Financial Tips For College Students: Budgeting & Paying For College

Budgeting Student


8 min. read

By: FCU Team

Are you heading off to college for the first time? College can be a fun and exciting experience. Unfortunately, it can also be very expensive. In fact, the average public college student walks away with $26,900 of debt, and the average private college student walks away with $32,600 of debt.

Luckily, there are ways you can manage your finances in college so you can walk away with less debt, and have more money to put into your savings account. Check out this blog to discover the top financial tips for students for budgeting and paying for college. 

Create a Budget 

First things first, you need to create a budget for your college life. In high school, your parents likely footed the bill, so you probably never tracked your spending too closely. Now that you’re on your own, you have to make sure that you have enough money for your bills and expenses first before you start ordering stuff from Amazon or updating your wardrobe.

To create your budget, start thinking about your income:

  • Are you going to be receiving loans or financial aid?
  • Will you be working a part-time job?
  • Will your parents be giving you a monthly allowance?

Once you know how much money you'll have coming in every month, you need to figure out your monthly expenses. First, jot down all of your necessary expenses like:

  • Rent and utilities
  • Tuition, books and other student fees
  • Gas and car expenses
  • Groceries
  • Phone bill, car insurance, car payments, etc. 

Once you know what all of your necessary monthly expenses are, you can figure out how much money you'll have leftover for fun things like:

  • Eating out/ordering in
  • Shopping
  • Fun with friends
  • Coffee from your favorite coffee shop

You can create a budget in a spreadsheet or using an online service such as Florida Credit Union’s FCU Anywhere app, or Mint by Intuit. FCU Anywhere and Mint both automatically track your expenses for you, which makes it much easier to manage and stick to your budgets.

Also, remember to reassess your budget every few months. Likely, your income and your expenses are going to change, so it's important that your budget changes with it. Even if your income stays the same, take a look at what you may be spending too much on, or where you could give yourself a little extra wiggle room.

Get a Credit Card (But Be Smart About It) 

The great thing about a credit card is that you're protected against expensive overdraft fees. Additionally, many credit cards come with an array of perks and bonuses. What’s more, responsible use can help you build a solid credit foundation early on in your adult life.

The downside to a credit card is that it can be very easy to rack up a high bill that you can't pay off. For this reason, we suggest getting a credit card with a small line of credit (around $500 to $1,000). This way, you won't have to be worried about the temptation to overspend. 

If this is your first time applying for a credit card, you likely won't be offered a high line of credit anyway. 

For example, FCU offers a “Fresh Start” credit card with a line of credit ranging from $500-$1,000, perfect with which to build credit. Always remember to research your options for what kind of card may work best for you.

It’s best to use your credit card as if it was a debit card, only spend what you can actually afford to pay straight out of your bank account. That way you know you will be able to pay off your balance every month rather than paying interest and fees. You can also commit to only use your credit card for gas, groceries, or school expenses so you don’t end up tempted to use your credit card to buy an expensive game console or pair of shoes.

Take Advantage of School Breaks

While school breaks can be a great time for you to relax, they can also be a great time for you to make some extra cash. Plus, on top of the extra money you'll make, you'll have something to add to your resume as well as an employer reference. Even if the job you work doesn't relate to your major, having some type of work on your resume is always better than none. 

Not sure which job to apply for? Here are some of the best socially-distanced jobs for college students:

  • Nannying: has some great opportunities to babysit or tutor children while their parents work during the summers and school breaks.
  • Dog Walker: Wag and Rover are sites that connect you to families who need dog walking services while they’re away on vacation or at work all day.
  • Captioning Jobs: Your university may have positions for captioning lectures for students that are hard of hearing or prefer to read a transcript of class. If your college doesn’t have positions like that, Rev allows you to get paid for captioning lectures, videos, and other internet content on your own time.
  • Internship: If you can find a paid internship in your major, it can give you some amazing experience as well as some extra cash.
  • Tutoring: Your university may offer remote tutoring positions for some extra cash.
  • Customer Service: Some places offer remote customer service jobs, such as Apple Care.

Also, be sure to check with your college about work-study jobs. It's important to note however that these jobs are need-based and are often awarded by the financial aid office. In order to qualify for this type of job, you'll need to fill out the FAFSA and qualify for your state’s work study program. But don't worry, the paycheck you receive from your work-study job won't affect your financial eligibility. 

One thing that's especially great about work-study jobs is that employers are typically a lot more willing to work around your student schedule than they are with regular jobs. Additionally, there are a lot of work-study jobs that you can get that are directly aligned with your field of study. For example, if you want to become a teacher, you can find work-study jobs tutoring other students. 

Borrow as Little as Possible

When you take out loans, it can often feel like you're getting free money. However, it's very important to understand that this isn't free money, and you'll eventually need to pay it all back (sometimes, with heavy interest rates). 

