How to Live on a Tight College Student Budget

Let’s face it — thinking about a budget during college is hard. From the textbooks and tuition to housing, and oh yeah, basic things like eating, the costs add up. Not to mention, college students generally live on income from a part-time job, work study, or student loans. But the financial decisions made in college follow you for the rest of your life. Cash in on these tips for budgeting during your college years to set a solid financial foundation for the future.

8 Essential Tips for Living on a College Student Budget

1. Track Your Spending

This may seem obvious, but more than half of adults don’t track their spending. A symptom of online banking, people no longer keep records of income and expenses since they can log on to check their account balance at any time. But this can lead to irresponsible spending — paying extra for guacamole can add up when you’re doing it a few times a week. Create a basic budget that tracks money coming in and money going out by category, such as bills, rent, food, entertainment, etc. This helps you see where you can/should cut back, and like most things in life, there’s an app for that.

2. Invest Now to Save Later

Sometimes a little investment can pay off in a big way. This doesn’t mean you should buy stock (unless you know what you’re doing) or go play blackjack in Vegas (unless you really know what you’re doing). Just look for ways to cut out daily expenses that add up. Do you buy a coffee every morning, or perhaps late at night for study sessions? Get a coffee maker and save yourself the five dollars. Are you paying 10 cents a sheet to print your PowerPoint presentations and papers? A home printer may pay off (and we’ve got quality, cheap ink for that). Consider the small daily expenses that add up and whether you can cut them out.

3. Pay in Cash

When your paycheck hits your bank account, pay your bills and put what you can in savings for unexpected expenses. Then take out the amount of money you’ve budgeted for discretionary spending in cash. Use your cash wisely, and cut yourself off from “fun” spending once it’s gone.

4. Use Your Skills to Pay the Bills

A side hustle can help boost your bank account. Think about the skills you have, and figure out how to market them. This could be anything from freelance gigs in writing or graphic design, tutoring students in the subjects you’re a whiz at, or walking dogs. Check out websites like Rover, Care, Upwork, or Fiverr.

5. Take Advantage of Discounts and Coupons

Don’t toss your junk mail immediately; clip the coupons! Those small savings make a difference. Sign up for rewards cards at places you normally shop, and check out rebates and cash back rewards from apps like ibotta. And don’t forget that student ID, which can get you discounts at movie theaters, museums, restaurants, grocery stores, and more. It never hurts to ask if an establishment offers a student discount.

6. Learn to Cook

Eating out can kill your budget. Learn to cook more than instant meals. By learning how to use real foods, you will be healthier (which means less money in medicines and clinic visits), AND you will enjoy delicious, nutritious meals for a fraction of the cost. Not sure where to start? Check out Budget Bytes, a website dedicated to simple recipes on a budget.

7. Look for Free

Like they say — the best things in life are free, and college is full of them! Instead of spending $20 to go to the movies and buy snacks, check out what lectures and performances are on campus. Don’t feel like cooking? Before heading for a drive-through, see if any university events are giving out free food. Attending campus events provides a great way to meet new friends, and hey, you just might learn something!

8. Don’t Spend More Money Than You Have

Credit cards can be great tools, especially when taking advantage of cash back or other rewards programs. They come in handy when there’s an emergency. But don’t treat them like “free” money. Only spend what you can pay off to avoid becoming buried in debt that keeps adding interest. If you do have to carry a balance, try to pay more than the minimum amount, so you can eliminate your debt faster.

College is a wonderful time of self-exploration, learning, and meeting new people, but it comes with a cost. Using a combination of these tips can help ease the financial burden of your college student budget.

Do you have any other ideas for saving money while in college? Share them in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Stephanie Figy

Stephanie Figy is a business + marketing writer at an A/E firm by day, and a freelance writer by night. In her free time she enjoys traveling with her husband, drinking craft beer, and taking care of her cats and rabbits. You can find out more about her at or @SKFigy.