10 Budgeting Tips Every Student Needs While at College During COVID

Michael Dinich
10 Budgeting Tips Every Student Needs While at College During COVID
As a college student, you have enough on your plate. Between classes, studying, managing your social life, and figuring out what the heck you will do when you graduate, college is complicated enough. Now throw in a pandemic (COVID-19) in addition to all the normal rigors of college and it can seem overwhelming.

Most likely, the last thing on your mind is budgeting. However, just because budgeting as a college student might not be at the forefront of your mind doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Below we will explore some of the best budgeting tips for students at college during the pandemic.

1. Create a budget

At first glance, creating a budget might seem rudimentary, but it is essential first to know a few key things when budgeting, those things being:

  1. How much you have coming in (income)
  2. How much you need for expenses (fixed expenses)
  3. How much you can spend (variables)

While there are fancy spreadsheets, budgeting apps, and countless ways to create a budget, don’t overestimate the power of pen and paper! Whatever you do decide, just having a budget separates you from the average adult. So make a budget! 

Do this:

There is an easy way to create a budget and create awareness around your spending. Take all of your bank statements from the previous month and itemize every single expenditure. 

Next, identify how much you have coming in, how much you need for fixed expenses (housing, cell phone, insurance), and lastly, what you need for #2 below — variable spending! 

2. Look at the variables

Creating awareness around your spending using budgeting tip #1 above is vital to being a successful budgeter. 

The grande decafs add up. And $5 here and $5 there might not seem like a lot, but over the course of a month, you will be surprised. That said, take an honest look at your variable spending so you can address it!

Do this:

Categorize variable spending by groceries, eating out, entertainment, going out, shopping, haircare, miscellaneous, and any others. 

Next, set limits for each, like $50 per month eating out. These limits should be based on your needs and income, not your wants! 

3. Use Cash When You Go Out

Ok, so you’re in college, and you want to go out, right? Just because a large part of college has a social life doesn’t mean you can’t budget while you’re in college, especially when you’re going out. 

Chances are the biggest variable spending from above was eating out, going out, and shopping. To help you address the eating out and going out, consider using cash and giving yourself allowance!

Do this:

While giving yourself a weekly allowance might seem like you’re regressing instead of heading toward adulthood, the concept is actually very ingenious. 

Simply withdraw a certain amount of cash each week and use it as your “Fun Money.” Once you’re out, you’re out — no credit cards, no more withdrawals. This is a sure-fire way to stay on budget as a college student! 

4. Bring your own beverage

Speaking of going out, this might seem silly, but bring your own beverage of choice when you go out. 

While this might be frowned upon, at the end of the day, if you’re going to go out, a majority of your money might go to this variable expense — alcohol. 

Be sure to follow rule #3 — using cash when you go out — and be smart about how you purchase alcoholic beverages when you go out! 

Do this:

Look for a pocket flask online and use that when you go out. Another option is to make sure you limit what you will spend on drinks when you go out. This is a good idea for your budget, but also your health too!

5. Shop online 1x per month

We have addressed going out and eating out (using cash), but what do you do to budget better when shopping, especially online shopping? That answer is simple — use the 1x per month checkout rule! 

Do this:

Build your cart on your favorite shopping websites, such as Amazon or your favorite clothing store. 

Regardless of what the “Sale” or deal of the week is, stick to your guns and checkout on the designated day you set each month. Now that you have built your cart, you will want to go back and really assess what is in your cart. 

You will be surprised when you see the total as it adds up over the course of a month. Additionally, things you thought you “had to have” will quickly become items you might no longer want. This helps you prevent yourself from impulse buying!

6. Cancel your subscriptions

The average college student can be inundated with subscriptions. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Audible, Apple Music, Youtube Premium, and Spotify are just a few to name from the entertainment sector. Let’s not forget the clothing subscriptions, food subscriptions, and even pet subscriptions! To help your budget, consider canceling most of your subscriptions. 

Do this:

Here are a few ways to help you save money each month with subscriptions. 

