How to Manage Money as a College Student

College Student with Money

Campuses are gearing up for fresh-faced freshmen and returning students this fall.  Many college students have a limited amount of money – along with limited experience in managing money.  But the opportunities to spend are unlimited!  Here are some tips for managing your money as a college student . . . .

1. Learn to budget.

Budget is not a bad word.  Knowing exactly how much money you have to spend and what you need to spend it on will help avoid many problems.  Learn how to make a budget!


  • Review your financial aid package carefully.  Student loans are a dangerous debt!
  • Determine how much of your savings (gifts, part-time jobs, etc) you plan to use.
  • Honestly estimate how many hours a week you can work and find out the prevailing wage in your area.  Don’t forget tax deductions.
  • Be creative about making money.  Tutor in a your strongest subject.  Offer to do other student’s laundry or cleaning for a fee.
  • Talk to your parents about their planned assistance.  Every family will help in a different way – and you all need to be on the same page about money expectations.  They might be willing to pay for specific expenses or give you a certain dollar amount.


  • Estimates for tuition, dorms, off-campus living, and personal expenses for specific colleges on
  • Check out your specific program for tuition premiums or additional tools needed for the classroom.
  • Think about the other things you will spend money on during the semester.  Know the difference between needs and wants.

2. Embrace the “poor college student” lifestyle.

There was a time when going away to college meant being a poor college student.  Money was very tight and most students embraced a lifestyle of limited means.  Now it seems that college life is a separate lifestyle and should equal and exceed that of living at home.

School Supplies

  • Research where to buy the cheapest books, whether online or at the bookstores.
  • Ask around to see if you can buy the book from last semester’s student – or sell yours to an incoming student.
  • Ask the instructor if you can use an older edition that is probably cheaper.  Don’t rush out to buy all the supplies listed on the syllabus – think about whether you can substitute or borrow.
  • Remember to sell your books back immediately after finals week.  Some online places like Amazon make it easy to sell books.


If you have a prepaid food plan on campus, use it!

  • Understand the dining hall rules – some allow unlimited access and take-away boxes.
  • Some campus food locations and local restaurants will accept your dining points.
  • Pick the best food plan for how you will really use it.

If you are responsible for your own meals, this will probably be a new experience for you.

  • Invest a few hours a week in meal planning and shopping
  • Only buy what’s on your shopping list – and don’t fall for the fancy displays.
  • Never shop when you are hungry!
  • Find easy, cheap, and healthy recipes online.
  • Fix in bulk to save and add variety.  Pool your money and cooking talents with other student – prepare a good meal and split the costs.
  • Don’t waste food. Learn to use or spruce up leftovers – or freeze before it goes bad.  Get to know how much produce you use in a week so there’s limited waste.


  • You own it – so repair it and wear it out.
  • Know your clothing budget to add a few seasonal items or replace necessities.
  • Get to know your local thrift and consignment stores.
  • Ask to ‘shop the closet’ of a friend for items you only need to use once for a special occasion.


  • Protect it!  Bring what you own to college and protect it with a desk lock and use those locking drawers in dorm dressers.
  • When you buy, get only the features you need at the time.  Technology is dated as soon as it hits the market.
  • Stay on your parent’s cell phone plan for the discounts – and send them your portion every month.
  • Be prepared!  Here’s a tip from my college daughter: save all your work to Google Docs in case of a computer accident or loss.  You may be paying to repair or replace your computer – but at least you won’t miss a deadline.


  • A poor college student takes things from home and accepts hand-me-downs from relatives.
  • You can buy one or two new items for your room or apartment that fit in your budget.
  • If you don’t have to move out at the end of every year, drive around the outskirts of campus during finals week and check out all the items left on the curb or near dumpsters.  Many students and graduates will only take what will fit on their car – leaving big items behind.


For the first time, you are having to pay for utilities on your own if you just moved out of your parents’ house.  Here are some important considerations.

  • Understand what utilities are paid in the dorm/apartment and what you will be responsible to pay.
  • Learn to save on energy by turning off lights and washing a full load of clothes and using heat & air-conditioning only as needed.
  • Evaluate whether you really need cable TV if you tend to watch many items through the free
  • Don’t forget – you can get streaming movies through for a lot less than cable TV.


Having fun is part of your college years.  But this can be the biggest budget buster of them all.  There is always someone ordering pizza, going out to get something to eat, heading to a movie, buying tickets to a concert, or planning a big weekend trip.
  • By budgeting an Entertainment category, you will know exactly how you can socialize.
  • Don’t be afraid to suggest other alternatives like a $1 Redbox rental, free events on campus, creatively cooking from the pantry, or a lowest cost activity.


  • Health – Understand how you are covered by health insurance and know how to use it – your parents’ plan or a student plan from school.
  • Belongings – Determine whether your parent’s homeowners policy will cover you or if it’s better to get an individual renter’s policy.
  • Automobiles – If you left your car at home, some carriers will suspend your premiums while you are away at college.

3. Remember to save.

It seems contradictory to ask a college student to save when they have limited money and might even be borrowing.  But even a small emergency fund can save the day with an unexpected expense or emergency.  Start good habits by putting away 10% of your paycheck or other assistance.

4. Remember to give.

Giving is important. Here are some ideas.

  • Give of your time to a campus service organization or new faith community.
  • Give of your talent in the tutoring center or helping a classmate.
  • Give of your limited treasure.

5. Avoid credit cards.

Credit cards are not the solution to too much month at the end of the money.  Pizzas, shoes, and movies can add up quickly.  After 4-6 years in college, you can easily be graduating with high-interest debt that could buy a good car.  Don’t turn a $20 pizza into a $150 pizza!

You will learn many things in college – inside and outside the classroom.  Managing your money is a skill you will use for a lifetime – so embrace this new opportunity to learn!

How did you manage money when you were in college?  How do you teach your college kids to manage their money?  Leave a comment below!

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  1. John S

    Great thoughts! I could not agree more on your final point. Credit card companies are notorious for being on college campuses and reeling in more card holders. One credit card for emergencies, eventhough parents should in general be able to help with that, is ok but should not be used for living purposes.

  2. Mike Pearcey

    Half of college grads are unemployed. Govt subsidees has driven up tuition costs, over supplyed grads to the market, and trapped record numbers of people into permanent debt slavery to govt. Educrats making 6 figures and laughing all the wat to the bank. Pay cash or don’t go to school, go to work or serve your country.

  3. Alisha

    I asked family and neighbors for any furniture they were looking to get rid of. It is pretty amazing what people have stored in their garages and basements, especially plastic bins and storage containers.

  4. Mike Pearcey

    Choose your school wisely. Get ypour Pastor’s guidence. There are NO good secular colleges they’re all theives and liars.

  5. Smart Money Manager

    Truly helpful tips for not just for the students but also for their parents and friends. Thanks!

  6. I got my first credit card when I was a college freshman. I remember how I felt as though I had “arrived” and was finally an adult. Ha! What a lie. I developed some bad financial habits in college that plagued me for years afterward. I’m praying that my kids will learn from my example instead of experiencing it themselves. Your tips will help!

  7. Trident University

    Living as a poor college student can really teach someone to enjoy the simpler things in life as well as budgeting and being independent. Your post illustrates that it’s possible to still have fun by renting movies and eating in without spending a ton.

  8. Rose

    Hulu, isn’t free, I wish!

    • Bob

      Rose, I believe Hulu is still free (on your computer), it is hulu plus that charges $7/m