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Budgeting for College

education budget

This article is slated to be updated with the latest FAFSA, Scholarship, and Financial Information. For more updated information, please refer to our 2023 and 2024 articles.

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When planning for college costs, there’s quite a bit more to consider than just tuition. It’s the fact that most of the other expenses can vary so wildly that makes budgeting for college so tricky. Will your student live in the dorms? Will they go on a meal plan? As is the case with most other aspects of college, how you budget is largely dictated by your personal circumstances. Be that as it may, there are tips and tricks that just about everyone can use to save money here and there.

Budgeting for College

For many young people, college is often the first substantial foray into managing personal finances. A great, albeit obvious, rule of budgeting is to plan for more than might be needed (if you can swing it). When planning for college costs (or anything in life) it’s better to overestimate expenses and have money left over, than underestimate and come up short. With that in mind, some expenses are frankly more important than others.


Tuition is arguably the most important of your student’s expenses, as without it there’s no school; no school, none of the other expenses. It is also the one with the least wiggle room.

Room and Board and Meal Plans

Incoming freshmen are often encouraged, if not downright required, to live in residence halls or dorms and go onto a school provided meal plans. However when it comes to room and board, the figures are not as concrete. For an additional price, students can stay in private or luxury dorms and there are often tiers for the meal plans that could differ by as much as several hundred dollars.

If the student decides to live off campus (but not at home), budgeting becomes more complicated. The flat rate of school provided room and board is replaced with rent and utilities. If they decide to go off the meal plan, groceries become a much more augmentable aspect of their budget.

Textbooks and Supplies

Textbooks can be difficult to budget for as it can be hard to determine how many they’re going to need. Ideally your student will receive a list before the start of the term to give you a better picture; but even then, some of the books on the list may end up being auxiliary and not required. Moreover, your student may learn you need other books that are not on the list. It’s best to speak with the professor personally (ideally through email before the first day) to make sure they are getting everything they need to be prepared, without wasting any money.

Depending on their major, the supplies needed will vary. Even still, most colleges have general education requirements that will at least require notebooks, pens, pencils, folders, and a calculator. In this modern world a personal computer should be considered a necessity as well (though in extreme cases, workarounds such as computer labs can be found).

Everything Else

It is at this point where the personal deviations become the most profound. Most people will want to set aside money for social/recreational activities, eating out, laundry, cable TV, internet, phone bills, etc. The list can and does go on and on. When making your budget, try your best to consider even the smallest detail that may pertain to your specific situation.

Reducing Campus Expenses

When planning for college costs, think about what to include in the budget and how to maximize funds.

On Campus vs. Off Campus Living

Given the option, which one is more cost effective? Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Dorms are encouraged because of the socialization aspect, as well as providing a more structured environment for young adults typically not used to their new level of freedom. From a financial standpoint, staying in the dorms offers the option of becoming a Residence Advisor (RA) which will reduce (if not offset entirely) your room and board costs. It’s also hard to beat the proximity to classes, cutting down on transportation costs.

On the other hand, living off campus has its benefits as well. While not universally the case, chances are your student will be able to find a place with more space for less money, even after factoring in utilities. Sharing those costs with roommates can make it even more cost effective.

If your student has the space to store groceries, skipping the meal plan can save you money and definitely give you more control over how you budget for food. Meal plans usually give your student access to buffet style dining halls for a flat rate. But when they buy groceries as they need them, you can adjust (within reason) if another aspect of your budget requires more attention. Be careful though, while it can save you money, with less regulation comes more temptation to spend frivolously. This could end up costing you more in the long run.


It’s tempting to think you’re being savvy by buying used books from the school bookstore to save some money. While it’s a good start, if you carry that line of thinking a bit further, you’ll discover that acquiring used, and sometimes even new books online at sites like can save you even more.

Reduce Your Campus Budget

When planning for college costs, having a budget is unquestionably the smart call. But be sure to be careful not to take it too far. This may seem like a strange warning, but bear with me. When making your budget, it’s only natural to want to save as much money as possible. The fact is, if your student willing to live a fairly spartan lifestyle you can save quite a bit of money. Never eat out, never go to parties or sporting events, just go to class, study, eat moderately, and sleep. It’s easy to plan to live like a Spartan; but then life happens. It’s always better to make a realistic budget and stick to it, than to make an ambitious budget and deviate from it.

Here are some realistic ideas for reducing your budget:

  • Skip Cable TV: It’s college and there’s going to be a lot going on. Even if there isn’t though, you can save with services like Netflix and Hulu as opposed to paying for 600 channels when they only watch 5.
  • Get the least expensive meal plan: It’s nice to have the option to go all-out whenever you want, but the least expensive meal plan is likely more than enough to keep you satisfied, while simultaneously discouraging overindulgence. You can also be on the lookout for restaurants that offer student discounts.
  • Invest in a personal printer: Many schools now charge students to use their printers. Depending on your student’s workload, those costs can really start to add up. Moreover if your student lives off campus, making the extra trip to a computer lab will add to transportation costs fairly regularly.

Perhaps the best way to reduce your budget would be for your student to finish their studies on time or even early. While it’s easier said than done, it is undeniable that the longer your student is in school, the more you’re going to have to spend.

Budgeting is a balancing act. Be prudent, but make sure your choices are reasonably comfortable; after all, you and your student have to live with them.

Billie Jo Weis

After receiving her BA in Accounting from San Jose State University and quickly attaining her CPA license, Billie Jo gained over 20 years of experience in accounting and finance at a variety of companies including Symantec Corp, Thomas Weisel Partners (a San Francisco investment firm), several Silicon Valley startups and at a Certified Public Accounting firm serving high net worth individuals with their taxes.

She has assisted hundreds of college-bound families with strategies on how to pay the least amount for college and she is also the Head of the Appeals Team.

Billie Jo Weis is a mother of three high school boys. With a passion for family success, she has devoted the past 15 years to her boys' athletic, social and academic lives, including volunteer work at her children’s schools with such programs as Junior Achievement.

Billie Jo is driven and passionate about helping families with financial strategies on how to find the most cost-efficient options to pay for college. With three teenagers in high school, Billie Jo knows first-hand the challenges and concerns of preparing for the cost of college.

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