What Students Should Consider When Creating a Budget for College

When thinking about saving money for college, the budget includes more than the initial price of college courses. Students will face a number of costs big and small. If they aren’t familiar with budgeting, there is a good chance they can spend their savings within the first semester. To help high schoolers know what to expect, we have an introduction to the 50-20-30 budgeting rule and a list of college costs to consider. 

What is the 50-20-30 budget rule?

A classic budgeting tactic is to spend 50% of your income on “needs” such as rent and food, 20% on savings and 30% on “wants” like hobbies or travel. While most college students don’t have a full time job, this rule can be a good way to think of their spending. Knowing these guidelines can prepare them for when they are working full time and need to budget. 

Budgeting for College Needs

There are many needs that will come with college life. Be sure you are budgeting enough to cover all these. If planned properly, this will take up half of your budget.


Be sure you know how much tuition will be each semester. This should be a set cost, but there is a chance that prices will fluctuate a little with added fees. Be sure you know the price based on if you are going to a college in-state or out-of-state. Factor in and scholarships you’ve received. Be sure to inquire when these will be paid and if they go directly to the school. 


Book costs can add up, especially if your professor requires a new version of the textbook or a unique book that they are the author of. BigFuture allows you to look at the estimated cost of textbooks for your school. 

Get thrifty by finding used textbooks online and keep your old textbooks in good condition so you can sell them online. Oftentimes there are electronic versions you can purchase that are cheaper as well. Books are a cost you’ll need to budget for, but taking the time to find a cheaper option could save you hundreds. 


Rent is one of the biggest costs you’ll face. Many schools require students to live in on-campus housing the first year or two. While this is convenient and a fun environment, it will also cost more. Do research to find what these rent prices are (they will usually be per semester). It’s also helpful to know what rent will cost for apartments in your college towns. Use a rent affordability calculator to find how much you should be budgeting for off-campus housing. 


Another large cost will be food. Research what the college meal plan is and how much it will cost you. If you have a packed schedule it could be worth investing in this because it’s convenient. It could also be helpful if you don’t have a full kitchen in your dorms. If you have the time in between classes and a full kitchen, grocery shopping and meal prepping will be the cheapest option. Be sure to remind kids to budget for this cost. They may be shocked at how much eating out and not planning can cost. 

Budgeting for College Wants

These college “wants” are items that you don’t need, but they will add to your college experience. Be sure to budget for these so you can get everything you want out of your college years. 


If you want to live away from campus, transportation to and from school will need to be accounted for. If you are bringing a car, you’ll need to consider the price of a parking permit and gas money. You’ll also need to pay for registration and maintenance on your car. These costs can eat up your budget if they aren’t accounted for. 

Joining a Club or Sport

If you are planning to rush a sorority or fraternity, there will be dues that you are required to page. Fees are also required for joining other clubs and sports teams. These are not necessary to graduate so they are classified as a want, but they will add to your overall college experience if you budget for them properly. 

Social Events

As a college student, you’ll have more freedom to have a social life. There are also more events available to you. Although students get in free to school-sponsored events, there are additional costs of food or other items once you attend. Be sure to consider budgeting for your social events.

Study Abroad

Many students choose to study abroad during their time in college. Each study abroad cost varies, depending on the program you choose. Encourage students to visit their future school’s study abroad site to research how much they should be saving for this experience. 

As you can see, these costs can add up. Be sure you are counseling your students on budgeting so they are prepared for these costs. By being financially prepared, they can make the most of their time at college.