By Laura Evans
Coming to college, it quickly became apparent how many students struggle with money. Between high tuition costs, low-paying jobs or the dreaded unpaid internships, and new independence in paying for things like rent and utilities, students often find themselves in dire financial straits.
But still, a large portion of students seem to averse to thinking about their spending habits almost entirely. The stress that comes along with money problems leads people to wholly avoid thinking about their finances.
It’s a feeling I know well. At the beginning of my college career, I didn’t have much personal finance knowledge at all. Though I had some financial help from my family, I racked up regular expenses for the first time in my life. The money I’d accrued from bouts of part time work or summer jobs got used up quickly with all the bills. It’s a topic that brought me stress, and as such, I unwittingly ignored it.
And I know I’m not alone in that.
In fact, according to a 2016 survey from U.S. News and World Report, just 39% of four-year college students say they use budgets.
Even in a financial situation where you’re just scraping by, as many students are, giving things thorough thought and planning can help lighten the load and let you make money decisions more effectively. With no plan for your money, it’s much easier to spend carelessly or on impulse. Ignoring money problems and spending mindlessly is not the way to go.
I know it can be hard to go from nothing to meticulous planning, especially when so many of us haven’t had much personal finance education. But it’s important to start somewhere, especially with a skill so foundational as budgeting. College is a great place to find your footing and establish financial habits that will help you for the rest of your adult life.
So, without further ado, here are my budgeting tips for cash-strapped students, straight from someone who was formerly budget averse.
Reckon with your spending
The best way to come up with reasonable budgeting goals for yourself is to look back at your own spending. Get your bank or credit card statements for the past few months, and spend some time going over it. See how much you are spending for on different categories of expenses. I know when I did this, although it came with some embarrassment, I was able to see my own habits and unnecessary spending more clearly. Suddenly, all the little impulse buys from Amazon were actually adding up. Suddenly, brewing up cheaper coffee at home seemed more appealing than the frequent Starbucks trips.
It can be a little painful to reckon with reckless spending habits, especially if you’re like me and seek avoidance in the face of tight funds. But it’s necessary to face your financial reality. If you just ignore the problem, it’ll likely fester and worsen.
Figure out what you’re working with
I know this can sometime be hard when you may have varying hours at work or only seasonal gigs. Do your best to make a good estimate of what money you have coming in or saved up that you can expend. Also, if your family gives you financial support, take into account any help you get.
Break your spending into categories
Using your bank statements, try to put your various expenses into categories. If you’re a stationery nerd like me, some highlighters and color coding might make it more digestible. I found it easiest to start with the absolute necessities — thing like rent, utilities, gas/transportation and groceries. Next, I weeded out eating out (restaurants/bars/coffee), entertainment (movie tickets, concerts, streaming services, etc.), and “treat” spending (clothes, makeup, pleasure reading, houseplants, etc.)
Some spending evades categorization, so it’s okay to have a miscellaneous category too.
Set reasonable goals
Look at your habits and see what you tend to spend in different areas. Start with the stuff that’s least likely to change. Your rent and utilities are pretty standard, and transportation and groceries shouldn’t vary too much from month to month, so your past spending should be a good guide for these goals. Then, look for the easiest areas to cut back on.
Try to start with subtle changes. If you’re a sucker for specialty coffee drinks, keep that in the budget, but see if you can cut down a bit on your bar visits. Or if you’re a big concert buff, see if you can reduce spending from your “treat” budget. If you have anything left over, try to put some away for savings. Be warned that if you try to make very drastic changes all at once and set unreasonable goals, it will be much more difficult to actually stick to your budget. A gradual reduction in spending is a more sustainable way to budget.
Find a medium that works for you
Shop around a bit to see how you prefer to budget. I personally like to keep my budget in a bullet journal; for me, making a pretty, color coated layout makes me more excited and less dread-filled when it’s time to plan out money. But for others, a budgeting app or even a simple spreadsheet might be preferable to writing a budget out with pen and paper. Some free budgeting apps with good reviews are Intuit’s Mint or EveryDollar.
See how you stack up
Setting goals is only part of the equation. At the end of every period of time that you’ve budgeted — whether you prefer to go weekly or monthly — see how your actual spending compared to your goals. Pay attention to which areas you’re sticking to and in which ones you’re going over budget. Don’t beat yourself up if you go over, but just be mindful of your spending habits.
Adjust your goals as needed
As any college student, your financial needs are bound to change from time to time. If you’ve got a spring break trip planned, have textbooks you need to buy at the start of the semester, or need to do holiday shopping, adjust your budget accordingly. If you realize that one of your goal numbers is off, whether you’re routinely spending more or less than you imagined, don’t be afraid to change your goals — they don’t need to be set in stone.
While budgeting and coming to terms with your finances may seem intimidating to the unaccustomed, it’s an important step to taking control of your personal finances. Having the knowledge to see and track your spending trends allows you to adjust your behavior more effectively when needed. It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect at it at first; any effort is better than none.
Evans is a senior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.