My College:

How to Make and Stick to a Budget

Cambria Pilger

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Before settling on my current budget, I experimented with different templates, eventually coming up with a format that worked well for my life in college. Helping your student set up their first budget may feel daunting but don’t worry! Once you get the basics down, it should be easy for them to update and maintain.

Start by Creating a Spreadsheet

Decide how long your student wants to budget for, a semester, a year, or through the end of college. If they’ve never made a budget, start small so it’s manageable right now.

The budget will have three main sections: Income, Expenses, and Difference, each with subcategories. I recommend using an Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheets to organize the information.

1. Income 

If your student has multiple jobs, list each source of income separately. Include parent/family contributions (cash or from a 529 college savings account), scholarships, and loan disbursements.

2. Expenses 

List the different ways your student spends their money — for required payments and for fun — in a given month. Common expenses are tuition, room and board, textbooks, food outside the meal plan, entertainment, transportation, phone, internet, insurance, credit card, and miscellaneous expenses.

Expenses can also include charitable donations, savings, and student fees. My school expenses include the obvious plus bus tickets, music lessons, and a student loan section, where I itemize what loans I’ve received, calculate the monthly interest, budget how much I want to pay off each month, and calculate the remainder of my loans after each payment. This is probably the most helpful section on my budget right now!

3. Difference 

This is where you will calculate income minus expenses,
and see if the budget balances out.

Next, Label the Spreadsheet

Each column should be labeled by month. Each row will be a different income or expense category. Once the spreadsheet is labeled, begin inputting the numbers. Look at your student’s last school bill as well as personal receipts to find costs for tuition, fees, room and board, meal plan, textbooks, etc.

Spreadsheets let you incorporate equations to calculate the difference or estimate your income for the next month. To learn how, go into “support” for the spreadsheet you’re using.

Note: It may help to create two budgets: an overview of yearly income and expenses and a specific breakdown for one month. I find this a helpful approach, as I can keep track of my monthly expenses on one and organize it into my four-year plan on another.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Budgets are emergent. They can always change. Since the main goal is to help your student organize their money and plan for the future, their budget should be formatted in a way that works well for them. A simple list of finances and expenses could be the best option rather than a detailed spreadsheet.

You can use budgets for a lot of different purposes. I use mine to account for the payments that I’ve already made and to estimate future ones. I update it with everything that I pay for. For example, I might plan $100 on my four-year budget for monthly personal spending. I write into my one-month budget what purchases I make and, at the end of the month, total it to see how I lined up with my initial plan. If I spent more than I wanted to, I would use that as motivation to spend less the next month. I celebrate if I pay less, knowing I used my budget well!

More Tips on Saving Money with a Budget

  • Look for used or cheap, rentable textbooks. Amazon, Chegg, and Thriftbooks are three of my favorite sources.
  • Be wary of frequent take-out. As much as your student craves a break from dining hall food, encourage them to limit themselves to one meal “out” a week — and budget for it!
  • Budget strictly to save easily. Sometimes I intentionally budget less for things like textbooks or entertainment so I’m motivated to find the best deals. If I stay within my budget, it feels like I have saved money!
  • Don’t worry if the budget is tight. It is for most students. If expenses exceed income, your student can get a job or two to balance things out.

Check-in with your student during a monthly phone or video call. Are they keeping up with their budget or need help adjusting it? You may not be an expert on budgets, but by setting up an accountability meeting, you and your student can lean on one another in the learning process. And remember — by budgeting well now, they’ll establish a foundation for managing their finances after college and all life.

Print out CollegiateParent’s Student Budget Worksheet here.
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Cambria Pilger is a recent graduate of Whitworth University. She studied journalism and mass media communication, with minors in Spanish and business. She is a freelance writer and a Communications & Development Admin at a local ministry. Cambria is passionate about understanding humans, exploring the world, thinking deeply, developing skills and getting to know people.
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