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Where the money goes is a brutal mystery—unless we plan and track our spending. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 91 percent of students thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. These six concepts are the key to making sure you’ve got the dough for pizza night, spring break, or grad school. To put them into practice, use a digital tool like Mint.com or your bank or credit union app.

EXPERTS

  • BRYAN ASHTON, BSBA, assistant director, Student Life Student Wellness Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus
  • LARRY PIKE, CFA, financial planner and principal of Client Priority Financial Advisors LLC, Needham, Massachusetts

1. Know the importance of a spending plan

“The biggest challenge to budgeting is the idea that because students have limited resources, they don’t need to take steps to take control of their finances. They do.” —BA

2. Know your current spending

“The most important step is to understand where your money really is going. If you can’t get a handle on your spending, it will be difficult to take control and make changes.” —LP

3. Know which choices you want to prioritize

“Some choices or goals aren’t strictly financial but have significant financial implications. How much should you allocate each month to meet these goals?” —BA

Examples of spending choices or goals

Maybe your short-term goal is to have enough money for late-night pizza tomorrow. What could you do throughout the month that will help ensure that you get your pizza splurge and make it to February without going into debt?

Type of choice or goal Example Cost How much to spend or save each week (sample figures)
Social Can I eat out with my friends a second time this week? Above and beyond grocery expenses. (Convenience is expensive.) Spend $40
Academic Can I go to graduate school? Tuition; reduced or missed earnings over two years; standardized test fees; application fees; travel for interviews Save $20
Financial Can I build an emergency fund to reduce financial stress? Several hundred dollars set aside for unexpected events Save $10

4. Know your wants vs. your needs

“The key is to be realistic about what you need versus what you want. The greatest value in making a budget is seeing where your actual dollars have gone. Then we realize how much of our spending is discretionary.” —LP

5. Know the cost of convenience

“Eating out is more expensive than making your own meals, and buying coffee is more expensive than brewing your own. This is where any student has the ability to really affect their budget.” —BA

6. Know how to use your bank accounts to your advantage

Use your checking account for your current costs. Keep larger sums in your savings account for future expenses. This way, you won’t spend your tuition money on pizza.

Money

Mint.com: your most popular tool for planning your spending

Mint is the digital tool most frequently recommended by students in a recent Student Health 101 survey. It’s a free online tool and app that connects securely to your banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, pulls the relevant info, and organizes it for you in one place.

Mint makes it easy to track your spending and create a realistic, adaptable budget. It sorts your expenses into categories, which you can customize. You’ll need to check and adjust the categorization, especially in the early days. (Mint will learn your habits over time.)

How secure is Mint.com?
How useful is Mint.com?

Your favorite online money tools and apps

“I would highly recommend Mint.com. It is really simple to use, and all your transactions go in automatically. It really makes it simple to see where your money is going.”
- Zach D., fourth-year student at Michigan Technological University, Houghton

“The AllBudget2 app for students details the common expenses that college students are expected to worry about, and has a simple user interface.”
- Petah S., second-year student at Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville

“Mint.com, LearnVest.com, and CreditKarma.com are great for tracking your current cash flow, and have well-written articles.”
- J. W. third-year student at Valencia College, Orlando, Florida

“YNAB [You Need a Budget] costs money but is powerful and teaches good budgeting principles.”
- Chris C., fourth-year graduate student at the University of Rochester, New York

“A regular computer spreadsheet can be helpful. Most programs offer templates to get you started. You also don’t have to be online to access it.”
- Elizabeth M., fifth-year student at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina

“See if your bank or credit union offers any application. It’s the quickest and most direct way to monitor your money.”
- Nathan J., fifth-year student at the University of North Alabama, Florence

How to make a credit card work for you

“Credit cards are too convenient. We tend to forget we need to pay the money back at the end of the month, which exposes us to steeply increasing interest payments. If there was no such thing as credit, we would only spend what we have and we would find a way to make it work.” —LP

“Credit scores are increasingly important. Employers, rental agencies, and mortgage companies are likely to check them. We’re seeing value in students beginning to build credit.” —BA

Credit cards are an important backup for these purposes:
  • Emergencies
  • Online purchases
  • Establishing a credit score
To avoid going into debt:
  • Choose a low credit limit
  • Use the credit card for a regular expense, e.g., groceries, and leave it home during other trips
  • Set aside the money to pay it off in full every month

The Art of Change


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Lucy Berrington is the editor of Student Health 101. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.