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While studying on campus has its pros (you get to see your classmates again!), it can come with a lot of cons.

With colleges across the country resuming in-person classes, students can expect a long-awaited return to normalcy. For many out-of-state students, a fall semester back on campus means you’re back to living on your own, away from the safety net of the family home.

This transition can be a challenge as you get used to handling all the responsibilities of independent living again. Rent, utility bills, and other expenses are back in your budget. Are you ready to handle them?

Don’t panic if your answer is a big, fat “no!”. Now’s the perfect time to brush up on your budgeting skills to help you cover the cost of returning to campus.

Why You Need a Budget

A budget isn’t just for family households or people who are saving up for a big trip. Students benefit from this spending plan more so than others. Here’s why:

1. A Budget Helps You Prioritize Your Income

Between paying your share of a 4-bedroom apartment, getting groceries, and maintaining a car, you have a lot on your plate. Living on your own can be expensive, especially when you throw in tuition and books.

A budget helps you juggle these expected expenses. Consider it a spending plan that helps you strategize where your cash needs to go each month. You’ll be able to spot and limit unnecessary spending and prioritize the necessities to avoid late fees and extra debt.

2. Budgeting Helps You Prepare for the Future

Not every purchase you’ll make in life will be a predictable part of your monthly budget. One day you might find a parking ticket under your windshield wipers, or your car might break down out of the blue. You can get sick and have to pay for costly doctor’s fees and medication, or you and your roommates might lose your rent deposit.

While these are all hypothetical situations that you may or may not face, it’s a good idea to brainstorm how you could cover emergencies like these.

Budgeting rule of thumb says to set aside some cash in an emergency fund. You can dip into your emergency fund when your paycheck falls short of what you need.

Financial advisors recommend saving as much as six months of living expenses in this account. That’s a big goal, especially on a student budget, but don’t panic. Anything you manage to sock away is better than nothing.

If you fall short of what you need before you hit this target, consider how you use a line of credit, credit card, or installment loan as a failsafe. While these easy online loans have quick and convenient applications, they also have due dates. You should always make sure you can cover these payments on top of your usual expenses.

3. Think of Your Budget as a Learning Tool

There’s no shame in using an installment loan or line of credit as a safety net in an unexpected emergency. But once you confirm you can afford these online loans, you’ll want to reassess your budget to see why you had to borrow money in the first place.

Analyzing your budget after the dust settles can help you spot bad spending habits or holes in your income that prevent you from saving up enough cash to handle an emergency on your own.

What Can You Do to Make a Better Budget?

You’re already a step ahead of the game by thinking of your budget as a malleable document you can change and improve. Although it’s harder to do as a student — what with tuition taking a huge chunk of your earnings — it is possible.

Start by listing your expenses for each month, remembering to add in any irregular purchases like toiletries, prescriptions, and clothing. Next, brainstorm how you can spend less.

For a true challenge, you may consider moving to a cheaper neighborhood and sharing rent with a greater number of roommates. But try focusing on the small things first — they’re easier to change.

Below are some ideas to get you going.

  • Groceries: Check out Leanne Brown’s cookbook Good and Cheap that offers delicious and nutritious meals for just $4 a day. Plan your meals ahead so that you can shop strategically using coupons and rebate apps.
  • Subscriptions: Between Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, and Prime, your streaming accounts can take a big chunk of your paycheck — even at the student rate. Talk to friends, family, and roommates about sharing these accounts to reduce what you pay.
  • Books: Once you add up all your reading material, books can wind up costing you more than $1,000. You might save money by buying used books, sharing textbooks with classmates, or going online for free publications.

Bottom Line

If you’ve lived on your own before, these bills may not come as a total shock. But you may be out of practice after a year and change living at home. Money management is a skill that gets better the more you stretch these financial muscles.

To make sure you’re ready for whatever a new semester back on campus brings, remember your budget. As a spending plan that helps you prioritize your cash, cut down expenses, and prepare for unexpected expenses, it’s one of the best things you can pack for the fall.