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The college or university years are typically our first experience of managing (or blowing) adult finances. The responsibility can be empowering, but greater control over our finances calls for conscious planning. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 91 percent of student respondents thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. But wouldn’t most of us rather drink the latte and eat the pizza than track their prices?

Our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (can I afford to go out tonight?) and reverberate through our futures. “You either have enough to pay the rent or you don’t. The payment either arrives on time or it doesn’t,” says Gail Cunningham, chief spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, based in Washington DC.

We asked three undergraduates to estimate their weekly expenditures during the semester. Then we crunched the numbers to see what they’d actually spent and how that matched up with their own estimates.

Financial expert:
Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., attorney specializing in debt-related services, New York City

Which would you cut? utlities v. celebrations

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Academics$180$190$10
Utilities$30$60$30
Personal$10$24$14
Transportation$40$40$0
Health & fitness$5$5$0
Rent$100$100$0
Food, socializing, & entertainment$70$60$10
Total$435$479$44

Korena H. is a fourth-year student at California State University, Sacramento.

If this were a typical week, Korena’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $2,300.

Korena’s reaction
“I was really surprised with my personal expenses. I did not take into account all the birthdays I buy for. I don’t generally handle the utilities bill so I’m not super-familiar with it.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Tracking costs

“This student is living close to the edge and over budget on some things. Try and break it down to see where you’re spending the most money. With your utilities, if it’s your electric, see if you can conserve power by unplugging things you aren’t using and turning off lights and electronics. If it’s other areas, consider calling the companies and asking for a student discount. You may be surprised at their response.”

Student budget tools

More budget strategies

Strategies that force daily savings and build that habit for life

  • Do a version of this exercise, estimating your expenses per month on food, transport, health and fitness, academics, socializing and entertainment, rent, utilities, and personal expenses. Then review your bank records.
  • Create a monthly budget for yourself using student budget calculators.
  • To keep track of cash expenses, hold onto your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Carry your student ID and routinely ask for discounts.
  • Use public transit and student gyms for little or no cost.
  • Leave your ATM card at home. “If you go to Target with $50 in your hand, you won’t spend $51,” says Andrew Krouk, a financial planner in Philadelphia.
  • If you’re not eating in a cafeteria, make a weekly meal plan and follow it. Planning ahead (and teaming up with roommates) helps you save money. Buy in bulk, avoid rumbly-tummy grocery store splurges, and prevent food going to waste.
  • Get creative with socializing and entertaining. Instead of going out and spending $50 each, invite friends over for a potluck.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Instead of going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. “Planning ahead with coffee, snacks, water, etc., will drastically cut down your expenses,” says Andrew Krouk.
  • Save. “You pay your groceries and your rent, but instead of paying everyone else first, pay yourself first. You’re working hard: Pay yourself for it!” says Andrew Krouk. Then live off what’s left. If you put away $2 each day, that’s $60 a month for your savings or leisure activities. “There’s no cost in saving money. You can always use it at a later time. People think of saving as an expense, but it’s a reward.”
  • Give yourself a margin for error. “Set aside 10 percent of your income for contingencies/emergencies. This will help you recover if you go over budget one week,” says Kuljeet Notay, a financial aid counselor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Can you afford school supplies and eating out?

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Food$30$48$18
Academics$0$26$26
Utilities$8.75$8.75$0
Rent$81.25$81.25$0
Personal$5$25$20
Total$125$189$64

Alice R. is a fourth-year student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

If this were a typical week, Alice’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $3,330.

Alice’s reaction
“I was surprised by the amount I spent on food. I didn’t take into account that I went out of town, forcing me to purchase more meals at restaurants. It is shocking to see how eating out can add up.

“This is a reality check about where my money is being spent. The amount that one overspends in a year could be enough to pay the bills for several months.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Budgeting for variable expenses

“This student has a great sense of fixed expenses but is not budgeting for the variable expenses, such as academics, personal items, and food. This can result in her having less money to pay fixed obligations such as rent. It’s also important to keep some money aside for the unexpected.

“I suggest budgeting each week and trying to break down the categories and see where you are overspending. Maybe you can switch to generic for certain items or cook more at home.”

How many students keep a budget?

Of 750 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey…47% said they keep a budget and plan to continue27% said they plan to make a budget in the near future14% said they plan to make a budget at some point8% said they’d like to but were not sure they’d get around to it2% said they didn’t intend to keep a budget

The case study no one expected

CategoryEstimate RealityDifference
Transportation$50$50$0
Utilities$20$20$0
Rent$98$98$0
Food$80$65$15
Socializing & entertainment$30$22$8
Personal$30$20$10
Total$308$275$33

Charlie R. is a fourth-year student at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

If this were a typical week, Charlie’s savings per calendar year would be around $1,700.

Charlie’s reaction
“I think I spend more than I actually do, which is surprising. On average my costs are low, but when I’m busy, I tend to get fast food or buy food more often, increasing my spending. Overspending, especially on a limited income, makes everything more stressful and definitely makes purchasing even food tough. Saving helps relieve that stress but can also open up temptation to spend on things that aren’t required but just wanted.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Making the most of savings

“This is great! This student is really cutting costs and able to save money. My suggestion would be to put all this money aside in case you go over on expenses one month or something unexpected comes up. Any money left over can be put towards loans or saving for the upcoming semesters.”

10 tips for having a blast on a budget

  1. Carry cash
  2. Necessity or luxury?
  3. Carpool, bike, bus
  4. Separate checks
  5. Student ID
  6. Group discounts
  7. Clubs
  8. Community events
  9. School events
  10. Plan ahead

Does your spending need a reality check


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Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and the managing editor of JHStyle Magazine based in Jackson Hole, Colorado. Her writing credits include the International Journal of Wilderness, Mountain Outlaw, Teton Family Magazine, Big Sky Weekly, and Dishing. Her MS in natural resources is from Humboldt State University in California.