5 Tips for Building a Budget “College Style”
College is expensive, but making a budget can help keep you from breaking the bank.
As college gets underway across the country, and amidst all of the other conversations currently taking place surrounding the college experience, one fact remains true across the board. College is expensive, and even with the variety of savings plans and tools available in the marketplace, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the entire process of saving for college. This article, however, is not about the process of saving for college education in general, nor is it about the best place to apply for scholarships. There are plenty of articles and expert advice published on these topics, grants, 529 plans, and other methods to help you make a dent in paying for education.
What this article is about is something that might seem, on the surface, like an easier topic – building a budget for spending once you are in college. Although this might seem like an easier thing to handle, for millennials and members of the Gen-Z bracket this is the first time in your lives that you might be budgeting for on your own. Finance, building a budget, and controlling spending are usually not incorporated into education curricula, and so having to do so or the first time can cause some anxiety and stress.
Add to this potent mix the easy availability of credit cards for college students and the end result can easily turn negative in a hurry. The good news is that, with a little planning and thinking ahead, you can put yourself in a solid position to start getting a handle on your financial life. Remember — debt and credit are just tools, and you are the one who is calling the shots — but like any tool, in order to use it effectively you need to know what you are doing. Let’s take a look at some ideas to help you tackle your budget, a very important process.
Make a plan
As a CPA, and millennial, one of the most common mistakes I see is that people never put together even a basic spending and savings plan. Winging it might work when you are looking for the next show to stream on Netflix, but when it comes to your money, a little upfront effort can save some headaches down the road. If you are willing to spend time planning a happy hour, you probably have time to plan your finances.
Use technology for good
Odds are, if you are reading this article, you are already relatively tech savvy and have integrated tech tools into most of your everyday habits. You might even be reading this article on your phone or tablet, so why not put some of this technology to work for you? There are literally dozens of apps that can help you save, track your spending, or even invest your loose change, many of which are free. There will still be plenty of time for Snaps, selfies, and streaming, I promise.
Figure out your fixed costs
Without getting too much into the accounting weeds, everyone and every business has fixed costs and variable costs. If you are in college some of your fixed costs probably include items like tuition, room and board, or rent and utilities, insurance, and some type of allowance for gas/tolls, etc. These should form the foundation of your budget, and should be what you focus on paying off first. Variable costs include pretty much everything else – data plans, Netflix and Hulu subscriptions, incidental travel (like weekend side trips), and new outfits just to name a few of the possibilities.
Use credit sparingly
It is easy, and is reinforced by numerous stories about the “death of cash” to think that the vast majority of your spending should take place via credit cards of mobile payment apps. That certainly may be true in the case of Uber, UberEats, or Amazon (or pretty much anything online), but cash should play a prominent role in your budgeting plan. Lots of studies have shown, and you and I both know, that having to actually spend cash causes more psychological pain versus the ease of spending with credit cards. It may seem simple, but using cash may, in and of itself, help you keep yourself on track.
Get a budget buddy
It may sound a little silly, but hear me out on this one. If you were training for a marathon, or anything else for that matter, it would make sense to get a workout buddy to help keep you on track. Why not apply the same concept to building a budget, a spending plan, or getting into better financial shape? Financial mastery is not a sprint, and it takes dedication and persistence to keep yourself on track and moving in the right direction. Pairing up with someone else who is on the same journey, and at the same stage you are, might just provide that extra bit of support we all need from time to time.
Putting together a budget can be a challenge, and it can be ever more challenging if you are relatively new to the topic. That said, there is no reason why it has to harder than absolutely necessary, and hopefully these tips and ideas have given you some food for thought.
Sean Stein Smith
Dr. Sean Stein Smith, DBA, CPA, CGMA, CMA, CFE is a Financial Analyst - Joint Ventures, at Hackensack University Medical Center. Sean is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of NJCPA Magazine, was selected as one of the NJCPA's "30 under 30" for 2015, and is an adjunct professor at both Fairleigh Dickinson University and Montclair State University. He is also serving his inaugural term on the AICPA's National Commission on Financial Literacy. When not writing, speaking, or teaching, Sean enjoys gardening, exercising, reading, pampering his dogs, and doing/learning new things whenever he can.