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Get Ready for FAFSA Season!Guest Contributor
Before settling on the budget I currently use, I experimented with different templates, eventually coming up with a format that works 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.
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. To organize the information, I recommend using an Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheets.
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.
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 the probably the most useful section on my budget right now!
This is where you will calculate income minus expenses,
and see if the budget balances out.
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 break-down for one month. I find this to be a useful approach, as I can keep track of my monthly expenses on one and organize it into my four-year plan on another.
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, on my four-year budget, I might plan $100 for monthly personal spending money. 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 use that as motivation to spend less the next month. If I spent less, I celebrate, knowing that I used my budget well!
Check in with your student during a monthly phone or video call. Are they keeping up with their budget, or do they need help adjusting it? You may not be an expert on budgets, either, 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 long.