4 Easy Steps to Start A Budget in College

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You can start a budget in college with little effort. Here are 4 ways to budget in college so you can have fun and grow your money at the same time.

One of the best skills you can learn is how to start a budget in college. It might not seem like an incredibly riveting side hobby, but if you can learn how to do it, you’ll be well on your way to being wealthy in the future.

Budgeting is a skill that takes time and effort. In fact, recent surveys show the vast majority of Americans don’t keep a formal budget. Many consider jotting down notes on a piece of paper or remembering expenses in their head ‘budgeting.’

To learn how to truly budget in college correctly, you need to follow the steps below.

Track Your Spending


The first step to any budget is knowing where your money is going. It’s helpful to look back at your last three months of expenses before you create budget categories.

Mint is a great tool to use to see what you spend. You can link all of your accounts in one place and view your entire financial picture at once. Mint will even tell you when your bills are due, which is helpful if you’re in charge of paying rent or utilities at your college apartment.

If you really want to keep track of your money, Personal Capital is a great tool to use to help you start a budget in college. Personal Capital actually calculates your net worth, so it would be fun to start using it as a college student and watch your net worth rise after graduation and as you progress through your career. That way you can look back at it years later and not only see how your net worth grew over time but, if you’re paying attention, what made it rise.

Personal Capital is free to use and has a lot of great features to help you manage your money better. If you’d like to learn more about how it works, check out our Personal Capital review.

Create Your Budget Categories


As a college student, you shouldn’t have too many expenses. You can leave items like life insurance off your list for now 🙂

There are other important categories to including in your budget and starting to budget in college is a great exercise. Depending on how much your parents help you, you might have to pay for your apartment, phone or cable bill, car insurance and more.

While my husband was in college, he worked 40 hours a week and paid for all of his expenses including his apartment rent, car and books. While that’s not something either one of us would recommend, it’s an example of a college student who had a lot to track.

*Related: Have a check you need to cash? Here’s our guide on the best places to cash a personal check near me to get money now.*

Examine your expenses and create budget categories from them. Once you know your categories, write them all down in a list. That way, you know how much money you need to have to cover all of your expenses and any extras you might want each month.

After that, open a savings account for emergencies. This will help you avoid going into debt for unexpected expenses. Online banks like Chime have no minimum balance requirements, which means you can open a savings account with them with $5 or less and grow it from there. They even round up each purchase to the nearest dollar and places that amount in your savings account.

Aim to have $500 or more in your emergency savings account to cover things like blown tires or other expenses for which you don’t have a set budget category.

Assess Your Income


As a college student, you might have many different streams of income. When I was in college, my parents gave me anywhere between $100-$200 per month to use for food and other necessities.

However, I also worked several different jobs in college. I worked in the special collections library, taught dance and worked in a scrapbook store. I think working as a college student is incredibly important. It teaches you how to manage your time wisely and makes you appreciate the money you earn.

*Related: Looking for other income options? Check out our guide on ways to make money in college anyone can do.*

I used the extra income I earned to have fun in college without spending a lot. I enjoyed college life, bought clothes and went on various road tips. It’s nice to be able to have money to do what you want before all of the realities of adult life set in.

That said, since you likely do not have a salaried job with a steady paycheck, you have to learn how to manage a variable income. It’s best if you can get one month ahead, using the previous month’s income to fund the following month.

Keep Your Wits About You


Now that you have a system for tracking your spending, creating budget categories and living on income from the previous month, the last step is to keep your wits about you.

What I mean by that is making smart money decisions. Avoid high-interest debt (like credit cards) at all costs. The Credit Card Act mandates that credit card companies avoid advertising near college campuses. Credit card companies can and sometimes do engage in underhanded marketing tactics to get you to open accounts with them, so keep your eyes open!

If you avoid credit card debt and live by your budget each and every month, you’ll be better off financially than most adults. I personally wish I would have saved more of the money I earned in college, so I’m happy to share these tips in hopes that you will be more financially wise than I was when I was young.


How did you manage your money while in college? What are some other things you think are important for college students and their money? Do you think college students should have a credit card?

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Catherine Alford is the go to personal finance expert for parents who want to better their finances and take on a more active financial role in their families.


  • Kristin says:

    This is such a great idea! Thinking back on how I was in college, I had no concept about money and signed up for those credit card deals offered on campus! All college students should start a budget…I think it would really benefit them all throughout life.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    In college I kept a really simple budget. I definitely had less expenses back then, but having a budget still motivated me to work more and work harder towards my financial goals, even if high-paying jobs weren’t necessarily options for me.

  • Faye says:

    I would stop and think about what is a want and what is a need while in college. You may want a lot of things but later you may need that same money for something you really need. Wait at least a week before you buy anything big, I normally wait 30 days and really compare prices to make sure I am getting the best deal.

    If there is any free finance class at your school take the time to go to it. Use your spare time learning. It is good to have fun, but if you take a few hours a week to learn about saving in your area you will be better off. I still look up saving tips.

    Instead of opening a credit card account use spare money here and there to have an emergency fund and go to it for what you really need. Plus charge yourself interest to see if you really want to buy that something. If you want something for 40 dollars then borrow the money from your emergency fund and before a month is over put it back with 4 dollars for interest. 10% is a good return on your buy and you pay yourself instead of some company. If you do not return the money then next time you want something you can’t get it until you return the money you owe yourself.

    Remember college is a time to learn and have fun, but please remember to try to keep the debt at bay if you can and only use what you have. The less you owe out the better you are.

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