8 Steps for Managing Your Money in College


Monday, November 5th, 2018

Heading off to college is incredibly exciting. Soon, you'll be out from under your parents' rule and living like an adult for the first time. With the freedom of college life, though, also comes the responsibility of managing your own finances. If you've never had to manage money on your own before, here's how to create and stick to a budget while you're in college.

1. Talk about a budget with your parents

Though your parents won't be quite as involved in your day-to-day life, they'll most likely be there as some kind of support system. Before you head off to college, be sure to have a conversation with your parents about how financially involved they plan to be.

For instance, will they cover some of your school expenses, such as books, housing, or meals? Will they give you any type of allowance? Or will you be 100% responsible for paying your own way?

Knowing what you can expect from your parents will help you determine what you can afford in your own budget.

2. Add up all your sources of income

Once you're ready to sit down and create a budget, start by figuring out all the sources of money you will have coming in. Although some sources might not be traditional "income" (such as money from your parents), for the purposes of budgeting you should treat it the same as money you earn from a job. Write down all your sources of income, including:

  • Paychecks from full-time or part-time jobs

  • Side income, such as babysitting or mowing lawns

  • Scholarships and grants

  • College savings plan withdrawals

  • Money from your parents

Once you have your sources of income added up, try to get an idea of how it breaks down on a monthly basis. If your income fluctuates from month to month, calculate the average over the past three or so months. And remember, it's important to get a realistic picture here, so don't inflate the numbers — you'll regret it later.

3. Add up all your expenses

Next, figure out how much you're personally on the hook for each month. Be sure to include:

  • Tuition (if you're responsible for paying it)

  • Rent/housing

  • Utilities (power, water, etc.)

  • Insurance

  • Books and other school supplies

  • Food

  • Transportation expenses (such as gas money, bus fare, or Uber rides)

  • Cell phone

If you've never lived on your own before and aren't sure how much some of these items will cost, Quicken provides a breakdown1 of typical expenses. For things that change each month, such as utilities and food, take an average of how much you've spent over the past few months to get a ballpark idea of what you should budget.

For large expenses that don't come every month, such as tuition, split the total cost into average monthly payments. For example, if you owe $5,000 per semester in tuition, divide that by six months. That way you know you'll have to set aside $834 per month to cover that bill when it comes. Alternatively, you can look into splitting major expenses into smaller monthly payments — such as through a tuition installment plan2 — so you don't have to come up with the money all at once.

4. Get cash flow positive

Now it's time to figure out your cash flow situation and put a real budget in place. Subtract your expenses from your income. If the number is positive, congratulations!

On the other hand, if you end up with a negative number, don't panic. That simply means you'll need to make a few adjustments to your income and expenses.

First, look at your expenses. Are there any you can reduce or cut completely? For example, can you downgrade your premium Hulu account to the version with commercials? Can you start making coffee in your dorm before class instead of hitting up the local coffee shop every day?

Maybe you already live on a shoestring and there's not much to cut. After all, the phrase “starving student" exists for a reason. In this case, it's better to consider ways of earning more income.

Your own campus is a great source of job opportunities.3 You could work as an administrative assistant, mail room attendant, barista, and more. If you're strong in a particular subject, consider working as a tutor — either through your university or on your own. If you have a knack for writing or building websites, consider branching out and offering freelance services online.

5. Make a plan for any "leftover" money

Once you're earning more than you spend, make a plan for the money you have left over at the end of each month.

Start by paying yourself first. That means once your bills are covered, set aside some money in savings before spending on any fun stuff. It doesn't have to be much when you're just starting out — even saving $20 a month is better than $0.

Any money you have left over is your disposable income. That's your fun money for things like going to the movies, buying music, and eating at restaurants.

But how do you know if you're divvying up all your money the right way? A good rule of thumb to follow is the 50/20/30 rule:

  • 50% of your income goes toward basic living expenses and essentials

  • 20% of your income goes toward savings, investing, and paying off debt

  • 30% of your income goes toward flexible spending (the fun stuff)

As a new college student, don't expect meet these numbers right off the bat. However, the 50/20/30 rule gives you solid guidelines to strive for.

6. Open a savings account

Once your bills are covered and you have a comfortable buffer in your budget, you'll want to begin setting aside some money into a savings account.

An emergency fund, as it's often called, will provide a safety net in case any unexpected expenses come up. That way, you don't have to rely on a credit card or risky loans.

To make sure you get the most bang for your buck, look for a savings account or CD to store your extra cash.

7. Apply for a credit card

As you get older, there will be more and more situations where you need good credit: renting an apartment, financing a car, buying a house, etc. However, graduating from college with good credit is difficult to do unless you've been using credit all along.

A credit card with few fees and a low limit can help you do just that. This shouldn't be an excuse to spend beyond your means — every purchase you charge should come out of your set monthly budget. But if you make a small purchase every month and pay off the balance by the due date, you'll be ahead of your peers when it comes to building credit.

If you're under 21 and don't have a full-time job, you'll need a parent, relative, or trusted friend to cosign on the credit card application for you. That might be a tall order, since their credit will be put at risk. So alternatively, ask if one of your parents can add you as an authorized user on one of their cards — but only use their credit cards in an emergency or if you will be able to pay them back.

8. Stick to your budget

Once you've done all the work to get a budget in place, be sure you stick to your plan and periodically adjust it if necessary. A free tool such as Mint can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you — simply sync all of your bank accounts to get a detailed view of where your money is coming from — and where it's going.

Important Disclosure Information

This content is general in nature and does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.

  1. Quicken.com, "Home Budget: Cost-of-Living Reality Check," accessed June 4, 2018.

  2. Farran Powell, "Paying a Tuition Bill: What to Know About Installment Plans," USNews.com, accessed June 4, 2018.

  3. Alison Doyle, "Top On-Campus Jobs for College Students," The Balance, accessed January 13, 2018. Back
  4.  Trulia, "New To Budgeting? Why You Should Try The 50-20-30 Rule," accessed June 4, 2018. Back