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Creating a budget for college

by New York University
December 15, 2022
8 min read
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Building a college student budget is something all college students should consider. How students spend money, what their monthly income is, and how it affects their monthly budget are all factors college students should consider.

If you are not sure where to start when creating a budget for college, you are not alone. Managing finances while in college can be a great stress, but with proper planning and an eye for detail, you can effectively create a workable budget. Below you will find a guide for college students and adults to help build and keep a budget to keep your finances in check.

Sign up for a free profile with today to gain access to hundreds of scholarships and free college finance resources. Scholarships are a great way to reduce the cost of college, which can be very helpful to students living on a limited monthly budget.

Cash and a calculator laid out by a ledger

Applying for scholarships is easy, free, and can ease the strain of college finances for many students. For more resources on how to live on a college student budget, check out this guide on how to save money in college.

What is your timeframe for your college budget?

College students should think about whether they are budgeting for a month, a quarter, or an academic year. Most college students find it easiest to manage a monthly budget while keeping a twelve-month cycle in the background. Creating a timeframe is an effective starting point when making a college budget. When building your twelve-month budget, make sure to keep in mind various time-based expenses (books at the beginning of each semester, holidays, seasonal changes, travel, etc.).

What are the tools for making a college budget?

In other words, how do you bring a college student's budget to life? Some college students are most comfortable with paper and pencil while others prefer to use an online template like a spreadsheet. There is no universal answer for budgeting but attempting to keep it all in your head is a surefire way to set yourself up for failure.

College students should test out a few different ways to keep track of how often they spend money. Whichever method is easiest for you is the one you should consider sticking with for your college student budget.

Woman typing on a calculator on her desk

What are the components of building a college student budget?

As simple as it sounds, it really comes down to how much money is flowing into your bank account and how much money is being spent from your bank account. The influx of money into your account, or income, can come from a variety of sources: a job, tax refund, support from family, financial aid credits, scholarships, grant, work-study, and other sources.

As you look at your total income for a given year, it is now important to assess the timing. In other words, you may only have a tax refund applicable in a single installment in April while a job will provide income throughout the year. When building your budget, determine a realistic income number and the timing of those deposits as a primary step in the process.

Several universities offer work-study programs, which can help mitigate fixed expenses like tuition costs. Check and see if this program would be plausible for you, and if your school offers it. Read this guide on what work-study programs are for more information.

Next, you will want to examine your known expenses or expenditures. Recording everything you currently spend along with likely expenses will help you mesh your college budget with your known income. This will help college students predict how often they can spend money.

If you are building a budget leading up to a transition to college, you will need to understand any and all specific expenses associated with college life that needs to be taken into consideration. Common expenses that need to be considered may include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, home furnishings, utilities, food, entertainment, travel, rent, transportation, insurance, and discretionary spending.

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College students should talk to their families to see how much of their tuition they may need to pay themselves. Paying for a semester in college will likely be a massive expense compared to the other expenses of a college student, so make sure you know in advance how much you are expected to contribute.

To mitigate the tuition expenses incoming college students may incur, consider applying for financial aid, either from the government or from your school. In addition, scholarships can be an excellent way to help a college student pay for college. Consider applying for a need-based scholarship if you are eligible.

How do my fixed expenses fit into my monthly budget?

The next important component of building a budget is to cluster expenses by type. There are two primary types of expenses you will want to address: fixed expenses and variable expenses. A fixed expense is a type of payment that tends not to change over time and is often not negotiable.

Common types of fixed expenses are things like rent, mortgage, tuition, insurance, and car loan payments. While a line item like rent may not be negotiable with your landlord, it is possible to source a different place to live or to simply adjust your living arrangement (ie. take on a roommate) to help mitigate a fixed expenditure.

Woman examining receipts and looking at a spreadsheet on her computer

Those living on a college student budget may find themselves stretched thin to make ends meet. After considering each of the fixed expenses in your life, see if there is any way to decrease those payments. For example, a Netflix subscription might be part of your fixed expenses but represents an area of your monthly budget that can be cut if needed.

The other type of expense is known as a variable expense as it can change from month to month. Examples of variable expenses may include groceries, entertainment, and travel. These items are discretionary and will fluctuate depending on your decisions month to month.

Putting the pieces of a college budget together

Now that you have a good understanding of your income and expenses, you will need to determine the difference from month to month. A surplus of income will be moved into your savings account while a deficit will require additional planning.

If you find your variable and fixed expenses consistently exceed your monthly income, you will need to adjust your fixed and variable expenses or determine if there are ways to increase your income to balance your budget.

Plan on revisiting your budget a few times a month to make sure you are on track to successfully complete the current month and have an idea of what is coming in the months to come.

Frequently asked questions about creating a budget for college

How can I deal with unexpected expenses on a college student's budget?

