses: about $16,320 for 9 months, according to College Board estimates. That includes your $150 bio textbook, the $85 you spent at Starbucks during finals, and the $300 you told your parents was for “an emergency” (an Xbox emergency). 

Yes, it all counts. But if you start your college career with a budget in place, you can spare yourself the all-ramen diet and angry credit card-company calls that so many students experience as their bank accounts run dry at the semester’s end. Arm yourself with these money basics, and you’ll have enough left to celebrate with something you didn’t have to steal from the dining hall.

Get carded: Find a credit card you can live with

Chances are you’ll be opening your first checking account and getting your first credit card before you show up for freshman orientation—according to education lender Nellie Mae, 55% of undergraduates’ foray into plastic money begins their first year at school. Free money! Awesome, right? 

Not so fast. Credit card companies are notorious for luring college students with offers of free pizza, unlimited credit lines, and ponies (OK, maybe not ponies—not yet at least). You may feel like you’re succumbing to the dark side by signing on the dotted line, but having a credit card can help you establish a credit history for future purchases, like apartments or cars—and they’re handy in case of an emergency. Look for one with a low APR (annual percentage rate: the amount you’ll pay in interest over the course of a year), generous grace period (the length of time past your payment deadline before penalties kick in), and a moderate credit line (how much you’re allowed to spend—while unlimited is nice in theory, it can also make debt worse until you get your spending habits in check). Follow all the asterisks, and read the fine print. Then, proceed with caution. Use the card sparingly and make sure you meet at least the minimum payments every month. Limit yourself to one or two cards to make payments more manageable. 

Get real: Put it on paper

Putting your spending habits on paper can put them in perspective. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’re spending less than you actually are, so keep track of all your purchases for one week. Right next to the grand total, write how much income you’ve generated over the same period of time. If your expenses exceed your income, you’ve got some budgeting to do. 

Everyone’s unique lifestyle demands a unique budget plan. Take a good, hard look at your spending on necessities versus luxuries. The more creative you are at reducing costs across the board, the less you’ll have to sacrifice. Spending $50 on Diet Cokes from the student center? Buy a six-pack and cut that number in half. Dropping $30 for a tank of gas? Get a bus pass. Clip coupons, scour Amazon for used textbooks, get cheap knockoff Seven jeans instead of the $200 real deal. Even shaving a dollar here or there off of your daily purchases can keep you afloat for longer. The important thing is to find a plan that works for your particular situation and stick with it. Like dieting, don’t beat yourself up over little mistakes—in the grand scheme, we all make mistakes. Just suck it up, make a few adjustments, and move on.

Get a feel for your money: Cash is your friend

A dollar’s a dollar. But when you spend with your card instead of cash, it’s easy to ignore just how many of them you’ve parted ways with. Once you get your weekly budget set up, take out the amount you want to spend in cash. As the stack of bills in your wallet dwindles, you’ll have an immediate reminder whether you need to save or have enough for a splurge. Plus, if you’re spending your own money instead of Visa’s, it won’t show up on any end-of-the-month bills.   

Get your money’s worth: Take advantage of your school

Mooching off of your school is a time-honored tradition among college students. You’re shelling out thousands of dollars for your student status, so take advantage of what your tuition has already bought you. On-campus housing may be cheaper than off-campus apartments, and the university will foot the bill for utilities, Internet connections, and even cleaning the bathroom. The dining hall may get old, but getting creative with the daily cereal offerings will save you snack money. Printers, free wi-fi, taco study breaks, pizza at the weekly lecture series—all these little things are there for the taking, so get the most from your money and take them already.

Get a plan: Affording the future 

The ultimate goal isn’t to end up even-steven. It’s to establish good credit, develop responsible spending habits, and maybe put a little aside for post-graduation. If you’ve made financial mistakes or are already maxing out your third credit card to stay afloat, there are steps you can take now to handle the problems instead of ignoring them. Don’t hesitate to set up an appointment with your school’s financial aid office—the counselors are used to helping students dig out from under a mountain of loans and debts. The important thing is to take charge, instead of crossing your fingers and hoping a rich uncle kicks it before the bills are due.

So, welcome to the grown-up world of financial responsibility! You came to college to make more money, so the sooner you know how to spend it, the sooner you’ll be able to enjoy mo’ money without any mo’ problems at all.

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