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Managing a Tight Budget as a College Student

Photo of student shopping.For many students, starting college is the beginning of a new adventure. Once the euphoria fades, though, they realize that this exciting new venture comes with a host of new responsibilities as well. Since education can be expensive and all-consuming, financial responsibility is usually one of the most difficult areas to manage for college students. A study conducted by the University of Arizona (in partnership with the National Endowment for Financial Education) revealed that students were not interested to learn about money or credit management. Unsurprisingly, the average American college senior owes around $4,000 in credit card debt.

The college experience can serve as a training ground for future life management. The financial skills you learn as a student will definitely be valuable tools for budgeting once you're no longer a student and budgeting in the "real world." Here are some dos and don'ts for students trying to manage their budgets.

Budgeting DOs

DO create a budget
Start with the amount of money you have during the beginning of the semester. Subtract major expenses like rent, utilities, and other school fees. You also need to set aside an amount for food and necessities. The remaining amount should be your emergency fund and should not be used without discretion. Try a budgeting app to help you stay on track of your finances.

DO make the most of special meal options just for students.
If you attend a traditional brick and mortar school, your campus may offer a meal plan. If you have a meal plan, don’t waste it. Eat in the school cafeteria as often as possible. Since you’ll likely get tired of cafeteria food eventually, you can eat out occasionally. However, try to find local diners or fast food joints that offer discounts to students. Most eateries near campuses will have such discounts offered. If you attend school online, you can save money on food by cooking meals and learning about budgeting groceries.

DO take advantage of student discounts
Many companies both locally and online will offer a discounted student rate if you show your ID or use a student promotional code. Gym memberships, cell phone plans, and movie theaters are just a few examples. Do your research before making any purchases or subscribing to services to see if a student discount is offered. 

DO borrow textbooks. Buying a required textbook should always be a last resort
Ask friends who took up the same subject earlier if they can lend you the textbook. Otherwise, try to buy the book second-hand. Another option is to rent it, if possible. If you ever find yourself forced to buy the textbook, remember to keep it in good condition so you can sell it after the course. Additionally, many courses — both online and in classrooms- are beginning to offer e-textbooks, which are often cheaper to download (and environmentally friendly at that!)

DO make the most of discounted or free entertainment
Having fun doesn’t always have to involve money. Join organizations or events and socialize with other students. City government websites and calendars often feature free events at libraries, arts centers, and city parks. You can also check out entertainment listings in local publications top find open mikes at bars or restaurants, amateur sporting events, band contests, and concerts, or theater productions at local schools you might be interested in.

Budgeting DON'Ts

DON'T ignore financial aid options
There are a lot of students who automatically assume that they aren’t eligible for financial aid. In truth, there are so many different grants, scholarships, and financial assistance programs that you’re likely to find something. Apply to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program. Even if you are not eligible for US government grants and loans, many other sources of financial aid will request a FAFSA to assess your financial need. Though the requirements differ for different types of students, there are many sources of aid available — don't neglect scholarships!

DON'T use your credit card unthinkingly
This is not free money. You have to pay for it eventually, so remember that you’re only delaying the inevitable. Never use a credit card to pay for daily expenses. The habit could ruin you.

DON'T take identity theft lightly
A lot of students fall victim to identity fraud, with criminals using their information to get loans and credit cards. The impact on your future financial situation and status can be dire.

DON'T buy "new"
Before buying anything — be it furniture, an appliance, or a new game — always consider a pre-owned option, if available. It will be a lot cheaper and you’re probably going to buy better replacements anyway when you graduate and find a job.

iGrad LogoiGrad has partnered with Elements Financial to bring their financial capability services to our members. iGrad is 100% focused on empowering folks to make effective personal finance, student loan and career decisions throughout life. Learn more at

This information is provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal, tax or financial advice. Consult with your tax, legal or financial adviser before taking any action.

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