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The college or university years are typically our first experience of managing (or blowing) adult finances. The responsibility can be empowering, but greater control over our finances calls for conscious planning. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 91 percent of student respondents thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. But wouldn’t most of us rather drink the latte and eat the pizza than track their prices?

Our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (can I afford to go out tonight?) and reverberate through our futures. “You either have enough to pay the rent or you don’t. The payment either arrives on time or it doesn’t,” says Gail Cunningham, Chief Spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in the US, based in Washington DC.

We asked three undergraduates to estimate their weekly expenditures during the semester. Then we crunched the numbers to see what they’d actually spent and how that matched up with their own estimates.

Financial experts

  • Alice Pelkman, Financial Aid Manager, University of Guelph, Ontario
  • Kuljeet Notay, Financial Aid Counsellor, University of Guelph, Ontario

The liberal spender reforms himself

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Food, socializing, & entertainment$240$270$30
Health & fitness$9$10$1
Personal$0$60$60
Transportation$50$50$0
Rent$110$110$0
Academics$10$0$10
Utilities$50$20$30
Total$469$520$51


James R.
 is a third-year student at the University of Guelph in Ontario. 

If this were a typical week, James’s extra spending per calendar year would be $2,652.

James’s reaction 
He’s moving to an apartment with lower rent and inclusive utilities: “I want to save money for a house.” In addition, he plans to eat out and shop less.

Expert’s reaction 
The key issues
Food and personal spending

“Socializing often goes hand-in-hand with eating out and paying for transportation. It’s important to be aware of how much you’re spending on a night out with friends and how those costs add up.” –K.N.

Pack a lunch rather than spending on convenient foods on campus: “Shop for foods that are easy to prepare. Fruit, nuts, and sandwiches are good choices.” –A.P.

Student budget tools.

More budget strategies

Strategies that force daily savings and build that habit for life

  • Do a version of this exercise, estimating your expenses per month on food, transportation, health and fitness, academics, socializing and entertainment, rent, utilities, and personal expenses. Then review your bank records.
  • Create a monthly budget for yourself using student budget calculators.
  • To keep track of cash expenses, hold onto your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Carry your student ID and routinely ask for discounts.
  • Use public transit and student gyms for little or no cost.
  • Leave your ATM card at home. “If you go to Target with $50 in your hand, you won’t spend $51,” says Andrew Krouk, a financial planner in Philadelphia in the US.
    If you’re not eating in a cafeteria, make a weekly meal plan and follow it. Planning ahead (and teaming up with roommates) helps you save money. Buy in bulk, avoid rumbly-tummy grocery store splurges, and prevent food going to waste.
  • Get creative with socializing and entertaining. Instead of going out and spending $50 each, invite friends over for a potluck.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Instead of going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. “Planning ahead with coffee, snacks, water, etc., will drastically cut down your expenses,” says Andrew Krouk.
  • Save. “You pay your groceries and your rent, but instead of paying everyone else first, pay yourself first. You’re working hard: Pay yourself for it!” says Andrew Krouk. Then live off what’s left. If you put away $2 each day, that’s $60 a month for your savings or leisure activities. “There’s no cost in saving money. You can always use it at a later time. People think of saving as an expense, but it’s a reward.”
  • Give yourself a margin for error. Put aside some money each month for unforeseen costs or emergencies to avoid panic in case you go over budget one week.

The frugal spender grapples with grocery costs

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Food, socializing, & entertainment$70$120$50
Personal$15$20$5
Rent$140$140$0
Transportation$8$4$4
Academics$70$60$10
Utilities$3$2$1
Total$306$346$40


Johanna M.
 is a fourth-year student at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

If this were a typical week, Johanna’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $2,080.

Johanna’s reaction            
Grocery shopping is her biggest budgeting challenge. “It can be frustrating when a small amount of something is so much more costly than a family-sized quantity. I [could] shop with another person or two and then split the cost on staple items that we could divide.”

Expert’s reaction 
The key issue Grocery costs
“Be aware of where you’re shopping. Some stores sell [less expensive] small quantities of staple items. It’s about knowing where to look.” —K.N.

Use all the food you buy. “Freeze leftover food. If you cook a large amount of something, separate it into individual portions that can be easily heated up later.” —A.P.

How many students keep a budget?

Of 750 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey…

47% said they keep a budget and plan to continue
27% said they plan to make a budget in the near future
14% said they plan to make a budget at some point
8% said they’d like to but were not sure they’d get around to it
2% said they didn’t intend to keep a budget

The unrepentant spender

CategoryEstimate RealityDifference
Personal$25$90$65
Academics$20$44$24
Health & fitness$20$22$2
Rent$112$112$0
Food, socializing, & entertainment$70$68$2
Transportation$20$17$3
Total$267$353$86


Breanna H.
 is a student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

If this were a typical week, Breanna’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $4,472.

Breanna’s reaction             
“It’s scary seeing how much I actually spend. Life is expensive!” Does she plan to change her spending or budgeting habits? “No.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue
The gap between estimated and actual personal spending

“The secret is keeping track of your spending. If you’ve made a budget of $100 a week, take out $100 in cash at the beginning of the week and only spend until it’s gone.” —A.P.

“It’s important to give yourself a margin for error when budgeting. Set aside 10 percent of your income for contingencies/emergencies. This will help you recover if you go over budget one week.” —K.N.

Does your spending need a reality check


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Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and the managing editor of JHStyle Magazine based in Jackson Hole, Colorado. Her writing credits include the International Journal of Wilderness, Mountain Outlaw, Teton Family Magazine, Big Sky Weekly, and Dishing. Her MS in natural resources is from Humboldt State University in California.