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Where the money goes is a brutal mystery—unless we plan and track our spending. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 85 percent of students thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. These six concepts are the key to making sure you’ve got the cash for pizza night, reading break, or grad school. To put them into practice, use a digital tool like Mint.com or your bank or credit union app.


  • CHRISTOPHER LENGYELL Assistant Director of Residence Life, University of Toronto Mississauga, Ontario
  • WILLIAM BRITTON Certified Financial Planner (CFP) at Marlin Financial Services Inc., Toronto, Ontario

1. Know the importance of a spending plan

“Students need a budget because of inconsistent income. You may think of a budget as how you will spend your money each month, but a true cash-flow strategy is about making sure you have the money you need when you need it.” —WB

2. Know your current spending

“A big challenge for students is that [university] may be the first time they’re paying attention to their spending habits. Create a list of every expenditure you can think of and come up with a cash-flow strategy from there.” —WB

3. Know which choices you want to prioritize

“It is important to determine your own personal priorities when it comes to spending. Knowing what’s important to you, whether that’s going out for dinner with friends a few times a week or saving for a semester abroad, can enable you to make spending decisions you feel good about.” —CL

Examples of spending choices or goals

Maybe your short-term goal is to have enough money for late-night pizza tomorrow. What could you do throughout the month that will help ensure that you get your pizza splurge and make it to February without going into debt?

Type of choice or goalExampleCostHow much to spend or save each week (sample figures)
SocialCan I eat out with my friends a second time this week?Above and beyond grocery expenses. (Convenience is expensive.)Spend $40
AcademicCan I go to graduate school?Tuition; reduced or missed earnings over two years; standardized test fees; application fees; travel for interviewsSave $20
FinancialCan I build an emergency fund to reduce financial stress?Several hundred dollars set aside for unexpected eventsSave $10

4. Know your wants vs. your needs

“For most students, the reality is that you won’t necessarily be able to ‘have it all.’ Your cash-flow strategy should prioritize needs while leaving room for some wants. For example, if this money isn’t here at this time, will you be able to pay your tuition or rent?” —WB

5. Know the price of your social life

“There are costs associated with the social pressures of postsecondary education. Know your limits. If you’re going out with friends, take a limited supply of funds. If you enjoy going out once or twice a week, plan those costs into your budget.” —CL

6. Know how to use your bank accounts to your advantage

Use your checking account for your current costs. Keep larger sums in your savings account for future expenses. This way, you won’t spend your tuition money on pizza.

piggy bank

Mint.com: your most popular tool for planning your spending

Mint is one of the digital tools recommended by students in a recent Student Health 101 survey. It’s a free online tool and app that connects securely to your banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, pulls the relevant info, and organizes it for you in one place.

Mint makes it easy to track your spending and create a realistic, adaptable budget. It sorts your expenses into categories, which you can customize. You’ll need to check and adjust the categorization, especially in the early days. (Mint will learn your habits over time.)

How secure is Mint.com?
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Your favourite online money tools and apps

“Mint: Free, easy-to-use, clean, user-friendly interface. Sign up to use the web app, available to download to your PC, Mac, and smartphone.”
- Tom C., first-year student at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon

“I recommend an online banking app, as it is easily accessible on your phone, tablet, or computer, and you always have access to your bank balance and expenditures.” 
- Sydney T., fourth-year student at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta

“Have your bank’s app on your phone. It is easier to look up your account and be aware of what you’re spending.”
- Sara J., first-year student at St. Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario

“I would recommend that others check out several [apps] and develop their own app to suit themselves. There are no shortcuts that fit everyone.”
- Candace S., first-year student at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta

“I use Microsoft Excel for my budgeting. I found a template online and adjusted it to my personal finances.”
- Diana L., fourth-year student at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s

How to make a credit card work for you

“Developing credit as a student can have some significant benefits. But a bad credit rating can have the opposite impact. If you’re considering [getting] a credit card, start small. Keep your limit low and pay it off every month.” —CL

“A credit card can provide temporary relief if you don’t have the money you need. Developing a habit of using a credit card often is a con, especially if you’re using it for wants instead of needs.” —WB

Credit cards are an important backup for these purposes:

  • Emergencies
  • Online purchases
  • Establishing a credit score

To avoid going into debt:

  • Choose a low credit limit
  • Use the credit card for a regular expense, e.g., groceries, and leave it home during other trips
  • Set aside the money to pay it off in full every month

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.