Budgeting sounds easy enough, but that holy trinity of extortionate New York prices, the inevitable busyness of college, and the fact that keeping control of random expenses is like a game of Whack-a-Mole will leave both your wallet and your soul empty soon enough.
So how do we tackle this? You can check out the budgeting piece we published last year. It’ll breakdown budgeting techniques. Three editors (including myself) got together to argue for budgeting apps, painstakingly nerdy Excel spreadsheets, and just winging it. Having written that piece a year ago, I feel like there’s more going on beyond the techniques, and that’s where this article comes in. So by all means, read the article the Class of 2020 got, but this’ll add a second layer to that.
Cool beans. Now let’s get into more resources:
- Break down your earnings: Before you get to campus or once you find a campus job, make sure you know what you have before you start spending.
- Plan for money-munchers: How to leverage savings and safety nets to account for unexpected expenses.
- Beware the ides of September: Why you should be wary of the first three weeks of the semester.
- More tips: The things that were useful enough to include, but too small to get individual bullet points.
Disclaimer: Spectrum recognizes that your financial situation is unique and that an article can only help so much and be so accurate. This article can’t take into account every case and exception, though it’d be wonderful if it could. If you have particular circumstances that you’d like our research team to look into, please let us know via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Break down your earnings
It’s always nice to know what you have to work with, so let’s establish your source of income first. It’d be best if you used our example projection to make your own plan, rather than base your life on this one.
Will you be living off of money you make through a campus or work-study job during the semester? If so, let’s say you’re earning $14 an hour for a 20-hour work week. Side note: Both Columbia and Barnard have been incrementally raising minimum wage for student workers to $15 an hour by 2018. Work-study jobs often require 20 hours of work per week.
You’re making $280 per week (let’s ignore possible tax deductions for the moment). Financial service companies like Fidelity recommend that “millennials” (don’t you love being called that?) should save 15 percent of their income. Now, I’m pretty sure that that’s for when we become gainfully employed millennials (if possible), but let’s try to be responsible and put away at least 5 percent per week. You’ll still save around $240 by the end of the semester, and you’ve got about $225 to burn each week now. So here’s a breakdown:
- Projected income per week based on $14/hour wage: $280
- Projected expenditure per week: $225
- Projected savings per week: $15
- Projected savings per semester: $240
If you’ve saved up money before the semester and you’re not going to be using your earnings from a campus job each week, you can still use this model, but adjust it to your circumstances. I also want to mention that some campus jobs pay more than minimum wage, that you may spend less than $225 per week, that the projected income doesn’t take into account what may get taxed from your payment, and that this projection has and will certainly not account for all the specificities of your situation. However, hopefully you’ll find this projection as a guide to use to create your own plan.
Plan for money-munchers
There are things that you will spend money on on a weekly basis, and there are rogue expenses that I like to call “money-munchers.”
Things that you know you’ll spend money on every week include:
- Food (Weekend dinners, coffee, drinks, Koronet pizza, etc. This will add up, especially if you’re not on a meal plan)
- Transportation and phone (metrocards, taxis, plane and train rides, phone bills, etc.)
- Household necessities and toiletries (umbrellas, cleaning wipes, shampoo, laundry card for Barnardigans, etc.)
- Academic necessities (notebooks, textbooks, pens, staplers, etc.)
On top of these classics, though, are money-munchers that you forget to account for:
- What happens when you suddenly realize that your boots can’t weather a snow day?
- What happens when your clothes rip and fall apart?
- What happens when you have a doctor’s appointment?
- What happens when your charger breaks or your phone screen smashes?
You can either tolerate the discomfort (which is sometimes impossible) or you can shell out cash (usually, it’s the latter). There are loads more expensive mishaps just waiting to jump up and surprise you. It’s easier for $50 to disappear from your bank account than $10—mostly due to sudden situations—so even if you can’t predict what could be a money-muncher, be aware that money-munchers you didn’t think of will attack you.
The trick is to factor money-munchers into your budget with safety nets.
Here’s a general idea of how much money I put aside for each week. It amounts to about $155 per week. You can see the breakdown of where that money goes here:
- Phone bill: $45 (I’m on T-Mobile’s 2GB data, unlimited text and calls plan.)
- Food: $100 (For two restaurant meals, snacks, and groceries. I’ll get coffee at Liz’s Place on my meal plan points to cut costs, and will eat in the dining halls twice weekly.)
- Transport: $10 (A few subway trips during the weekend, and maybe one Via ride.)
This is a breakdown of the bare minimum in the middle of a semester. I will already be stocked up on household and academic necessities, and there will be a week where I’m not downtown doing something fun and expensive, or dealing with a costly disaster like an infected wisdom tooth hole (throwback to junior year :’) ). In other words, I have not accounted for money-munchers.
But that’s why there’s still $70 left to burn. And that’s Safety Net #1.
If you suddenly need a $40 blood test, a Broadway show ticket, or a pair of jeans from Barnard Buy Sell Trade, you dip into that $70. Here’s where you can use Mint or a spreadsheet (all mentioned on 2016’s budgeting article) to track how much of your first safety net you’ve eaten into.
But what’s Safety Net #2? That’s the 5 percent savings. Yes, it’s only $15 a week, and if you haven’t earned it yet then it’s obviously not much help, but there is—theoretically—$240 per semester that could be channeled into an unexpected money-gobbling wreckage. True, it’s a threadbare, hole-ridden safety net, but there is still your savings to dip into should you need it.
Beware the ides of September
I want to leave you with one final piece of consolation and warning. The first three weeks of college will be overrun with money-munchers. You will spend far more money in your first three weeks than you will during a normal week in October or November. You’ll suddenly realize you need a vacuum cleaner, or shower shoes, or a heinously expensive textbook. Don’t worry if you exceed your budget every week as you get settled into college. Just be mindful whenever you swipe your card or type in your security code, and keep track of your excess spending so you can work to make it back over time. Tracking your spending in the first weeks will also give you an idea of whether or not your spending is due to you needing new things, or you being flash with cash. If it’s the latter, you got to work on cutting back.
- Mic has a section of its site committed to helping millennials navigate finances. It’s called Payoff.
- Mint, the budgeting app, also has a blog with handy articles like this one about getting a credit card in college.
- You Need a Budget is a tool that has a finger in both the Mint and Excel spreadsheet pies.
Good luck this semester. Email us at email@example.com if there’s anything else you’d like to know about—there’ll be more content coming throughout the rest of the year.
Sophia Hotung is a rising senior at Barnard College, serves as the Staff Director at Spec, and was Spectrum Editor in 2016. She is really into Excel spreadsheets… still. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org