When it comes to paying for college, tuition is far from your only concern. The problem is, while tuition is a set number, the other expenses can be wildly different. There are tons of decisions to make. Dorms? Meal plans? How much one person will need to pay for the same education as someone else will differ a lot, based on their personal choices. Hopefully, a little budgeting info can make your dollar go a little further.


Most students go to college right after high school, in about the 18-19 year old age range. As such, many students will be handling their own personal finances for the first time at university. It would be great if more schools prepared kids for this reality, but that’s a topic for another time. A piece of advice we can offer here is to budget for more than you think you’re going to need. I bet that seems obvious. Unfortunately, it’s an easy mistake to make. Having more than you need is infinitely better than coming up short. To help you get a picture of how much you might need, let’s take a look at your major expenses and how flexible they are.


No tuition, no school, and the number is usually pretty set in stone.

Room and Board and Meal Plans

Much like tuition, if you want to go to school, freshmen typically don’t have a choice about living in the dorms and going on a meal plan. Unlike tuition, though, meal plans and even dorm assignments are usually on some tier based system. A student who opts for a single room and the mega-platinum-all-you-can-eat-ultra meal plan is going to spend considerably more than the student who has two roommates and the we-won’t-let-you-starve meal plan. After freshman (and some places sophomore) year, you’re usually free to live off-campus with no meal plan at all. Research the area and inventory your expected groceries for a week. It may end up being a cheaper option.

Textbooks and Supplies

These are hard to budget for. Textbooks are obnoxiously expensive, even if you buy used. It’s also difficult to predict what supplies you’ll need, beyond the obvious like pens and paper. The best advice is to try to overshoot it. Another pro-tip, skip the campus bookstore if you can. If you can find the required text online you’re likely to slash the price tag markedly.

The Rest

This is where you have the most control. Try to think of everything you could possibly want to spend money on and throw it in the budget. Plan to pay your phone bill. Plan for any games or concerts you might want to buy tickets for. Do you want to get a coffee after psychology on the third Thursday of the month? Throw it in the budget. It does you no good to be frugal while making the budget, only to either suffer or struggle later.

Cut Down on Your Campus Budget

There are lots of ways to cut down on your expenses without depriving yourself of quintessential college moments. For instance, cut the cable cord. You’re in college, enjoy it. Plus, Netflix is way cheaper. Go easy on the meal plan. The likelihood of your baseline meal plan running out is low. You may not be able to stuff yourself at every meal, but it should be more than enough to keep you fed and your mind sharp. Colleges have started to nickel and dime you for every little thing. Hopefully, your professors allow you to turn in assignments via email. If they don’t you’ll want to invest in a printer, instead of paying for every page you print on a school printer. Finally, the number one way to save money in college: finish early. Did you know the average length of attendance for a so-called four year university student has not been four years in a time? It’s actually closer to six. That’s two extra years of tuition, two extra years of room and board, two extra years of everything. If you can finish on time, let alone early, you could save yourself tens of thousands of dollars. Happy studies!