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Planning Your College Budget Ahead of Time: Tips to Making Money Stretch

written by: •edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 9/21/2012

Most college students aren't going to be making much money, and any money you do make will most likely be going straight into tuition, books and other expenses. Learn how to budget your money to make it last the whole school year!

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    What? I've Got Ten Cents to My Name!

    How much will college set you back? Avoid bounced checks and last minute scrambles by making sure you have enough money to cover your expenses all year. Don't just add in tuition plus room and board. Try to realistically estimate how much additional money you will spend on books, food, entertainment and other things. Creating a budget doesn't have to be a challenge, but you do need to do it carefully and honestly. It's not enough to make a best-case scenario budget. Instead, it's far better to plan for the worst case scenario. Budget for the least amount of money you might possibly have while in school.

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    Tuition and Fees

    Possibly the largest expense you will encounter while in college is the tuition bill. Don't just look at the semester price! Make sure you calculate the total price for the year. Are there extra fees for extra courses? Does the university charge a student services fee? You'll want to visit the financial pages of your particular institution to determine what your fees will look like.

    Here are some possible charges you will receive from your university that you should research and include in your budget:

    • Tuition (Are you in state or out-of state? Can you register for residency in the state of your school and reduce costs?)
    • Matriculation Fees
    • Student health insurance fees
    • Student activities fee
    • Parking fees
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    Books & Supplies

    College books and supplies are expensive! There are ways to save money on this expense - you can purchase textbooks used or borrow from a friend who took the class, but you should look at what your university recommends for its book budget. You should budget at least $1500 a year for books and supplies, if not a bit more so that you have wiggle room. The last thing you want to have happen is find out that your chemistry book is $200 and you don't have money for it. You'll want to include:

    • Cost of required and recommended books
    • Cost of lab manuals
    • Cost of lab materials
    • Cost of art supplies
    • Cost of study supplies

    Include your expected expenditures for paper, pencils, printer cartridges, and other supplies in this figure. You don't want to be caught the night before your big paper is due with no printer ink and no money. Trust me.

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    Will you live on campus or off campus? You will need to determine what your housing costs will look like. Keep in mind that if you live on campus, your home will often be furnished for you. If you live off campus, you will probably need to furnish your home. Here are costs you should keep in mind when budgeting for housing:

    • If on campus: your student residency fee per semester
    • If off campus:
      • Apartment or house rent per month
      • Electricity
      • Water
      • Internet/phone/cable
      • Furnishings for your home

    It may be a savings to live off campus if you have a roommate or if your utilities are included. Make sure you calculate the costs of both, make a decision, and then include that cost into your budget. Remember that moving will have an expense too, so account for that cost.

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    Another substantial cost students will find adds up quickly is the transportation expenses. This includes costs associated with driving your car, taking public transportation, and going home to visit family on breaks. You'll want to figure into your budget:

    • Car payments
    • Car insurance
    • Car maintenance costs
    • Car emergency costs (Figure in at least $1000 so you're not blindsided should something go wrong)
    • Gas
    • The cost of taking a bus and subway
    • Ticket prices to go home to visit family

    When calculating travel costs, you should base these on the more expensive travel period - the holidays. This way, even if tickets go up, you should be covered when it comes to going home.

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    Keeping your food budget down and realistic can be a challenge - especially if you're living in a dorm. It's important to plan for making healthy meals (even if you have limited equipment in your room) and to plan for dining out with friends. Here are things you'll want to cover:

    • The cost of a meal plan
    • Groceries and cooking utensils
    • Dining out
    • Bars and alcohol
    • Coffee

    I list coffee separately. It adds up really fast when you go to study at coffee shops and purchase a $5.00 mocha every day. If you're a habitual drinker, try to cut back on the number of times you go out for coffee. Nevertheless, you need to account for a realistic figure in determining your food budget. By the same token, you'll also want to set a figure for bars and alcohol consumption if you're of legal age and plan to drink. This is another very expensive category where you can easily destroy a budget in a weekend. Think very carefully about whether this is how you would like to appropriate your funds.

