Working out a budget as a college student can be nerve-wracking. Aside from figuring out how to pay for college tuition, there is also the matter of where you’re going to live, what you’ll eat and whether you will ever be able to buy fashionable clothes again.
I was one of those lucky college students who had older siblings ahead of me to pave the way. They enjoyed their college life to the fullest. With regular stipends from my parents, free grants and government student loans, they did an excellent job of working the easy money systems from every angle. By the time I went to school, my parents were far wiser and much more frugal. They set some school selection guidelines and financial boundaries. The end result was that I was required to go to college and get good grades, but I was mostly on my own to pay for it. They helped with some living expenses and the financial aid paperwork, but finding college scholarships, getting student loans, working off campus and saving money were part of a new financial adventure for me. When my father suggested I work out a monthly budget to match my new job earnings, my thoughts went to music, clothes and food. They should have included school books, parking fees, gas money and utility bills.
In hindsight, I could have done better, but I could have done much worse. Today, there are all sorts of college budget calculators available to help with financial planning. There are always Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms to fill out and lots of college scholarships to find, but budgeting is still a challenge for many first-timers. Whether you’re the new college student or the parents nudging their kids out of the nest, it’s important to take a look at all of the factors that go into a realistic monthly budget.
Where Does It Come From?
If you’re lucky, there is a magical pool of money that someone smart in your family tree set aside for a college fund. Perhaps your grandmother left you a trust fund. Your parents may have set up a college savings 529 plan. Maybe you’ve been working every summer, adding to it. All magical money aside, you’ll probably need more. Look into private and government-based grants, alternative student loans and college scholarships to supplement. Depending on your situation, you may need to pick up a job during the school year and work through summer vacation to support your lifestyle.
Use a Budget Calculator
You can either break it all out on your computer, pull out the old-fashioned calculator and pencil, or use an online monthly budget calculator to estimate your probable monthly expenses. Factor in educational costs, such as tuition and fees, books, existing student loan payments. You’ll also need money for living expenses like clothes and laundry, toiletries and personal care items. If you’re on-campus, room and board is the main expense, plus parking fees. If you’re off-campus, factor in rent, utilities, transportation and parking fees. Entertainment expenses can range from a few dollars a week for movie rentals to concert tickets and sporting events. Food is probably one of the hardest expenses to estimate. If you’re in an apartment, plan to hit the grocery store once a week, and hope for benevolent roommates who like to share. A student meal plan is a good idea even if you don’t live on campus, because you can get decent food at a reasonable price, and many larger schools have participating restaurants on campus grounds. Working at a restaurant or grocery store can help minimize some food expenses as well, depending on where you work.
Making Ends Meet
According to CNN Money, the average cost of college for the 2013 to 2014 academic year at an in-state public university is roughly $15,000. That covers tuition, room and board, books and fees, along with some “incidental expenses.” With nearly 4,500 universities in the country, college can cost up to $60,000 per year per student when you factor in private universities and out-of-state tuition.
Finding a way to pay for it all may require some financial creativity, some college scholarships, some student loans, some savings and a little bit of magic. It also makes the importance of creating a monthly budget that much more important. Once you’ve worked out how much it will cost each month and how to pay for it all, you’ll have a plan to pay for your college education.
Nicole is an independent writer for CollegeAnswer.com. College Answer offers information on saving, planning and paying for college.