How to Plan a College Student Budget
Coming up with a budget isn’t so difficult. Sticking to it month after month – that’s hard. Managing your money becomes even more important when you have to pay for college and keep track of student loans. But it can be done. Here are six smart ways to get control of your finances – tricks they probably didn’t teach you in school.
1. Bills in the bank, the rest in cash
Here is one of the easiest ways to monitor your spending. When you receive your paycheck, deposit only the money you need to pay your bills. Take the rest in cash. Use cash to pay for food, gas, and your personal spending money. A Dun and Bradstreet study from several years ago revealed that people spend 12-18 percent more when they pay with plastic instead of cash. That’s because cash is tangible – you can literally watch your pile of twenties dwindle as you spend. But swiping a card is so quick and easy, you don’t even need to look at the dollar amount. So use your cash for personal expenses – it will give you a much better picture of how much you really spend.
2. Break up your bills by paycheck
Some people pay all their bills at the same time. But doing so can leave you short on money until your next paycheck. And then the next payday rolls around, you have no bills to cover, and now you’re flush with extra cash. A more balanced approach is to assign different bills to different paychecks. For example, you could take care of your car payment this week, then your utilities bill the next. By spacing out your bill payments, you make your cash flow a steady stream, instead of waves.
For larger bills like rent, which could take up most of your biweekly earnings, take half the total amount you need from every paycheck. That way, when rent comes due, you’ll already have the money saved and ready without having to empty your bank account.
3. Separate bills by card
Most banks will allow you to set up multiple accounts, which you could dedicate to paying certain bills. In the old days they used to do this with envelopes – now you can separate your bills money by debit cards. When it comes time to pay, just use the debit card for that bill’s designated account. The idea is to put the money you need for each bill in its own account so that you never use money for one bill to pay another.
4. Prepay bills ahead of time
Suppose you get lucky or receive an extra chunk of money outside your regular paycheck. You could pay several bills one or two months early. This way, if anything unexpected happens in the future, you have the security of knowing you’ve already taken care of your bills. Tax refunds are perfect for paying bills early. College students expecting to receive a stipend or a student loan check could also consider this useful approach.
5. Set aside play money
Some money blogs like to scold people about splurging on lattes. The problem with going on a strict spending diet is that you might break down, fall off the wagon, and spend like crazy.
We’re not going to preach about distinguishing between what you want and what you need. Sometimes you just feel like spending for fun. The secret is to plan ahead and spend your play money intentionally, not just whenever you’re in a bad mood. The same way you set up separate accounts for bills, you could also create an account strictly devoted to pleasure. Schedule a date each month and, on that day, treat yourself! As long as you stick to your limits, you’ll exorcise the craving to splurge without any guilt when it’s over.
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6. Save before you borrow
The most old-fashioned wisdom is sometimes the best. Instead of using a credit card to make a big purchase, put money aside until you can afford to pay cash. Say you want to buy an expensive watch. It costs $3,000, and you want to buy it in one year. You’ll need to put aside $57.70 each week. Save more, and you can buy it sooner. Use online tools like mint.com and simple.com to set up a goal. They can help you do the math and calculate how long it will take to save the amount you want. True, it takes longer to save cash instead of using credit. But you won’t have to pay interest, so you’ll end up spending less in the long term. And when you’ve finally accumulated the amount you need, you’ll feel a much greater sense of accomplishment.
Of course, it would be complicated to tackle all six of these at once. Try just one or two for starters, and see what results you get. Over time, you may find yourself consistently sticking to your college student budget. Plus you’ll have extra money to save and greater peace of mind.
Written by Michael Mussman
Michael is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.