When it comes to building a working budget, plan for the unexpected. In other words, build up a savings account for the day when your car needs work or for an unexpected trip to an urgent care facility. If you have properly planned ahead and built a cushion in your savings account, the unplanned events in life will be more easily navigated. Failing to plan is effectively planning to fail when it comes to building a budget.

Though it may be difficult for college students to save money based on their limited monthly income, saving money is the best way to deal with unexpected expenses. Making a habit to save money can set up a small emergency fund for sudden situations.

How can I reduce the cost of college?

It is possible to minimize the cost of college through a bit of planning and have addressed a few options below for your consideration. The cost of attending college can vary significantly depending on the school's tuition, fees, financial aid package, and living expenses.

You may be able to find a great college that has more affordable tuition plus a robust financial aid package that still provides an academic fit for you.

Many students have earned college credits based on prior work experience or life experience. Credits are not granted without merit, so plan on asking your school if it is possible to test out of a class. If granted the option, you may not only avoid paying for duplicate course work you will earn credits moving quicker along your educational path.

Your life experience is valuable and may be used to earn college credits, as well. Make sure to schedule a time with the school's administrative team and help determine which, if any, classes you can skip based on your unique experience.

It is not uncommon for schools to charge a flat rate per semester, regardless of the number of classes taken by a student. If this is the case with your school, it makes sense to maximize the number of credits in a semester to help compress your timeframe and possibly make your time in college more affordable.

Another option that is becoming more and more mainstream is the notion of a combined degree or dual-degree program. These types of programs allow a student to move through a program quicker by consolidating coursework on the way to earning a degree. Ask your school what options exist for a combined degree program early in the admission process.

Programs to save money in college

Discounts may be available at your college or university if you are an adult learner, you have family that works at the school, you have family that graduated from the school, multiple family members currently attend the school, or if you are involved in student government at your school.

In the past, the cost of healthcare was a significant financial consideration for students and families. With new programs available for students through the Affordability Care Act, it is possible to save even more money for quality healthcare.

Man counting cash and writing in a book

Depending on where you attend college, you may experience a higher cost of housing than anticipated. In order to keep your housing costs in check, consider sharing a house, condo, or apartment to help keep the cost of rent down.

You may also want to think about being a resident advisor while attending school. These programs are designed to help offset on-campus living by working in a residence hall. Lastly, if you decide to attend school near home it may make sense to live with friends or family to save on housing expenses.

Ways to make money to pay for fixed expenses in college

Scholarships are another excellent way to help reduce the cost of college. Unlike healthcare programs or age discounts certain universities may offer, scholarships are open to all students of any age and any background. Read this guide to clarify what you can use scholarship money for.

Tuition fees are often the most significant part of a college student's monthly expenses. Winning scholarships can help students both save money and decrease their monthly expenses, as scholarships are a form of free gift aid that doesn't need to be repaid.

Working to pay your way through college is a good financial option for many students. Read this guide on how to make money in college for more ideas on how to fit work into a college schedule.

Presuming your class schedules do not conflict with your work schedule, this may be a great way to pay as you go instead of incurring significant student loan debt. Utilize your school's placement office or work-study program to maximize the time spent outside of class earning money for college.

Additional College Resources

Making a free profile with can provide support for college students looking to learn more about college finances. Applying for scholarships is an easy way to earn financial aid, and unlike loans, scholarships don't need to be repaid. Start applying for scholarships today.

New York University
Content Writer

About Elise

Elise is a skilled and knowledgeable writer. Her understanding of scholarships and internships enables her to craft insightful and informative content that resonates with students, helping them navigate the often complex processes of applying for financial aid and career opportunities.

Elise graduated from New York University with a double major in English and Psychology, as well as a minor in Creative Writing.


Through challenging university coursework and corporate experience, Elise has become an expert in several different types of writing, including literary analysis, content pieces, formal scientific writing, SEO editing, and more. Elise expanded on her knowledge while interning in marketing, using her understanding of SEO to boost website traffic and customer engagement.

She’s published a short story in The Foundationalist literary magazine and has also won several short story writing awards at the regional and international levels. Elise loves to craft content that helps students navigate college life and scholarship applications. She makes use of syntax and tone to write readable, engaging pieces. Elise has a solid understanding of linguistics and grammatical structures across multiple languages thanks to her fluency in English and proficiency in Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Elise first joined in 2022 during her undergraduate studies, explored other pursuits in 2023, and happily returned in 2024 as a Content Writer. Motivated by her writing skills, she aims to make educational resources more accessible for students of all backgrounds. Additionally, she believes it's important to add to the available information on student loans and student finances in a way that's user-friendly and easy to understand.

Quote from Elise

“I try to create content that would have helped my younger self— stuff I wish I knew when I was starting college.”

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