  1. Crowdfund your subscriptions with a friend. They get Netflix, you get Apple Music, and share (you can do this for WiFi too!)
  2. Just borrow your parent’s subscriptions
  3. Endure the commercials — it’s not a big deal
  4. Use apps like Trim or Truebill that will help you identify unused subscriptions! 

7. Track your spending with apps

Writing down your monthly budget and leveraging a few practical tips to eradicate some of the variable spending is one way to stay on top of your budget. 

However, the key to ultimately sticking to your budget is:

  1. Setting financial goals (#8 below).
  2. Tracking your spending.

And there is no better way to track your spending than to use budgeting apps such as Mint, YNAB, or Savology. Download a budgeting app, plug in your budget, and connect your accounts.

Just like that, tracking is done for you. Get in the habit of checking your app daily, and you will be more inclined to stay on top of your budget!

Do this:

Take a look at these budgeting apps and decide which sounds like the best to you. Try it out, and be sure to always go with the free budgeting plan. Track your spending for one month and see how well you do! 

If the app doesn’t work for you, try another! 

8. Set a savings goal

Why is having a savings goal a key budgeting tip? Because a goal will always help you stay on track! Setting a simple savings goal, like saving $25 a week, will add up over time. 

By creating a savings goal, it will also help you stay motivated to stick to your budget. There is a lot of psychology behind human behavior and habits. Budgeting is 100% behavior, and research shows to maintain a positive habit, we need to set goals to guide our day to day actions! 

Do this:

Automate your savings. There are plenty of ways to do this, but perhaps one of the easiest is to have a portion of your direct deposit (if you make money at a job) go to your savings. 

On the other hand, if you don’t have money coming in consistently, try using a spare change app like Acorns that will round up your purchases and deposit the money into an investment account for you.

9. Have grace with standards

Becoming an expert budgeter doesn’t happen overnight. Similar to how sometimes people will have New Year’s goals to lose weight in one week, if you haven’t budgeted EVER, it might take some time to adjust to budgeting.

This means that you will take lumps on your budgeting journey, and it won’t be perfect. You will have to address expenses and things to really get your budget flowing, so don’t give up too soon. Have grace with yourself.

However, just because it takes a few months to really get everything fine-tuned as it pertains to your budget, don’t try budgeting for a week and then give up. Set some standards as you become better at budgeting, and make sure you challenge yourself! 

Do this:

As hard as it may seem to look ahead, consider setting a long-term goal after college. Whether it is to pay off your student loans, enter the workforce with no debt, or move out of your parent’s house by 24, set the goal. Doing this will help you stay the course and not get lost on the short term things that can distract us, making us spend money! 

10. Don’t compare yourself

Budgeting isn’t necessarily easy, but it is a habit you can build a strong financial foundation on. That being said, when you compare yourself to others, budgeting is virtually impossible. 

If you’re someone who happens to really enjoy nice new things or going out and enjoying the finer aspects of life (even while in college), recognize that budgeting might be an adjustment. To make matters simpler, do your best not to compare what you have to what others have. Keep in mind if one of your college friends has something you don’t that shouldn’t matter to you. 

Budgeting has more to do with the social ramifications of accurately assessing needs vs. wants and being honest with ourselves than it does with being a budgeting expert. 

Do this: 

Think of some of the things budgeting WILL provide you or help you earn. Instead of comparing what you DON’T have to what others do have, compare yourself to yourself. For example, you can tell yourself, “If I keep my budget strong this month, I can get a new [fill in the blank] at the end of the semester.”

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re in college or your late 50s, budgeting is a vital foundation to financial success, no matter how much we love it or hate it! 

And even though college is a great time to enjoy life with seemingly endless freedoms and lesser responsibility, it isn’t a bad idea to practice some good financial habits while in college. 

Remember: College is temporary and just a few years of your life. However, managing your finances will be a daily aspect of your life forever, so leverage some of these budgeting tips designed for college students, and you will be glad you did!

Michael Dinich
Michael has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, pay down debt and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, saving money, and all things geeky.