A college student’s guide to managing money & cutting costs

As parents, we all know that preparing a reasonable budget and sticking to it is a basic principle of good financial planning. By assisting college-bound students in developing and maintaining their own budget, parents can help students make ends meet during their college years while helping them develop good money management skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Preparing a budget

  • Estimate all sources of funds. The first step in preparing a budget is to identify all sources of funds. Possible sources of funds include student loans, savings, scholarships, work-study grants, student employment earnings, and family support.
  • Estimate expenses. Once you’ve identified all available funds, potential expenses that may arise during the school year must be considered. These expenses will fall into one of two categories: fixed and variable.

Fixed expenses. Fixed expenses are those expenses that should not vary much throughout the year. Fixed expenses include tuition, college fees, books, supplies, rent, utilities, and insurance. Keep in mind how these expenses will need to be paid (monthly, quarterly, or annually) so a plan can be implemented to effectively manage cash flow. In addition, don’t overlook large one-time expenses such as deposits and telephone installation fees.

Variable expenses. Unlike fixed expenses, variable expenses can fluctuate greatly from month to month, even from day to day. For budgeting purposes, variable expenses are harder to estimate than fixed expenses but since they are not fixed, your student usually has greater control over the amount and timing of these expenses. Examples of variable expenses are food, clothing, travel, entertainment, transportation, telephone and other miscellaneous items.

Making ends meet

Once the sources of funds and potential expenses have been identified and an initial budget has been developed, it may be obvious that making the budget work will take some effort and smart choices on your student’s part. To make sure funds last through spring, here are a few money-saving tips to pass on to your college-bound student:


Live where you learn. Living on campus in a dormitory is usually cheaper then getting an apartment off-campus and will save on transportation expenses.

Roommates are key. If your heart is set on living off campus, you can really stretch your housing dollars by sharing an apartment with one or more other college students. If you and your roommates pool your funds to buy groceries, small kitchen appliances and furniture, the savings can be even greater.

Make Mom and Dad your roommates. Living at home while you are attending a local college can save your thousands of dollars in food and rent costs.


Skip the crowded, expensive on-campus eateries. Packing a lunch or snacks from home can save you lots of time and money.

Forgo the morning java at the coffeehouse. A small regular coffee at a fancy coffeehouse costs about $1.35 while a home-brewed cup of coffee costs about 7 cents.

Plan your meals. If your fridge and freezer are stocked with delicious foods that you made ahead of time, you are less likely to grab pricey convenience foods on the run.

Grocery shop like a pro. Clipping coupons, buying store generic brands, avoiding convenience foods, and shopping from a list are ways that millions of smart shoppers take a big bite out of their grocery costs every month. Shopping at stores with double coupons and “buy one, get one free” deals can get you even more bang for your shopping buck.

Develop a food co-op. Pooling coupons, buying in bulk quantities and then splitting the costs among a group of friends or other students is a great way to end up with more disposable income.

Consider school-provided meal plans. Many schools have meal plans that allow you to pay for meals in advance. This can save money while converting a variable expense into a fixed expense, further simplifying the budgeting process.

Travel & transportation

Carpool with friends. Since you and your friends are all going to the same place anyway, why not have some fun driving to school while saving money in gas. Also, check to see if your school has a “ride board” or an organized carpool program.

Buy a bus pass. If you take the bus to school more than a couple of times each week, consider getting a monthly bus pass to save time and money.

Dust off your bike or skates. Considering riding a bike, using inline skates or walking to places instead of driving or using public transportation.

Plan air travel well in advance. If you’re away at school and plan to visit home regularly, make any plane reservations months in advance to receive the best price on tickets. Make sure to take advantage of frequent flier miles and travel specials on the Internet.


Make long-distance calls at night or on weekends. Rates can be as much as 65% less than peak period rates.

Use prepaid phone cards. Buy a month’s worth of phone cards in advance and limit yourself each month to the amount on the phone cards.

Shop for a good phone plan. Deregulation of the phone companies has resulted in a lot of choices for phone plans. Since many of these plans can involve confusing restrictions and conditions, do your homework before committing to a plan.

Get on the Internet. If you have Internet access, you have access to email, either paid or free. Instead of picking up the phone, email your friends and family for a cheap and easy form of communication.

Maintaining the budget

Once you have a budget you and your student can live with, you’re almost finished. As with any good financial plan, maintenance is critical. It’s important that your student keep an accurate record of actual expenses to compare periodically with the budgeted amounts. Actual expenses can be recorded in a small notebook or on a computer spreadsheet using detailed categories for easy comparison. This process will help you and your student determine exactly where the money goes at all times.

For the college-bound student, developing and maintaining a budget may seem like just one more headache, but it will ultimately result in a greater sense of control over their money and stronger overall financial position upon graduation.


About Don James, CPA/PFS, CFP
Don is the Tax & Financial Planning partner with Kiplinger & Co., CPAs headquartered in sunny Cleveland, Ohio since 1982. He partners with business owners and families and specializes in goal achievement solutions, tax minimization strategies and serves in the role of gatekeeper of sound financial advice.

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