This post is a part of the Thrifty Moving Out series where cool tips and advice for first-time movers. Right now, there are 3 parts:
1. Food and Grocery shopping
2. Housing and Bills
3. Budgeting for college students – that’s this one
Reading all the different blog posts with instructions on this topic gave me an impression that people actually sit down every month and vigorously write down every single expense they’ve made lately, surfing through the pile of saved purchase receipts. Unfortunately a simple Google search reveals that that is actually true only in one-third of Americans. Why is that so? Well, apparently the act of sitting down and looking at their finances happens to not be the most comfortable one. Also, many people simply don’t have the discipline of retaining all the bills and writing them down, categorizing them by type, and comparing them to the income that they have.
My method is much simpler; it is based on paying for things with cash, and utilizing your bank statement for an easy run-down. It might not fit everyone, and it might even seem a little bit vague for obsessive-compulsive penny pinchers, but it should help the rest of us. If you find a certain part unfitting or unusable for yourself, please post a comment, we might be able to resolve the issue together.
In general, make sure your hard expenses like rent/ bills / books / insurance/ tuition are covered. No if ands or buts. Budget those first thing every month. After that the food/beer/video games/ entertainment type “soft” categories can be tweaked as needed with no major detriment to your life. After that part of your college budget – just keep doing what your doing and you will get a more clear picture of what you do spend on average and what you would like to spend on average
And now, let’s get right to it.
1. Give yourself a fixed-amount weekly allowance
Many of us received a weekly allowance from our parents to learn about money. It was cool, because we didn’t have to think about the next week; we could spend it all at once or a little every day or save it, and in 7 days we’d get more. This is what you should do now as well. I have a task in my calendar named ‘Cash day’ on which I go to an ATM and withdraw a specific amount of money. This amount is the same every week, and I use this cash to buy myself coffee, drinks, food, bus tickets, and similar – it should therefore cover all the small daily purchases, but still have a certain limit. You should set this amount depending on your monthly income – if you can afford $300 for food every month, that would be about $75 per week. Doing this, you will need to get used to paying for everything with this cash.
2. Pay for extras with plastic money
I don’t mean paying with credit cards, unless that is your only option; I mean paying with a bank card (In Europe, credit cards are not that popular – we normally use these bank or ATM cards for paying stuff and withdrawing money) so it just turns up on your bank statement and there’s no extra charge.
3. Pay all bills at once on a certain day of month
I don’t know what your bills situation is, but I get bills separately; so the one for electricity comes in the beginning of the month and the one for phone in the middle. I used to pay these as they came via online banking, having no real control over it – the electricity company could easily send me 2 bills a month and I’d pay them without a question. Now I pay all of them at once, on a certain day in the month. After I’ve done that, I just write the total amount in the spreadsheet– that’s what we’re talking about next.
4. Write expenses into a Google Docs spreadsheet
I do this after I pay bills so I don’t have to think about it anymore; I have a spreadsheet in Google Docs in which I write down how much I’ve spent for what. When doing that, I am comparing the expected amount with one on the bank statement.
- Weekly allowance
Fixed amount every month. Since I’ve been withdrawing an exact amount it’s easy to determine which ones go in this category; if my weekly allowance was, for example, $75, I would know that withdrawals of 75 bucks in my statement are most likely to be in this group.
- Bills & transport
Just add all the bills together along with rent or whatever you’re paying for housing (my insurance comes in the form of a bill, so it gets listed here). This amount varies only a little bit according to the season, so here won’t be many surprises.
EDIT: A reader (Kelly) suggested that this segment should include transport expenses (bus and train tickets, and fuel).
Determine how much you have spent within the extras budget; all the expenses minus bills minus weekly allowance should total this amount. You might want to separate this group into sub-groups like ‘clothing’, ‘tech’, etc.
I deposit a small amount to my savings account every month by a standing bank order. In addition to that, if I were to, say, save for a new computer, I’d deposit an amount manually to the savings account and write down it into my spreadsheet under savings as ‘computer’. So I can always just sum these deposits up to see how much money I have “tagged” with the name ‘computer’.
As you can see, there are other fields to fill out in my spreadsheet, but I’ve developed this system for myself, because I felt that as a young unmarried person without kids or mortgage if would be a total overkill to utilise the classic budgeting spreadsheets.
Since you’ve only had a college budget for a few months, I recommend that you keep doing what you’re doing. It takes longer than that to really get a feel for how much you need to budget in each category. “Roll with the punches” is really important when you’re just starting out. The important thing is that regular expenditures (rent, car payment, phone bill, etc) are accounted for. That lets you know how much you have left over for beer.
I’d like to conclude with that while budgeting can help you stay out of debt and help you gain a better overview of your personal finances, it will never substitute a purchasing discipline; that is a whole other topic.