Students must learn how to budget to control college costs

Stephanie Kinkaid Assistant Director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Center Monmouth College

Graduated high school—check. College acceptance—check. Roommate assigned—check. You’re ready for college! Right? Not exactly.

How do you figure out your finances? Are there hidden costs? How do you live off of a college student’s meager income? We have some advice on how to make the experience a little easier on the old wallet. 


Do get a summer job

If you are not taking classes in the summer, you need to work at least one job—if not two. Save as much as you can. It is tempting to spend all of your money on fun with your friends now, but you will regret it in a few months when all of your friends have money for extras, and you do not. My suggestion is to save at least 75% of all the money you make in the summer. You will be glad you did!

Do figure out all of your costs now

You may or may not have your tuition and room/board covered through financial aid, scholarships, and your parents’ support. That alone is a lot to figure out, but is that all there is? Unfortunately, no.

Talk to older friends or relatives who recently attended college to plan out all of those other expenses. You need money for books, fees, sorority/fraternity dues, personal products, extra food, trips, study items, and late night pizza. Pad your budget a little so you always have extra money for unexpected items. Make a budget, and be realistic. 

Do visit your financial aid office

If you think you can’t afford your tuition along with room and board, ask your financial aid office if you are eligible for any other scholarships, grants, or loans. Oftentimes, the financial aid office will also have a listing of on-campus jobs as well. They can help steer you through the unexpected expenses along the way.

Do save money with roommates

If your college allows students to live off campus, save money by having roommates. Not only can you split the rent, you can also save by each roommate contributing items to the apartment. Splitting the cost of groceries, cable, the internet and power can make living on your own a lot easier. Plus, you are learning how to budget now, so that after graduation, you will enter the workforce more independently.

Do rent or borrow books

If you can get a list of books required for your classes early, check to see if your college bookstore rents them out. If not, online companies like Amazon allow students to rent or buy used at a greatly reduced cost. Make sure to take care of the books and avoid marking in them if you choose to rent. Also, if it is a book that you think you might use later in your career, you might consider buying used instead.


Do not forget that the Office of Student Life has resources

Student Life (or sometimes known as Student Affairs) staff are trained to help students struggling with all kinds of issues—including financial ones. They can steer you towards programs that help you pay for medicine or health care. They can also answer questions about budgeting your money to prepare for your future.

Watch for residence hall programs that teach students budgeting skills. These free programs will not only help you get involved, but will introduce new resources. If your financial struggles have gotten the best of you, contact your college’s counseling center. The trained staff can help you deal with difficult issues you are facing. 

Do not eat out a lot if you have a meal plan on campus

Many students ignore the meals they have paid for in the dining halls and instead join friends on trips to fast food restaurants. This is a big don’t! If you have paid for your meal plan, use it! Eating out more than one meal per week can put a drain on your bank account. You can always eat in the dining hall and hang out with friends later. Those late night pizza specials aren’t cheap.

Do not forget the thrift stores

Shopping at thrift stores and garage sales can save you tons on clothing, not to mention be fun when done in a group. No one expects college students to have lots of money to spend on a wardrobe, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need a good suit or interview outfit. Thrift and consignment stores carry items that are very inexpensive. Another option is to hold a clothing swap. Everyone brings five items they do not wear anymore. Each person gets to choose an item to take for every item they donate. You can also do this with textbooks.

Do not put off finding a job until the semester begins

You are not the only student living on a budget. That means that most of the other students will be needing jobs as well. It’s too late to wait until October when your money has run out to find a job. All the money-savvy students will have grabbed the available positions. Check with your career center, the Financial Aid office and Admissions to see if there are jobs available before school starts. Make connections with alumni and friends in the community so that this network of people will know you need a job.

Do not spend your money on frivolous items

All of your friends understand that college students live on a budget. This is not the time in your life to spend recklessly on gifts, parties, and movies. Instead, gifts can be more meaningful by making them yourself. Parties can be held as potlucks, and you can attend free activities on campus instead of going out.

The student programming board on college campuses plans many free events every year. Visit your Student Activities office or join the board to find out more about these events. There is no reason to spend money or be bored on campus. Most campuses have something going on every day. Take advantage of these resources. 

Jumping cartoon

College is not cheap. But with a lot of saving, planning, and frugality, you can make it work. Get a job, save money, and be creative when having fun. Before making any purchase, ask yourself if the item is needed. If not, find an alternate choice. All of the work you are doing now to save will only prepare you for the “real world” after college.

More expert advice about Financing Education

Photo Credits: aslysun/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Stephanie KinkaidAssistant Director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Center

Stephanie graduated from Illinois State University and has been employed with Monmouth College since 2007. She has a background as a mental health professional and has worked with thousands of college students as they prepare for the future. Her...

View Full ProfileRecent Articles