It’s no secret that it can be tough to squirrel away extra funds in college, but it’s not impossible. All it takes is a bit of planning and a commitment to your finances. While on paper, this might sound boring and time-consuming, it can actually be fun!
Setting goals, rewarding yourself in the present, and rewarding yourself in the long run by having some money in savings, will quite literally be worth it.
Why setting a budget is important
As a college student, you’re spending a lot of money on food, textbooks, tuition, and more. Learning how to budget in college can reduce the stress you feel on a daily basis and help you save more money. By setting a budget, you’re able to get a full view of your income, your necessary expenses, your extra expenses, and your savings.
College is meant to be a time when you learn, make lifelong friends, and have a great time. Money can be a major stressor for college students, but if you begin budgeting while you’re in college, you’ll be better prepared to handle a budget as you enter grad school or the workforce.
Tips for saving money in college
Get started with these six tips to help you save more money in college.
- Set goals
That feeling when you check your bank account balance and see a much smaller number than you expected? That’s never a good feeling. Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid it by setting spending and saving targets for each month.
The best way to stay under your spending target is to create an itemized budget. This will help you see how much money you have coming in, how much you need to spend, and how much you actually spend. You want to make sure you’re being realistic when it comes to things like nights out, trips with friends, and shopping, while also making sure you have enough to cover things like groceries, textbooks, rent, and tuition.
To get a head start, try using a budget planner template, so all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Once you know what’s left over after you take care of your monthly expenses, set a weekly spending target—one you hopefully won’t exceed, but that allows you a reasonable level of comfort.
Power tip: Even though you’re tracking monthly expenses, we suggest setting a weekly target. It requires you to check your finances more often, which makes you more aware of your spending habits and can help you save money.
- Reward your success
Everyone deserves a little treat once in a while! If you find that you’re coming in under budget week after week or you’re saving more than you originally planned, reward yourself for your success. This might seem like a silly thing, but finding ways to gamify your finances can make saving money feel good, which helps encourage you to stick to your plan.
If you want to reward yourself by putting more money into savings, deposit your surplus money into a separate savings account. Whether you decide to treat yourself or deposit a bit more into savings that month, you’re one step closer to building healthy money-saving habits.
- Save money on textbooks
Textbooks are one of the heftiest college expenses any student will face. Before you drop a bunch of cash at your college bookstore, head to the library first. Try to figure out your required texts as early as possible and check them out before other students beat you to it.
A lot of professors even put their textbooks on reserve in the campus library (check your syllabi to see if they mention it). And don’t forget to check your local library, too—you can usually do that online or through library apps.
While reading your syllabi, see if you can choose between physical books or e-books—this can open up a world of cheaper options. Many library networks also offer e-books as an option for textbooks, which you can rent throughout the semester.
Unfortunately, some titles you’ll probably have to get at the college bookstore. An easy way to save money here is to pick up previously used copies. Most college bookstores put out discounted used books alongside the new copies, if available. Many will also buy certain books back from you at the end of the term, so check with yours to find out if they have a buyback program and which of your texts might be eligible.
- Use student discounts
When you’re a student, people often throw discounts at you without you even knowing it. Stores and restaurants near your campus may offer student discounts or might even be included in your meal plan. Be sure to check out which local businesses are partnered with your school so that you can take full advantage of your student status.
Shopping at a chain store? Not a problem! Many stores will offer you great discounts if you use a student email or have your student ID on you. Check out this list from NBC News and this list from UNiDAYS to see where you can unlock a student discount.
Are you ready to get started with Evernote? Here’s a student discount you can’t ignore!
- Automate your savings
There’s no better feeling than when you check your bank account and see a higher balance than you expected. Maybe it’s pay day, or a family member sent you some extra spending money. Whatever the source, when you’re faced with a fresh lump sum of cash, it can be a real challenge to put some of it aside instead of spending it. Rather than give yourself time to contemplate spending that extra money, you should transfer it into savings.
Automating your savings is the best way to ensure money makes it safely into your savings account. Most banks have plans that transfer part of your income into your savings account, or you can set up recurring transfers to happen at the same time every month.
There are also savings apps that can help you discreetly and strategically save more money. Some of these apps will round up your debit card purchases to the nearest dollar and save the difference for you. Let’s say you buy a coffee for $1.25. The app will round that purchase up to $2.00 and deposit $0.75 into an account without you having to do a thing. Over time, you’ll have the extra money in savings, and you’ll be feeling great about that bank account balance!
- Cook your own meals
It can sometimes be tough to cook in a dorm room or college apartment. What sorts of meals can you make with a microwave and a communal oven that 15 of your peers are also trying to use? Surprisingly… you can make a lot!
According to Money Under 30, a meal that costs $15 at a restaurant costs only $5 to prepare at home. The temptation to eat out is especially high when you’re in college, where you’re either studying so often it’s hard to break away and make dinner, or you’re out with friends a lot, and visiting restaurants becomes a fun social activity. But cooking at home doesn’t mean you have to survive on energy drinks and instant ramen.
Power tip: Learn super simple and affordable recipes on TikTok. Search for #collegerecipes, #collegemeals, or #dormmeals, and you’ll find tons of recipes that you can cook in your dorm room (or small kitchen). If you want to keep all of your new recipes in one place, create a new notebook in Evernote called college recipes. Use tags to organize your recipes by ingredient or level of effort so that you can use up all of your groceries and still cook great meals when you’re in a time crunch.
If you’re constantly pressed for time, try setting aside one or two days per week to cook a lot of portions of simple meals at once. Stack these up in portable containers in the fridge (with your name on them if you have roommates). Then you’ll have something you can grab quickly for the next few days on your way out the door, and you’ll be saving money on every meal you prepare yourself.
If you don’t want to miss out on eating as a social activity, try arranging a group to cook and eat together or host a potluck in your dorm. If it’s hard to motivate people, learn to make a popular dish well and share it with your friends. You might find this helps sway them into having a ritual practice of dining in.
Find inspiration for your college budget
Designing a budget for college doesn’t have to be scary. You can find inspiration on Instagram, TikTok, and even from Evernote. Here are some great sites to check out, influencers to follow, and templates to download to keep your college budget on track.
- Ellevest, a female-founded financial firm
- Parii Bafna, personal finance TikToker
- Blonde Broke & Bougie, budgeting influencer
- Hey Berna, financial hype woman
- Her First 100k, personal finance expert
- The Broke Black Girl, financial activist
- Mrs. Dow Jones, finance TikToker
- Delyanne the Money Coach, investment expert
- NerdWallet, a personal finance company & an app!
- MintApp, another personal finance company & an app!
- Evernote Budget Planner Template
Whether you’re just starting college or you’re almost at graduation, it’s never too late to start budgeting. If you continue to budget week after week and month after month, you’ll be building a healthy financial habit that will set you up for long-term success.
Ready to get started? Use our budget planner template to keep track of your spending.
Originally published on September 26, 2019. Updated on September 16, 2022.