So you’ve decided to get a college degree, but you don’t want to fall into the trap of eating Ramen noodles for every meal. Well, don’t worry. By creating and sticking to a budget, you can potentially avoid that all-too-common “broke college student” scenario, and maybe even have some money leftover to eat out.
As you prepare for the school year, it’s important to not forget key expenses. In addition to tuition, supplies, and financial aid, also be sure to consider:
- Housing, food, transportation and other necessities, especially if you will need to make any changes to your location or lifestyle
- Reduced wages as a result of working less while in school
- Emergency savings for unplanned events
With a little research and a strategy that looks closely at your expenses and your income, you can figure out how best to finance your education.
Here are four tips for back-to-school financial planning:
1. Figure out your expenses
The best way to know your future financial requirements is to examine your current expenses. If you pay most of your expenses with a credit or debit card, an online budget tool can be helpful. Look at online tools like Mint (or if you prefer not to give a third party your information, try an application like BudgetPulse.)
When you see your spending and can categorize it, you’ll be able to see how much your regular expenses cost, such as housing and transportation. You’ll also have the information you need to make choices about where you could spend less — and free up more money for tuition or supplies.
2. Explore financial aid options
There are two main kinds of financial aid: the kind you don’t have to pay back (grants and scholarships), and the kind you do have to pay back (student loans). The U.S. Department of Education offers a general guide on the different kinds of financial aid and how to responsibly manage loans once you have them.
Grants and scholarships
This type of financial aid is an award of money that you don’t need to pay back. Grants are usually need-based, and the Department of Education offers a variety of federal grants for different kinds of students. Scholarships are usually (but not always) merit-based.
You can search for scholarships on sites such as Scholarships.com, The College Board, and Fastweb. Some scholarships invite anyone to apply, while others are available for much smaller groups of applicants.
Eligibility for scholarships can be based on veteran status, ethnicity, organization affiliation (for you or possibly a relative), winning a contest, overcoming past adversity, and many other factors.
The sites listed above offer you many ways to narrow down the options and find scholarships with requirements you may meet. In addition, the U.S. government and various organizations offer special grants and scholarships for military families and for veterans and dependents.
Student loans are a type of financial aid that you do have to pay back. Interest rates and terms can be very different between private and public loans and even between lenders. The Federal Trade Commission’s guide to private and public loans is a great place to start studying the different options available.
The Department of Education’s guide to fraud and identity theft is also full of helpful information to help you make the best choice possible and avoid scams. The government offers both private and public student loans, but your bank or credit union may also offer private loans too.
When considering student loans, don’t forget to figure out how much you’ll be paying per month during school or after graduation. The Department of Education’s Repayment Estimator is a great place to start figuring out if the loans you can get are worth taking.
3. Decide if you’ll work while you study and how much
Understanding your expenses and financial aid options will make it easier to see if you need to work throughout school or if savings plus grants and loans will be enough. Review your job responsibilities and needs, together with finances, to decide how many hours you’ll have available for work and how much time you can set aside for your studies.
If you’re looking to advance in your current field, your employer may offer tuition reimbursement. If you’re looking to switch fields, it may still be worth asking if your employer will offer you a limited or flexible work schedule.
4. Make your budget
Once you know your expenses and what money you’ll have available from work, loans, grants, or other sources, you can create your budget. It can come in lots of forms: a handwritten list, a spreadsheet with formulas, set categories in an online budgeting tool, or even the classic cash-centered envelope system for financial planning.
If you’re on your computer or phone pretty often, an online version might be best. If you find it easier to work with ink and paper, use that method. Once you have your budget set, revisit it every three to six months to see if you should move money between categories.
Budgeting for school can be summed up with this equation:
- Take your existing budget
- Minus any expenses you can cut
- Minus any changes in your wages
- Plus grants and student loans
Make use of helpful online resources, learn about financial aid options at your school, and check in with your current or potential employer, and you’ll be well on your way to getting all of the benefits of higher education.