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    Social Events

    You need to budget for any social events you will participate in during the course of a year. Even if you do not now know what those events might be. You'll want to figure out how much you will be willing to spend per year on:

    • Concerts
    • Plays and movies
    • Parties
    • Charity events
    • Weekend trips with classmates
    • Cover charges
    • Sporting events
    • Etc.

    It's important to be very, very honest with yourself here. If you will feel deprived if you do not partake in one social event a week, fine. Make sure you budget for that event, and see if you can find cheaper alternatives.

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    Other Expenses

    There is a variety of expenses a college student might face while in school. It's important to go through the list of things you might normally spend money on and come up with a workable figure for each category:

    • Clothing and shoes
    • Accessories and makeup
    • Toiletries
    • Video games
    • At-home entertainment (movies, etc.)
    • Books for enjoyable reading
    • Co-pays for health visits
    • Payments for credit cards
    • Decorating expenses
    • Child care
    • Other child-associated expenses (toys, fees for the child's schooling, health insurance, etc.)
    • Etc.

    Don't limit yourself to the above lists. Anything you could potentially spend money on needs to be accounted for in your budget. If you smoke, you'll either need to quit or figure out how much money you will be spending on cigarettes. If you take dancing lessons, you'll need to account for costs associated with that. Don't judge yet. You'll have plenty of time to axe items when you're balancing the budget.

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    How You Will Pay?

    Now it's time to figure out how you will pay for that. You're only going to take into account confirmed sources of funding including:

    • Any money in savings
    • Any scholarships
    • Grants
    • Fellowships
    • Student loans
    • The amount your parents are budgeting to help you with
    • Any income from a part-time or full-time job

    Only list the amounts that currently are guaranteed. Don't count scholarships you haven't yet won, money your parents haven't yet promised, or a job you haven't yet procured. Add that figure up.

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    Balancing the Budget

    If you are a parent and/or are married, don't forget to adjust the amounts you find below to include your spouse's income, expenses, child support, and other associated costs and income sources.

    If your expenses match your income - or if your income is greater than your expenses - that's great! You'll have to do very little fandangling. However, this isn't always possible. More likely than not, your expense list will exceed your income list. You have a few options when this happens:

    • Cut your expense budget down to the bare bones. As you go through, ask yourself "Do I really need to spend $120 on a pair of jeans?," "Do I need to see three concerts a year?," etc. Be critical of each of your numbers!
    • Increase your income. Apply for more scholarships and grants - that's money you don't have to pay back. Apply for a part-time job. Sometimes universities offer work-study funds as part of your scholarship. Take full advantage of these. Come up with an entrepreneurial venture.
    • Ask your parents if they can help more. Don't count on this. You should only take this measure if you find that even with a job and cutting back expenses to the bare minimum will still not cancel out your expenses.

    When looking at your budget, your income and expenses need to match exactly. When you subtract expenses from incomes, the figure should be $0. If you have more income than expenses, budget that excess as savings and emergency fund money. Don't add to your already-budgeted for categories. You never know when you might need an extra thousand bucks for a dental emergency or car breakdown.

    You should, at all costs, no matter how savory and seductive the companies make themselves, avoid getting a credit card. This will only add to your bills each year. If you think you need a credit card - which in essence is a short-term, very expensive, loan - you're spending too much money. Additionally, when it comes to student loans, only borrow the minimum amount necessary. Many new graduates have a horrible awakening when they're job-searching and their loans come due. Save yourself the heartache of having $100,000 in debt when you graduate if you can at all do so.

    Plan out your budget for each of your years in college. Remember the average student takes between four and six years to graduate. Add up the total cost and the total income. Add up the total loans for that period of time that will accrue. If your loans exceed the income you expect to make in your first year of employment, you might want to reconsider whether right now is the time to go to school. That's a harsh, but necessary, reality to face sometimes. Can you go to a community college for two years to shave off some of your costs on general education courses? That's an excellent option for students who are unsure about what they will major in - and it can save a good deal of money.

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    FAFSA provides a great application to help you budget for college at

    Ronda Roberts Levine spent many years as a broke college student - too many years, in fact! Don't overlook the importance of creating a realistic budget before school starts.

    Image courtesy of