Expenses beyond tuition add up. How college students should budget to stretch their money.


August 2, 2023 – By Medora Lee

You’ve finally found enough money to pay your college tuition, but what about everyday living expenses?

It turns out these costs, not tuition, are the major obstacle to earning a college degree, according to a 2021 study by the Center of Urban Future. Some students end up dropping out, while others turn to credit cards, thinking they’ll earn enough when they leave college to pay off the debt. The average amount students borrowed through credit cards was $1,309, according to a 2021 Sallie Mae report.

Those actions should only be a last resort though. A better path, experts say, is for students to create a budget before they even set foot on campus, then try to stick to it.

“Most people are already racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt with student loans,” said Bruce McClary, spokesperson at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit that helps people regain control of their finances. “The last thing you want is to add high-interest credit card debt on top of that.”

How do you build a budget?

First, consider all your expenses. They can include everything from books, housing, cell phones, food, transportation, and even clothing to attend a dance, a job fair or the gym.

Once you determine all the things you’ll need to pay for, you can begin allocating a dollar amount for each item and look for ways to stretch your money in each category. Begin with the necessities like books, computers, housing, food, and transportation.

For books, computers and phones, search for student discounts and consider buying used or refurbished items to save money.

Housing, food and transportation may require more research depending on where you’re living and what your goals are.

These are some costs we’ll help you tackle below.

On or off campus?

Off campus traditionally is less expensive, but soaring rents may have changed that. The typical asking rent in the U.S. reached $2,048 a month in May, a roughly 27% increase from $1,607 in March 2020, according to ZIllow.  Prices vary by city, but “you might have to have a lot of roommates now,” McClary said.

When comparing, don’t forget to include expenses for off-campus living like utilities and transportation that would be covered in campus housing.

There are also some social benefits you may want to factor into your decision.

“I think the first year, even if it’s not required, you should try to live in the dorm,” said JB Beckett, founder of financial services and management firm Beckett Financial Group. “It’s important to get university experience if it’s affordable. Make connections, do some networking so you can get a degree and build relationships and ultimately find a good job.”

Meal plan or no meal plan?

Campus meal plans cost an average of $563 a month, according to education data researcher Education Data Initiative, making the all-you-can-eat, three-times-a-day plan economical if you show up every time. Likely, you won’t because it requires waking up in time for breakfast, being on campus every weekend, and traveling to the dining hall.

Besides, meal plans are “more boring,” said Thomas Salvino, chief executive of Performance Wealth, a wealth management group. “You go to the same place every time.”

 Cooking all your meals will likely save money, but it’s hard to do.

“We experimented with money-saving alternatives to the meal plan,” McClary said, recalling his college days. “We planned meals, cooked as much as possible and froze meals because it saved money.”

But he said he fell off the wagon, attracted by the weekend breakfast buffet in the cafeteria where students could make omelets and waffles. “We signed up for just the weekend meal plan, but we didn’t get the most out of it because sometimes we were away. At best, we broke even. We could’ve done better if we stuck to cooking.”

If your school offers a more flexible plan, try it.

“Maybe take two meals a day for the first year and get your bearings to try to figure out what you’ll eat,” Barrett said. Or better yet, if you can pay for a certain number of meals, snacks and drinks on a punch-card basis whenever you want, take that one for more flexibility.

Car or no car?

You can probably survive without a car by walking, biking or riding public transportation. If you plan to take public transportation, make sure you budget for it.

“For full-time students (in New York City), a MetroCard will usually cost more than $1,000 each school year,” said Cassie Magesis, director of postsecondary access at the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit supporting public schools. “I can think of countless students who have dropped out of college because they can’t afford the price of a monthly MetroCard.”

If you need or want a car, it’ll cost you. You’ll have to pay for gas or electric charging, maintenance, parking, and insurance.

Auto insurance rates are up nearly 15% in some states over the past year, while nationwide premiums have risen more than $240 on average to $2,014 a year, according to comparison site Bankrate. Rates in the U.S. are expected to rise by an additional 8.4% in 2023, which would represent the largest increase in six years, according to consumer research and finance site ValuePenguin.

“If you can afford not to have a car, do it,” Beckett said.

What else?

Other things to keep in mind:

  • A job can provide extra cash. “Stop by the career development centers,” Salvino said. “All schools have internships, and a lot are remote.” Or try to snag one of those coveted work-study jobs like teacher’s assistant so you can get paid while sitting in the class, and build better relations with the teacher. “All classes need TAs,” he said.
  • credit card, if paid in full and on time every month, can help you start building a solid credit history that will serve you well when you finish college, said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma. A credit card also provides fraud and purchase protections that debit cards and cash don’t.
  • If you’re still in high school, you might be able to take enough qualifying classes to skip a year or two of college, Beckett said. “That can save a ton of money, or you can spend that time and get a master’s degree,” he said.
  • Your own bank account and an online budgeting tool like Mint can help you keep track of your budget and what money goes in and out.
  • If you fall off the wagon and find yourself in a hole, get help immediately to protect your credit history. “A financial hangover isn’t easily cured by a couple of Tylenol, and it lingers a bit,” said McClary. Free credit counseling to help you create a budget or get out of debt is available from nonprofits National Foundation for Credit Counseling or American Consumer Credit Counseling.