By Mikaela Cohen, University of Georgia

Last semester, I found myself in a scary situation. I received a letter in the mail stating that I owed $1,000 to a sorority that I hadn’t been an active member of since 2017.

The letter said that I had four months to pay off the debt. After speaking with the sorority’s national treasurer and national finance coordinator, I realized I was obligated to the dues and fees for the semester that I left the sorority.

I had no idea where I was going to get $1000. I had no financial safety net. After a couple of days, I realized I needed to buckle-down and create a budget.

My only source of income was my part-time job. So, I began mapping out how much I made and how fast I could save $1,000.

I made roughly $8 per hour and worked around 20 hours per week, which amounted to around $350 every two weeks. I then made two promises to myself: I would save $200 every pay period and I would only spend $150 on utilities, food and entertainment.

Under these conditions, I had to say no to getting an iced coffee on my way to class every morning. I had to say no to eating out spontaneously and without careful consideration. I had to start meal-prepping for lunch and dinner every day. I had to commit to my budget or I just wasn’t going to make it.

It was hard, but I made it. In two months, I saved $1,000.

I was lucky that no unforeseen expenses popped up during that time, but it was hard readjusting my entire life to pay off this sudden debt.

All students have been in the situation when our bank accounts hit a dangerously low amount. These are the times when you’re standing in line to buy food or coffee and you check your bank account to make sure you have enough money to pay for it.

No matter how much money their parents make, many college students feel a sense of “brokeness” or scarcity. Money is a subject that scares students to a point where they would rather ignore it in the short-term than save it for the long-term.

You’d think budgeting is pretty straight-forward, and its definition makes it seem that way.

According to the Federal Student Aid Office under the U.S. Department of Education, creating a budget “starts with the equation of what your income is minus what you spend.

But for a college student, maintaining a successful budget takes more than basic pluses and minuses.

Erin Bruce, a master’s student in financial planning at the University of Georgia, serves as the communications coach for financial services at the university’s ASPIRE Clinic, a financial planning resource for the university and the community. He said the answer to a successful budget is that it always depends.

Every person’s situation is different, he said, so giving blanket advice is difficult. Students often set unrealistic expectations for their budgets.

Bruce said a student may allocate $100 per week to spend on food, for example, and then, without looking into how much they usually spend on food, they may go over their budgeted amount.

“And when they might not be able to succeed with that budget, they get frustrated and they may give up,” said Bruce.

“I like to personally recommend that my clients go back and look at their historical expenses,” said Bruce. “The best way to be successful and be realistic is to look back on what you typically spend. Going back and analyzing your spending patterns.”

With the prevalence of mobile banking, many banks and credit card companies provide details about where and what you’re spending money on each month.

Wells Fargo, for example, offers a monthly spending report that categorizes spending into Food/Drink, Entertainment, Utilities, etc.

This makes it easier for students to successfully start and maintain a budget. They can start by looking into their past expenses, begin tracking their spending patterns and set realistic expectations for themselves, said Bruce.

Mikaela Cohen is journalism major in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.