We’ve all experienced it. The moment we pull out our wallet to make sure we have enough for that slice of pizza, only to find out it’s as empty as a keg after your birthday blowout. You think to yourself, “I swear I just had $20, where did it go?” The questions and accusations go round, but ultimately, it all comes back to you spending it on something you can’t remember.
A budget can help you avoid just that: the lurching feeling of suddenly running out of money or not making this month’s rent. As college students with limited income, it’s even more pertinent to have your finances planned out.
While there are multiple ways to budget and keep track of your money, one of the simplest ways for college students who are consistently attached to technology is to use a computer. Without spending a chunk of your cash on a fancy program, the easiest method is to set it up in a spreadsheet program.
The first step in creating a budget is determining how much money you pull in every month. This can be from parents, a job or a loan; just don’t include sources that don’t come in regularly like a surprise check from Grandma or that $20 you found on the ground. For added security, you may want to encrypt the file you create.
With the ubiquity of debit card use, it’s difficult to see what you’re actually spending when you hand over that piece of plastic. The next step is to look at your paper or online bank statements to see how much you’re spending, what you’re spending it on, and where you’re spending it. Break your spending down and categorize expenses as either fixed or variable. Items like car payments, insurance, rent or credit card payments would be considered fixed expenses because they’re generally the same amount every month. You can also think of fixed expenses as essential expenses. Variable expenses include entertainment, groceries, eating out, gas and general shopping.
On top of these two types of expenses, you need to include wiggle room for emergency expenses. Injury, illness or car problems could leave you in a lurch with more bills to pay or less income. It’s a good idea to budget an amount each month to save for unexpected situations.
Placing all this information in a spreadsheet will allow you to easily see that you spent $200 on groceries instead of that $80 a month you thought you were spending. Totaling both your income and expenses allows you to see if your outflow is greater than your inflow. If it is, you have a problem; if not, you’re in good financial shape.
The next step is to see where you can cut down your expenses. Do you really need to grab Wendy’s for dinner every other night? Are you getting your money’s worth out of your unlimited Netflix plan, or could you step down to a cheaper one? The goal here is to make your income greater than or equal to your expenses. In your budget, delegate certain amounts for your variable expenses, and then see if you can cut these back even further.
If you use your debit card often and continue to struggle with seeing where your money goes, start each week by withdrawing your weekly budgeted amount. Take the cash and place it in designated envelopes for groceries, entertainment, bills, and other expenses that need to be paid that week. When the money is gone from the envelope, that’s it until the following week.
The last piece of good budgeting is to make sure you hang on to receipts. This enables you to see a more detailed account of where your money is going. Store receipts in an accordion folder organized by month so you can go back and review your expenses and see where improvement is needed. Remember, the most important thing is resisting temptation and sticking to your budget.