15 Budgeting Tips for College Students

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If taking Money Saving 101 isn’t part of the curriculum your first year of college, managing your money can be a hard lesson to learn as a college student. Staying within your budget during college can be a challenge: Chances are your income is tight, but your expenses seem endless. You want to experience everything college has to offer, but you don’t want to go broke doing it all.

The good news is that by committing to a few key actions, you can learn to manage your money and still enjoy your college experience. Check out these 21 budgeting tips that will help you save more and stress less — at least until finals.

1. Create a Budget

As a college student, you’ve got a thousand things happening on a daily basis and, often, each day is different. A lack of structure can keep you from being on top of managing your spending and can spell disaster for your budget. Fortunately, there are a number of free budgeting apps to help. Check out money management apps such as Mint and Level Money to find the best budgeting app for you. Chances are, after consistently using one of these helpful budgeting tools for just a month, you’ll find new ways to save.

2. Build in a Financial Cushion

Be prepared for unexpected expenses by building up a bit of savings that you can rely on. Once you have your budget, build in a 10-percent cushion, said Kendal Perez, a savings expert with Coupon Sherpa. “If a roommate unexpectedly moves out or your car requires an unexpected repair, this cushion can help reduce the stress and cost of these events,” she said.

3. Invest Your Spare Change

Saving your spare change has gone digital with money managing apps and investing apps like Acorns. You link your bank card and every time you make a purchase, Acorns rounds up the amount to the nearest dollar and invests the change for you. Not only will you be saving money, you’ll have the opportunity to grow it because your spare change is invested in stocks and bonds. It doesn’t take a math major to know that spare change and interest can really add up.

4. Start Paying Off Student Loans

The average class-of-2016 college graduate owes more than $37,000 in student loan debt. If you are on track to match that level of debt, Perez suggested it’s a good idea to start paying down your debt immediately — not to wait until after graduation — and to start incorporating payments into your current budget, no matter how small. “Even if you’re just paying off interest, getting into the habit of making regular payments to your student loans will help you pay them off faster,” Perez said.

 

5. Use Cash for Fun

Perez suggested determining how much you can spend on discretionary expenses such as dining out and social events, then withdrawing that amount in cash, whether it’s for the week or month.

“Commit to only using cash on these discretionary expenses and cut yourself off once it’s gone,” Perez said. “This strategy should help you make more thoughtful spending decisions since you want to get the most out of your cash.”

6. Double or Triple Your Credit Card Payments

If you’ve run up credit card debt, one of the smartest money-saving moves you can make is paying that high-interest debt off, said Perez. She suggested including double or even triple payments in your budget. It might be tough, but you’ll thank yourself later. “You’re already [saddled] with student loan debt; don’t compound the issue with credit card debt,” said Perez.

7. Use Coupons

Coupons might not sound cool, but paying full retail prices is fiscally foolish. Coupons are available for just about everything if you search hard enough, said Kerry Sherin, a savings expert with Offers.com. “Saving that extra 20 percent could mean the difference between a meal out with your friends or eating ramen alone in your dorm room,” she said.

8. Show Your Student ID

Your student ID can get you some valuable student discounts on more than just movie tickets. For instance, Amazon Prime membership is 50 percent off for students — and that’s after a six-month free trial period.

Other great deals can be found on everything from computer software and FedEx shipping to newspapers, food, clothing, and much more, according to Sherin. The bottom line is you should always ask if a student discount is available, Sherin said.

9. Don’t Overbuy at the Grocery Store

By some estimates, approximately 40 percent of the food in America goes to waste. For a college student, wasting food is a budget bomb and a shame. To be part of the solution and save some money in the process, buy only the groceries you absolutely need.

“Buying too many groceries can hit your wallet hard,” said Sherin. “Try setting a weekly grocery budget or stick to food items that have longer shelf lives.”

10. Look for Free Events

Colleges and universities are known for having many free events, so save money by taking advantage of them, advised Sherin. “While hitting up the local bar or nightclub might sound more appealing than a free campus event, you will spend more money out on the town,” said Sherin. Campus events are also a great way to meet new friends, Sherin said.