If you don't want to be stuck paying off student loans for the rest of your life, then it's very important that you borrow as little as possible. Try to save as much as you can from your summer job as well as throughout the year, so you don't leave college with a huge pile of debt.

Don't Buy New Textbooks 

Buying used textbooks is one of the best ways to cut down on your costs in college. According to a recent survey by the College Board, students spend an average of $1240 per year on textbooks.
By buying used, you can easily cut your textbook expenses in half. Here are some places where you can find used textbooks:

  • Amazon
  • eBay
  • Goodwill
  • Local book resale stores (usually there will be a local textbook reseller near your college campus that can sell or rent used textbooks for a fraction of the cost.
  • Student flyers/forums (many previous students will use these to advertise used textbook sales)

You can also save money on textbooks by buying digital or loose-leaf formats, as well as renting digital textbooks. If you know someone in your class that you see often, you can also ask them if they want to split the cost of a textbook with you.

Also, at the end of the semester, don't forget to sell your books back for cash. 

Don't Buy Anything New 

Textbooks aren't the only thing you should buy used when in college. Some other things you should consider buying used to save money include:

  • Clothes (shop for new outfits at thrift and vintage stores as well as sites such as Mercari, Poshmark, and Etsy)
  • Laptops, backpacks, calculators, and other school supplies
  • Dorm/apartment furniture

While it takes a little extra digging to find quality used items, it's well worth the effort when you consider how much money you'll save. 

Take Advantage of Campus Amenities 

Campuses offer a wide range of amenities that are free to students. Taking advantage of these amenities won't only help you save money, they can also help you meet new people. 

Here are some campus amenities to take advantage of:

  • Instead of going to Starbucks to study and paying $7 for a latte, study at the library sans temptation and save a few extra dollars
  • Buy a campus meal plan or cook in your dorm's kitchen
  • Check out books from the library instead of buying them from the bookstore 
  • Use your on-campus gym instead of buying a membership
  • Take advantage of campus counseling and health services 
  • Use campus tutors instead of hiring your own
  • Attend movie nights, concerts, sports games, and other events that are free for students by the university
  • Print on campus instead of buying a printer

Also, keep in mind that many universities partner with nearby restaurants and businesses. Oftentimes, showing your student ID can lead to a discount. Check with your school to see what local businesses they partner with. 

Entertain Yourself on a Budget

Going out to the bars in college is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it can eat up your budget quickly. Here are some ways to save money while still maintaining a social life:

  • Host potluck nights with your friends
  • Have a movie night in with friends instead of going out to the bars
  • Take up a new hobby and get your friends in on it too (running, painting, hiking, playing board games)
  • Cut the cable bill and opt for subscription services instead (consider going in on subscription services with friends/family members)
  • Join on-campus clubs
  • Start volunteering (also looks good on a resume)

Apply for Grants and Scholarships

Many people think that you need to apply for all of your grants and scholarships while in high school. There are a lot of grants and scholarships available to current students!

Some of these you can earn directly through your university, so you should first check with your school to see what's available.

Here are some other places you can search for scholarships:

  • Check with your parents' employers: a lot of companies have scholarship programs for the children of employees
  • Check with your financial aid office
  • Check with religious and community organizations
  • Use the free scholarship search tool set up by the US Department of Labor
  • Check with professional organizations such as the American Bar Association or the National Society of Professional Engineers
  • Look into state-based grants

Many scholarships go unclaimed or have very few entries, so it's definitely worth spending some time to see what's out there. 

Be Smart About Off-Campus Living 

Many students choose to live in the dorms for their first year or first semester. Living in the dorms is perhaps one of the best ways to meet people. Plus, it can often be cheaper than living off-campus, especially when you consider that you don't have to buy furniture or pay for utilities. 
However, many students also enjoy the freedom of living off-campus. If you do choose to live off-campus, here are some tips for keeping your living expenses down:

  • Get a roommate (or several!)
  • Choose a place that's walking distance, or that has a bus or shuttle connecting to campus so you don't have to drive.
  • Decorate minimally, buy used furniture and shop sales
  • Be mindful of your utilities

If you have parents or relatives nearby, you may also want to consider living with them for a while. While it can put a bit of a damper on your social life, even just living with relatives for a few months can help you save a lot of money. 

Also, don't forget to use your rent payments to boost your credit score

Paying for College: Are You Ready for College Living? 

Now that you've read this blog on paying for college, it's time to put these tips into action. While it may seem like a lot, these tips can really help you get your finances under control, so be sure to keep this blog handy. 

Also, if you need some extra help with your finances, whether it be understanding loans or learning how to save for a home, be sure to check out our financial resources page.