How do you build a student budget?

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It seems like every day on TikTok you scroll through videos on “how to meal prep on a budget” and “what I spend in a week as a student living in Canada.”

You probably have a vague sense of what budgeting is – and people are saying “you need to budget in this economy” – but you’re not quite sure where to start. Well, good news. You can start here:

Budgeting is the process of creating a plan to track your finances. It’s a list of categorized expenses to keep your spending (and saving!) on track.

Picture Karim. Karim is a nice guy. He’s the life of the party and plays basketball with the boys on the weekends. Karim lives off of student loans, but he calls his mom when he doesn’t have enough money to buy his Reese’s Puffs cereal. He has no idea what he spends or how much he has in his bank account. On top of that, he’s always carrying the anxiety of his card declining in front of his friends.

Now picture Monique. Monique also lives off student loans, but Monique has a secret: she came up with a goal and a plan to get there. This plan helps her understand how much money she has to spend on things like peanut butter and toothpaste each week. Things are still expensive and it would be great to not have to worry about spending, but the stress is manageable because there is a plan in place.

You see where this is going? Be like Monique.

Step 1: Write down what you’re spending money on.

The first step in creating a budget is to write out a list of all the things you spend money on each month.

Some common costs for students include:

  • Tuition

  • Textbooks

  • Rent

  • Phone bill

  • Groceries

  • Eating out + drinks

  • Gas/insurance or transit pass/ride-share fees

  • Flights to/from home

  • Gym/fitness

  • Personal hygiene/household items (ie: laundry detergent, toilet paper, and toothpaste)

  • Furniture and house furnishings (ie: coffee table, sheets, towels)

  • Insurance (ie: dental or medical, if not included in tuition)

Step 2: Figure out how much you spend each month

First you need to determine what are necessary expenses (aka what you need to spend) and optional expenses (aka what you want to spend or are spending on but could live without).

Necessary expenses are often fixed costs like rent, tuition, food and your phone bill. Optional expenses are things like drinks out with friends or new shoes.

Then determine roughly how much money you spend on each of these categories a month. The total of all of these categories is how to start determining your monthly budget.

Step 3: Figure out your monthly income

Okay, so the key to determining how much you can spend is linked to how much money you have coming in.

What is your monthly income? If you don’t have one (ie: you don’t have a job during the school year), divide your total savings and total loans by the amount of months you’re in school.

Consider this example: Monique is in school from September to April. She has a summer job lined up for May, and she will not be working during the school year. In her situation, her savings and loans will need to last 8 months (September to April).

If Monique has $6,000 in savings, $2,000 in scholarships, and $12,000 in student loans ($20,000 total), the maximum amount she can spend each month is $2,500. Her budget is $2,500. Lucky for Monique, she lives at home, has most of her meals paid for, and uses the school gym, so she only spends $2,350 every month. The extra $150 she doesn’t spend every month she puts into a savings account that she can use in the future or to pay back her student loans.

Step 4: Try to make sure your expenses fit with your budget.

Sounds like common sense, right?

But what if you’ve gone through these steps and discovered that the amount you spend each month is more than the amount of money you have budgeted to spend each month?

For example, you’ve discovered that between paying your landlord, buying bubble tea, and ordering the latest skincare you saw on social media, at the rate you’re spending, you’re going to run out of money before the end of the school year. Ugh. We get it. We have been there.

It stinks but you have two options: make more money, or cut down on your spending.

For a lot of students, getting a job is too much to handle with a full school schedule. If this is how you feel, you should try to adjust your monthly expenses to make sure you’re living within the monthly budget you’ve set for yourself.

For many of us though, it’s time to get a job. There are tons of student jobs (try looking on campus first!) with flexible schedules and decent pay that can set you up for financial success.

Tips for Saving as a Student

If you’re starting to feel like this whole budgeting idea is going to take all the fun out of your life, here are some easy cost-saving measures you can use to save money (and no, we won’t recommend cutting out a morning latte, you know that already).

  1. Check for discounts. A student card can be THE golden ticket. Many restaurants, fitness facilities, or transport options offer a student discount with a valid .

  2. Find out what amenities and services are offered for free through your school. Schools offer many programs at little or no cost to students. Some examples include free fitness classes, mental health counseling, resume workshop and career coaching, or food from a campus food bank.

  3. Say no to name brands. This is a sneaky one but whether it’s a trip to the drugstore, grocery store, or your favourite online retailer - generic brands often get you the same result for a fraction of the price. The difference in cost will seriously add up over time.

  4. Re-sell your stuff. Not only is it good for the environment but it’s also great for your wallet. Extra clothes or shoes you don’t love? Try Poshmark or Marketplace. Textbooks from last semester? Send those back to the campus bookstore or post them on social media. Use the profits for fun money to buy more of what you want or pay down your debt.

More money questions about student finances? Check out our other Saving for Post-Secondary articles!


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