Moving away to college offers a whole new set of freedoms. There are no parents to monitor your curfew, make sure you are studying, or ask you to do the dishes. Nor is there anyone to watch over how you spend your money. Suddenly, your finances are almost entirely in your own hands, regardless of whether you receive an allowance, are showing up to a work-study position every day, or have taken out loans. And as exhilarating as that is, managing your own money can feel a little intimidating at first. Here are seven tips for budgeting when you move away from home for the first time.
1. BUDGET OVER A TIME PERIOD THAT WORKS FOR YOU.
In the working world, most people get paid every few weeks and have to pay bills monthly, so many budgeting templates operate on a month-by-month basis. As a student, your money situation might be a little different. Even if you have money coming in regularly, your expenses might not be spread out evenly throughout the year. You’ll probably need to pay for things like books, meal plans, and other expenses at the beginning of the semester, for instance, while there may be fewer expenses in the months after. So take a look at when your expenses come up, and plan your budget for what works best for your situation.
2. PAY ATTENTION TO SPENDING CATEGORIES.
One of the easiest ways to set up a budget is to allocate your planned expenses by categories. This helps you distinguish between necessities like buying groceries and discretionary purchases like going to coffee shops and dining out. First, make budget categories for necessary expenses, like food, transportation, doctor’s visits, and housing, calculating how much you’ll need to spend on those things each month. Then move on to recurring payments that you make every month—things like subscriptions. What’s left over is your discretionary spending money that can go to the fun stuff, like restaurants, new clothes, and other purchases.
As you’re figuring out how to budget with categories, you can keep yourself in check by shifting things around as the month goes on. If you spend more in one category than planned, you’ll need to cover those expenses with money you previously budgeted for another category. So if you spend more than you planned on groceries, that money might need to come out of your dining out or clothing budget. That way, even if you don’t adhere exactly to the financial rules you laid out for yourself at the beginning of the month or semester, you will have room to adjust. You will learn more about your own spending habits and still feel comfortable with your finances.
3. USE TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE …
There are countless budgeting apps and websites out there that can make it easier for you to create a financial plan, especially if you’re a budgeting newbie. With a multitude of options available—both paid and free—you can pick a system that seems to work best for you, whether that’s an app that tells you how much you have available to spend on a day-by-day basis, one that records your expenditures automatically based on your bank account activity, or one where you’re forced to sit down and assess your finances every day.
4. … OR GO OLD-SCHOOL.
While there are plenty of apps available, the important part is sitting down and planning. If you find budgeting apps confusing or not suited for you, it’s completely fine to resort to more simple methods, like making your own spreadsheet or breaking out a pen and paper. As long as you’re taking into account where your money’s going and sticking to your plan, your method isn’t that important. Once you get the hang of the basics, you can always move to a budgeting app later.
5. AUTOMATE EVERYTHING.
Handling your money doesn’t have to be an arduous chore. If you are worried that you’ll let your financial routine slip when you get busy, set up your accounts to do the work for you. You can connect most budgeting apps to your bank account and credit cards so that every time you make a purchase, it gets recorded and subtracted from your available funds in your budget. That way, when it comes midterm time and you don’t have a spare moment to sit down and input every single late-night snack you bought into your ledger, your budgeting system won’t entirely fall apart.
You can automate almost all of your payments, too, helping you avoid late fees. You can set up your credit cards and other bills to withdraw payments from your bank account automatically each month. Just make sure that you’ll have the funds in your account each month to cover the balance when that automatic withdrawal comes. Picking the day after you get paid as your automated withdrawal date can help on that front.
6. MAXIMIZE YOUR CASHBACK.
When you’re making a budget, every dollar that’s coming in and out of your wallet can make a difference. The right credit card can help you make the most of your cash back rewards and give you a little extra room in your budget. With your Discover card, Discover will automatically match the cash back you earn in your first year as a card member, which will make budgeting that much easier.*
7. LEARN AS YOU GO.
It’s easy to be too optimistic while setting a budget. Sure, you can say you’ll make your own coffee and never spend more than $10 a month at cafes, but as the weeks wear on, you’ll probably cave and order a few more lattes than planned. While you don’t want to go into debt, it’s important not to get discouraged if you find yourself unable to stick to the exact limits you set out for yourself. You’re only human. Try to account for this when you’re first setting up your budget by creating a category entirely devoted to unexpected expenses and things you forgot to budget for. Eventually, you’ll have a better feel for what these unexpected expenses are, and you’ll be able to incorporate them into a budget that works better for you.
Making your own budget for the first time can be challenging, but opening your first credit card doesn’t have to be. Discover’s Student Card will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year as a card member, dollar for dollar.
*Learn more at Discover.