How to Manage Money in College With a Budget

Budgeting Tips and Software Tools for College Students

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Most college students need to take out loans to pay for their education, resulting in massive debts after graduation. But this isn't the only expense that contributes to financial problems after graduation. One issue in racking up unnecessary debt is reckless spending during college years.

Managing money while attending college is necessary to keep post-graduation debt down. Follow these realistic budgeting tips for students, and use a personal finance software to set up and stick to a college budget.

Why You Need a Budget in College

A budget gives you conscious control over spending, which leads to learning financial management skills required for success in the real world after graduation. Students often feel peer pressure to spend without thought, and having a budget to refer to helps with determining whether there is enough money to pay for restaurant meals, drinks out with friends, nonessential clothing, and other expenses.

As a serious student, you take on a lot of responsibilities while getting a higher education, and keeping a budget might sound like a hassle, but the few minutes spent on budgeting will free you up financially later on. The debt you acquire in college is more restrictive than a budget, because that debt is going to cut into the income you need to get started with life after college.

Gather Information

To start your college budget, determine what your costs will be by using these sources of information:

  • Freshmen should talk to a experienced college students about what expenses to expect.
  • The office of student life or student affairs at your college can give out information on expected expenses while in school. Just email or stop by the office to ask for the information.
  • Track all of your spending during the first two months of classes, right down to pizza, coffee, and school supplies. Be honest with yourself, and include everything you purchase. Record these amounts in a personal finance software from the list below, on a budget on paper or in a free budget spreadsheet.

Budgeting Software

Here are some financial software options for managing a college budget:

Windows: SplashMoney is easy to use and has more than enough features for a college student. It's $19.95 for the desktop version, and another $4.99 if you want synchronization with iPhone or Android apps.

Mac: For Mac, Banktivity. It's pricey for a college student (the basic plan is $49.99 per year) and has more features than a student might use. One less-expensive option is SplashMoney for Mac, mentioned above. GnuCash is free, and while it's not as elegant as Banktivity, it will do a great job at tracking spending and a budget.

Online: If an online app is more your style, PearBudget Online is great for simple budgeting, and it costs only $5 per month after a 30-day free trial. ClearCheckbook is online personal finance software with a mobile-optimized site. Mint is another great online option that has iPhone and Android apps.

Mobile: Of course, there are some really great mobile budgeting apps with money management tools that don't involve a computer desktop or a web browser. Check out PocketMoney for the iPhone or Nickel Tracker or GoodBudget, which are listed with other personal finance apps.

Budget Spending Categories

Once you choose your budgeting tool, your income and expense categories need to be defined in the software or spreadsheet or on paper. Here are some categories a college student should consider:

Income Categories

  • College costs paid directly by parents, or money parents give to the student specifically to cover college expenses
  • Part-time job income
  • Scholarships and grants
  • Student loans
  • Money from personal savings
  • Money from college savings accounts

Expense Categories

  • College tuition
  • College fees: activity fees, parking fees, lab fees
  • Books
  • Personal care: laundry costs, hygiene items
  • Supplies: notebooks, desk supplies, pens, book bag
  • Equipment: computer, reading lamp
  • Small appliances: mini-refrigerator, hot pot, microwave
  • Rent or on-campus housing
  • Food: groceries and dorm meal-plans
  • Transportation: automotive expenses or gas money for friend's car, bus fare
  • Clothes
  • Insurance: the student may still be covered by parent's policy
  • Entertainment

After the budget categories are set up, allocate available income to your monthly expenses. You can run a budget report each week to see whether you've overspent and need to cut back on non-essential costs to help avoid overspending for the month. If you use a mobile or online app, you can probably set it up to show your spending trends on the home page so you can see whether you are budgeting effectively at a glance each time you open the app.