College student budget tips

College represents many firsts – including the first time living on your own, having a roommate, living out of state, and even managing your finances. Not only do you have to weigh options for paying for college, but you also need to consider housing, meals, fun nights out, and other areas, too!   

College student learning budgeting tips on an app

Getting into the right financial mindset from the get-go can be a huge advantage, as it will help guide your financial patterns later in life.   

While it initially sounds intimidating, building and maintaining a college student budget is of major essence. Not only does it set the stage for future spending habits, but it also helps you spend and save in the right areas in the present.  

Read on as we guide you through how to budget as a college student. We’ll even add real-life examples so you can proceed with total confidence!  

How to budget as a college student   

There are a few steps to consider when learning how to budget as a college student. While budgeting might not be one of the most exhilarating activities you’ll do as a college student, it’s important to learn how to do it!   

In fact, if you don’t keep a good pulse on your spending and savings, you might find yourself in a position where you must take a semester off, or worse, drop out due to lack of funds. The good news is if you properly budget, you’ll stay on pace to meet payment due dates for fixed expenses, allocate money to the right areas, and maybe even save money for important purchases and some fun in the process!  

So, give it a go! Here’s how to make a budget plan for college students.  

1. Determine your incoming money   

 First things first – figure out your total income. As a college student, it’s a bit trickier because your money could come from multiple sources – and at different times of the month or year. For example, income could come in the form of a student loan, work-study program, part-time job, money from family members, or a combination of sources.  And the money may not all arrive at the same time and or may be difficult to know specifically when it will arrive, so it will take some extra diligence to understand.  

Once you calculate the cadence and timing of money sources, figure out the total take-home amount (the amount after taxes) for a period of time. (You can choose monthly, by trimester, or semester). That will be the total money you have to work with!

2. Figure out how much you spend  

 Review your bank statements from the past few months to determine recurring, monthly, and one-time expenses. Look at recurring academic expenses, like:  

  • Books  
  • Lab fees  
  • Tuition  
  • University parking  

Monthly expenses could include:  

  • Cell phone payments   
  • Entertainment  
  • Food  
  • Insurance  
  • Loan payments  
  • Rent or student housing costs  
  • Transportation  
  • Utilities  

Take stock of your spending over the course of time. If you find that you’re spending more money than you realized or even more than you make, you’ll want to make some choices about where to cut back. If cutting out all non-essentials (such as going out or getting coffee) doesn’t put you in the positive, you may want to consider bringing in a new income source.    

If you’re looking for places to score extra savings, here are a few ideas:

  • Instead of going out twice in one weekend, pick one night out with friends.
  • In lieu of food delivery during late night study sessions, go grocery shopping once per week and stock up on cheap staples (in your case, frozen pizza counts!).
  • Concerts are fun, but instead of going to one per month, make it a special thing once per semester.

Need more ideas? Check out these savings tips.

3. Apply a budgeting method   

Once you’ve outlined incoming and outgoing money, look for budgeting methods and tools that could work for you. Below are a few options. Keep in mind, there’s no tried-and-true budgeting method that works for everyone. Our recommendation when creating a budget plan for students is that you pick one that works for you – and one that you can stick to!  

  • The envelope method: Also known as the cash-only method, this budgeting strategy helps you visualize how much money you’re spending and how much you have left for discretionary categories. The method involves physically separating money into separate envelopes for different spending categories.   
  • The 50/30/20 method: This budgeting strategy specifies that half of your net income (after tax and benefits are removed) goes to essentials, 30% to non-essentials like entertainment, and 20% to savings and debt reduction. While it might be a good strategy later in life, you can also try it as a young adult!  
  • Mobile apps: Whip out your smartphone and find a budgeting app that helps you track spending and even carve out savings. As you’re looking for the best budgeting apps for college students, consider one that will help you zero-in on your saving goals. Take Spruce — It’s a new mobile banking app that helps you create saving goals that you can track over time. Plus, the app includes a Spending Account that comes with a debit card that offers cash back rewards when used at select retailers, helping you grow your savings.   

4. Make it a habit  

Once you’ve defined the best methods and tools for you, take it upon yourself to make budgeting a habit. Track your expenses and income regularly – on a daily or weekly basis.   

College student monthly budget example  

Want to review a college student monthly budget example? Take Lucia, a college sophomore based in Missouri.* Using the steps listed above, she’s identified each income source and expense — both monthly and reoccurring.   

Her total take-home income is $3,850 and her total expenses come in at $3,750, leaving her $100 in wiggle room. By tracking the money coming in and out, she appropriately budgets each month for what matters — even leaving room for some fun.   

Using Spruce’s saving goals, she allocated her extra funds to an emergency fund and a saving goal for next year’s spring break trip. Lucia’s goal is to save $2,400 in one year using this tool. The Spruce app provides tools that keep her goal top of mind, so she can stay on track.   

Sample budget for college students by month  

Monthly Income  

  • Family contribution: $750
  • Work: $1,000
  • Scholarship*: $500
  • Side hustle: $600
  • Loans: $1,000

TOTAL INCOME: $3,850  

   Monthly Fixed Expenses  

  • Housing and utilities: $1,000
  • Tuition: $2,000
  • Books and other fees: $300
  • Cell phone: $50
  • Streaming services: $50

Variable Expenses  

  • Groceries: $200
  • Entertainment/dining: $100
  • Clothing and toiletries: $50



Note: Tuition and scholarships are likely something you account for by semester. But in Lucia’s case, she’s broken them down by month to make budgeting easier.  

College budget by semester  

If you choose to budget by semester, you’ll bundle the same expenses over many months. Take for example, Joshua*, whose total semester income is $10,000, and the semester expenses are $9,500. What’s left over is $500 per semester, which could be set aside for an emergency fund or savings for the future.  

Semester income:  

  • Family contribution: $1,000
  • Work: $3,000
  • Scholarship: $1,000
  • Side hustle: $2,000
  • Loan: $3,000

TOTAL: $10,000  

Semester expenses:  

  • Tuition and fees: $4,000
  • School supplies: $500
  • Rent: $3,000
  • Utilities / cell phone: $300
  • Internet / streaming: $300
  • Groceries: $700
  • Clothing and toiletries: $200
  • Going out / entertainment: $500

TOTAL: $9,500  

Do you see any opportunities where he could carve out additional savings?  

Money management guidance for college and beyond  

Now that you know a bit about budgeting strategies as a college student, you’re probably ready to begin your budgeting journey and take charge of your finances now and into the future.   

Whether it’s helping you save or spend wisely, Spruce is here to help you become better with money — even early in your adulthood.  

Learn more about Spruce’s features.   

Get started with Spruce today!


This information provided for general educational purposes only. It is not intended as specific financial planning advice as everyone’s financial situation is different.

*This is a fictional example used for informational purposes only.  Any similarity to actual persons is purely coincidental.

Was this article helpful?

Get better with money.