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Setting a Monthly Budget in College

Need help sticking to your monthly budget?

If you’re like most college students, you don’t worry about your money until it runs out, and even then - well, that’s what all those credit card booths on campus are for, right? Not really. According to Nellie Mae, the average college student graduates with over $3,000 in credit card debt – debt that continues to accrue interest and could take years to pay off, even after you’ve started a full-time job.

So if you’re one of those people who thinks that you don’t have to worry about money yet, that you can take care of it all once you have a “real” job, it’s time to think again. A monthly budget can be one of the most helpful tools in a college student’s arsenal.

Now, I’m not here to tell you where your money should be going - everyone has a different income - from scholarships and loans, parents, savings, or a part-time job. And everyone has different expenses – some of us have to worry about car payments, rent, textbooks, health insurance and tuition, while others only need to worry about quarters for laundry, new clothes and haircuts. But that’s not the point.

We all know that in order to keep your finances in good standing, the money you bring in each month needs to exceed the money you spend each month. What you need to do in order to save money is to figure out where your unnecessary spending is occurring. And don’t fool yourself. As a college student, you DO have unnecessary expenses, even if you don’t know what they are.

There are ways to cut back. The key is to track every dollar of your spending for a few months to see where your money really goes. There are plenty of helpful budget worksheets online to help you keep track of your monthly spending and see where you, personally, can cut corners every month.

Here are some helpful tips for keeping your budget in the black every month.

· Keep track of your checking account and credit card balances. Banks can charge enormous fees just for overcharging your account by a few cents. This is what those online budget trackers are good for.

· It’s very easy to spend more money than you realize by going out with your friends. Only bring a select amount of cash out for a night. Once the money’s gone, it’s gone. You can leave your ATM and credit cards at home.

· When you’re done with your textbooks, sell them online instead of at your campus bookstore to get the largest amount of money for them.

· Don’t go to the grocery store hungry. This will keep you from being tempted to buy everything in sight. Purchase items that won’t go bad quickly. Consider options like yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese, bagels and peanut butter. They are cheap, healthy and easily accessible when you’re hungry early in the morning or late at night.

· Try to eat out as little as possible. When you do eat out, make it a fun Saturday night at a restaurant with your friends instead of driving through a fast-food place three nights a week.

· Tip according to service. If the pizza delivery guy was 45 minutes late, don’t give him a 20 percent tip just because you feel like you should. Yes, he is probably a poor college student, but so are you.

· Not having your own computer can be an inconvenience, but if your school offers free computer labs on campus (and many do), then save your thousands of dollars and take advantage of their free Internet access. After all, this is part of your tuition!

· Be careful with the belongings you already have. If you accidentally leave that tiny MP3 player on a bench on campus, chances are that you’ll never see it again. If you loan out your CDs and DVDs, don’t forget who you loaned them to  when it’s move-out time, your friends and neighbors probably won’t remember to bring them back to you.

· Need an idea for a cheap activity? If a friend owns a video camera, gather up 5-10 people and film a movie. Re-enact music videos or write your own short films. Not only will this keep you entertained for hours, but you’ll have the video to keep as a memory.

· If you keep your monthly gym membership only because that gym has a TV over each treadmill and your school fitness center doesn’t … quit the gym. Bring a mix of music to keep you motivated instead or run outside.

I realize that many of these tips sound simple and obvious, but it’s important to realize that many of the “simple and obvious” choices we make are the wrong ones. If you knew that eating fast food every day cost you $120 more per month than eating most of these meals at home, wouldn’t you consider eating at home the “simple and obvious” choice? Yet many of us don’t take the time to think about this.

So don’t think that you can’t cut out unnecessary expenses just because you don’t indulge in a $5 cup of cappuccino every morning. All it takes is a few months of tracking every expense (especially the small ones) to see where you can cut corners without even noticing.

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