When someone mentions budgeting your money, do you cringe? Postsecondary tuition and fees have been going up at a staggering rate, and financial aid funding levels are not keeping pace -- so more students are borrowing the maximum they can from the Stafford Loan program and then borrowing even more through private loan programs.
According to FinAid, almost two-thirds of bachelor's degree graduates in 2007-08 accrued loan debt with an average balance of over $23,000. If you want to keep your costs as low as possible and try to get out of college without having a huge student loan debt, which you may be paying off for the next 25 years, budgeting may be the lesser evil. The less you spend, the less you'll borrow. Here are ways to manage your money while in school to accomplish this:
Set up a budget. Pretty straightforward -- write down your income and your expenses. Income includes your financial aid, money from your family and money from a job and/or savings. Expenses include tuition and fees; room and board (if you live on-campus) or rent, utilities, and food (if you live off-campus); school books and supplies; and incidentals. You can go online and download budget worksheets to help with this task.
Carefully track incidentals. "Incidentals" is the category where there's the most wiggle room and where you tend to spend a lot of money without realizing it -- $3 for coffee here, $9 there for a music download… it all adds up. As distasteful as it might sound, you really do need to jot down what you spend on incidentals every day for a week. You'll probably be unpleasantly surprised by how much you really do spend but, at least, you'll have an idea where you can start cutting back on those items you really can live without.
Come up with budgeting strategies. What exactly does that mean? Some categories where you can save money include:
- Textbooks. Buy used books or use reference materials from the library.
- Food. Limit eating out or ordering takeout to special occasions, and look for coupons or even early bird specials. Rather than buying expensive soda, drink water and add taste with packets (remember that store brands are often much less expensive than name brands). College meal plans are often good deals and provide a well-rounded diet; research them and then use a plan if you're paying for it. Take advantage of events that provide free food. And learn to shop smart and cook -- at least a few simple meals -- because it's often much cheaper than eating out.
- Household supplies. Look for coupons or specials. Team up with roommates or friends to buy a card to a bulk supply store like Costco or Sam's Club and share the costs and the purchases. And think generic rather than name brands; in most cases there is little taste or nutritional difference but quite a cost difference.
- Clothing. Again, look for sales. Shop at yard sales, consignment or thrift stores, or during seasonal clearance sales -- think ahead and buy clothes in the off-season. Don't buy clothes that need to be dry cleaned; it's an added expense. Also consider comparing prices for items online, where retailers sometimes can offer a huge discount.
- Entertainment. Look for free events such as concerts in the park or movies on campus. If you enjoy the movies, go early or on special nights to take advantage of reduced cost tickets and bring your own refreshments, if possible. Don't forget that many vices -- cigarettes, alcohol and drugs -- are very costly.
- Telephone. Look at need versus want and pay only for what you need. How many phone minutes do you actually need each month? Is the data plan a necessity?
- Student discounts. Business owners in college towns often offer student discounts for events, products, movies and dinner and lunch specials. All you need to do is show your student ID card.
- Online marketplaces. Often you can find incredible deals on furniture, sports equipment, and other items online at sites such as Craigslist.
These are only a few of the ways you can stretch the dollars you have, rather than taking out more loans. In addition to reducing expenses, you may also want to think about boosting your income by working part-time if you're not already. Often you can find a job that takes your class schedule into account; many studies have also shown that students who work part-time often do better academically because they have to more carefully budget their time. And, as a bonus, it gives you less time to spend what little money you have.
About the Author:
Judi Sandall graduated from the State University of New York with a BA in English Literature. She worked in student financial aid for over 20 years and is currently senior editor at an Internet company.