11. Take Classes at a Community College

Whether you’re supplementing your four-year university education — and possibly shaving some time off your college career by graduating earlier than scheduled — or attending a local college as a substitute for a four-year university, you can save a substantial amount of money by taking courses at a community college.

“Oftentimes, universities and colleges have agreements with other local community colleges to have classes that can transfer between each other,” said Sherin. “If it makes sense for your schedule and your wallet, see what’s available at the other school.”

12. Get a Cash-Back Credit Card

Use this tip with caution: Getting a cash-back credit card can be a good financial move — as long as you are responsible. Be sure you can manage debt responsibly before signing up for any credit card, said Sherin.

“If you know you can be responsible with a credit card, apply for one that offers cash-back incentives,” Sherin said. “This way, you can earn money on the purchases you make every day.” A number of rewards credit cards are available, and some offer extra cash-back rewards depending on what financial institution you bank with.

13. Shop at the Dollar Store

The dollar store might not be the coolest place to shop, but it’s often the cheapest. You can save money on necessities that might cost you more if you purchase them on campus or even at a grocery store.

“If you know you are going to be shopping for things you are going to throw away — like trash bags, sandwich bags or paper towels — pick something inexpensive at your local dollar store,” said Sherin.

14. Borrow as Little as Possible

If you have to use student loans to pay for your education, try to borrow as little as possible, advised Steve Repak, a certified financial planner and author of “6 Week Money Challenge: For Your Personal Finances.”

“Unlike credit card debt, student loan debt can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy, so it is extremely important to put a plan together to get [student loans] paid off as soon as possible,” Repak said. The first move toward that is having a low balance to begin with.

15. Get Good Grades

Although there are many reasons to earn the best grades that you can, perhaps one of the biggest incentives is that good grades can also pay off financially, said Ed Gjertsen II, CFP, vice president of Mack Investment Securities and chairman of the Financial Planning Association.

“Good to great grades can go a long way in schools offering merit-based scholarships,” Gjertsen said. “While athletic scholarships may attract most of the attention, getting good grades can open financial opportunities.”  Aside from financial opportunities, earning good grades can score you other perks such as good-student discounts on auto insurance, which can be particularly high for young adults.

16. Estimate High and Low

When you’re figuring out your expenses and income, Perez advised to estimate high on expenses and low on income. “This will ensure you have plenty of money to cover your costs and won’t allow you to give yourself too much ‘play’ money,” Perez said.

17. Cook

Although many blogs have famously challenged the idea that cooking is cheaper than eating out, Perez said that if you do it right, you can cook delicious — and likely, healthier — meals compared with what you can get if you eat out. One recent test by Cheapism found that a home-cooked chicken dinner cost $6.41, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ prices for food, compared with a $16 average for a similar meal from national chains such as Boston Market, Denny’s, Olive Garden and the Cheesecake Factory.

18. Work

Whether it’s a summer job or a part-time gig during the school year, working is a surefire way to help yourself stay within budget. “As much fun as it is laying by the pool, visiting local hotspots and touring the summer music scene, saving up your money during the summer can help you build your nest egg for the school year,” said Sherin. Working also does double duty: You can’t spend money while earning it.

19. Turn Off the Cable

The average pay-TV monthly bill is $99.10, according to a 2015 Leichtman Research Group study. It might be tough to lose your favorite TV show, but cutting your cable could be one of your savviest financial moves. Plus, many shows are available for viewing on the TV networks’ websites after the episode airs.

20. Stop Smoking

If you can kick this addictive habit, you’ll have better health, better breath and better finances. The average price of a pack of cigarettes is $5.51 — and a whopping $12.85 in New York. Quitting smoking can mean the difference between a Friday night out with friends and a long night alone in your room, coughing.

21. Become a Resident Adviser

If you’re an upperclassman, consider becoming a resident adviser. An RA provides peer-to-peer advice for fellow, younger or newer students in dorms and residence halls. As an RA, you’ll help build a sense of community, answer students’ questions and more. Being an RA can pay off in a lot of ways: It looks good on your resume, it gives you real-world managing experience, and many universities compensate you with free room and board or other perks.

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