How can we set a budget for our college freshman?


Q. My daughter starts college in September. What’s a reasonable budget for her? She will be working in the summer but I’m guessing she will need more money than she will earn.
— Mom

A. Congratulations. This is an exciting time for your family.

Setting a budget for a college student is like setting one for yourself.

She’ll need to know how much money or income she has and what her expenses are, said Jeanne Kane, a certified financial planner with JFL Total Wealth Management in Boonton.

There is no one-size-fits-all budget that works for all students, she said.

“This is an ideal time to start budgeting. Habits learned now will help her throughout her lifetime,” Kane said.

Start by looking at your daughter’s income.

Will she have scholarships, grants, loans, 529 funds, etc.? Is she planning to work a part time job while she’s in school? Work study or other job? Are there any other sources of income such as money from you?

Also consider whether you have placed any caveats to her receiving money from you such as getting good grades, Kane said.

Also consider whatever savings she has that have been earmarked for college.

Next, Kane said, look at her expenses.

Look at the college’s website to figure out the costs for tuition, fees and housing. Be sure to include books and supplies, travel, personal expenses and other costs.

Then consider the 50/30/20 budget rule of thumb, Kane said.

Fifty percent your income goes towards needs, such as tuition, room and board and books. Thirty percent is for wants such as dining out, clothes or sporting events. The remaining 20% would be for savings, including for an emergency fund or a spring break vacation, she said.

“The budget basics will help her understand if there are any gaps and the 50/30/20 can help her with categorizing her needs versus her wishes,” Kane said, citing coffee as a great example. “Most students would categorize coffee as a need in college. Coffee can be found for free in the dining hall and covered under a meal plan, but coffee at Starbucks would be a want.”

Kane said Mint and YNAB (You Need a Budget) are just two of the many apps available to help track spending and help her create and stick to her budget. Excel also has free budget templates built into the program, she said

“No budget is set in stone. Your daughter should review her budget on a regular basis. She may find that she is spending less in some areas and more in others and adjust spending accordingly,” Kane said.

Your daughter can also look for ways to make college less expensive, Kane said.

Rather than buying books new, she could rent them or buy a used copy. She can also look for free events on campus and keep her eye out for student discounts, often offered by businesses in college towns.

Finally, after the first month or two, revisit the budget and see what adjustments may need to be made.

Good luck!

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This story was originally published on April 18, 2023. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.