Setting a Budget for Going Back to College

Labor Day weekend has come and gone, and with it summer has unofficially come to a close, signaling the beginning of a new school year. For college students, the end of summer marks the beginning of a year of MLA-formatted papers, exams, all-nighters and lots of expenses.

From tuition to meal plans to textbooks, college is incredibly expensive, and that’s why it’s the perfect time to learn how to budget and develop healthy spending habits. While your college may not offer introductory courses in financial planning, developing responsible money-management skills is easier than you think. Here are a few suggestions:

Borrow, Rent or Buy Used Books

Textbooks are among the most expensive purchases college students make over the course of their education. According to College Board, students spent an average of $1,183 on books and supplies during the 2011-2012 school year. Thankfully, the Internet provides students with several options for purchasing and renting used books at considerably discounted prices, such as Amazon, Bookrenter and Chegg. Students also sell textbooks on Craigslist.

Libraries are another invaluable resource when it comes to saving money on textbooks. Books tend to be checked out from school libraries quite quickly, so if you find yourself looking at a list of unavailable books, be sure to try the local library to see if your desired book is in stock. If you do take a book from the library, remember to renew so you don’t pay any fines!

Monitor Your Spending Habits

The best way to keep a budget is to write down and keep track of your purchases. Maintaining an organized spreadsheet that classifies purchases by type (food, transportation, clothing, etc.) will allow you to see how you spend your money and where you spend too much. If the idea of manually updating a spreadsheet doesn’t appeal to you, secure sites like Mint and LearnVest will the do the work for you — for free! Link your bank account, your credit card and any loans you have, and the site will sort your spending into customizable categories. The sites also help you create a budget and provide personalized and general financial planning advice.

To Eat or Not to Eat (as many meals on the meal plan)

Many colleges require freshmen and students living on campus to have meal plans. Colleges offer several options, and it’s hard to figure out which plan is just right prior to starting school. It also isn’t uncommon for students to have leftover meals or meal-plan spending money near the end of the semester. Thankfully, schools provide students with a limited window during which you can change to a cheaper plan after getting a better sense of your college eating habits.

If you like cooking or don’t mind it, choosing a cheaper plan and making an effort to regularly cook meals for yourself is a great way to save money. You can also save money by having dinner parties or potlucks with friends instead of going out to a restaurant.

Student Banking Accounts are Your Friends

Banks are notorious for their fees. From service frees and miscellaneous fees to penalty fees if your balance falls below a certain threshold, keeping money in the bank can be quite costly. Luckily for college students, banks offer special checking and savings accounts with either no service fees or small, single-digit ones. Additionally, the accounts either have relatively low or no balance minimums, so you’re less likely to incur penalties.


If you’re able to work part time while in school, put some money aside from each paycheck. There is no set recommended amount, but even a small amount can add up over time. For example, if you put $15 into your savings every week, you can have approximately $235 by winter break, and by the end of the school year, you can easily have $500. While your savings may not look like much now, it will add up over time, as long as you contribute regularly and, most importantly, leave the money untouched.

Harrison Kratz is the Community Manager at MBA@UNC, the MBA online program at the University of North Carolina and sticks to his entrepreneurial roots as the founder of the global social good campaign, Tweet Drive. Feel free to connect with him on Twitter, @KratzPR!

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