Budgets 101: How to Make Your Spending Money Last in College

“Why am I running out of money?”

That’s the question students ask most when they visit the student money management center at University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia.

“When I ask them about a spending plan or a budget, they’ll typically say, ‘Yeah, I know what I spend my money on,’” says the center’s coordinator, Jean Cyprien. “But when I show them a spreadsheet with different categories for spending, they’ll say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I was spending that on eating out’ or ‘I forgot about that music app that I’m paying for.’”

You may have income from a part-time job, or you may start the semester with a lump sum. No matter your source, you have to make your spending money last all semester.

Here’s how to do it.

Set expectations with your parents

Before school starts, have a conversation with your parents about who’s paying for what.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where it’s kind of up in the air,” says Philip Schuman, senior director of financial literacy at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. “Having that first initial conversation will help go a long way toward having students become more financially independent from their parents.”

For example, your parents may agree to cover tuition and supplies, but you’ll have to pay for living expenses.

Separate needs and wants

Paying for your wants shouldn’t come at the expense of your needs. To prioritize spending, start with a list of expenses you are certain of during the semester, such as a trip home at Thanksgiving or filling your car with gas every two weeks.

Subtract those expenses from the amount of money you have for the semester. What’s left is your discretionary spending money.

Now divide that remaining amount by the number of weeks you need to cover. For example, if you have $800 available over a 15-week semester, that’s a little over $50 a week you could spend.

Use leftover financial aid wisely

If you borrow student loans to pay for college, there may be remaining funds you can use for personal expenses after covering tuition and fees, as well as room and board.

But avoid spending loan money on nonessentials, like streaming services, vacations or delivered food. Paying for those expenses with financial aid can be costly, since you’ll have to pay back the money you borrow, with interest.

Find a tracking tool you’ll use

There are endless ways to track spending, including phone apps, online budgeting worksheets, an Excel spreadsheet or a paper and pen.

It doesn’t matter what tool you use, so long as you find something that works for you, college budgeting experts say. If maintaining an Excel spreadsheet isn’t your thing, try an app that links to your bank account.

Tracking your money can help you make smarter spending choices.

“You’ve got to take responsibility to say, ‘I can’t go out and spend money to go to the bar or pizza place, because I’m not going to have enough money for the books that I need,’” says Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling organization.

What to do if you slip up

Overspending is probably going to happen. You might budget $50 a week, but one weekend you end up spending double or triple that amount.

You don’t necessarily need to work more hours at a part-time job or send an SOS to your parents to get back on track. Instead, adjust your budget. There are two effective ways to do it:

  • Stop spending. Plan to skip a few weeks of spending to stick with your current budget. If you spent three weeks of your allotment in one weekend, for example, then curtail spending for two weeks.
  • Start over. Add up all of the money you have left for the semester and divide by the number of weeks left. This is the new amount available to spend each week.

The article Budgets 101: How to Make Your Spending Money Last in College originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Applying to College? Expect to Pay at Least This Much

College attendance costs get all the attention, but you’ll start paying for school when you begin the application process. Factoring in the costs of test preparation, test taking and applications, expect to spend at least $678 — and perhaps thousands more — before you’ve received acceptance letters, according to NerdWallet’s calculations.

Read on to learn more about the college application process and how you can cut costs if they’re unmanageable.

Application fees

When asked how many applications students should submit, “It depends” is the answer college admissions experts give most. They mean you should apply to a mix of safety and reach schools, as well as “match” schools that are likely to be good fits — between five and 12 schools total.

If you’re worried about affording tuition, you might benefit from applying to more schools, says Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors, a college advising company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. You’ll pay more in application expenses, but if you’re looking for scholarships, the more opportunities, the better.

“My merit scholarship students apply to more schools than other students,” Heller Adler says. “You can’t be 100% sure how much a merit scholarship might be, so while I usually recommend seven schools to students, merit scholarship students should apply to closer to 10 schools.”

Application fees range up to $90, but the most common amount is $50, according to a 2015 U.S. News survey. For our calculations, we assumed that students would apply to eight schools and pay $400 in application fees.

Taking the test

Choosing to take the ACT, the SAT or both isn’t a matter of cost: The two tests are widely accepted and similarly priced. Experts say you should take both and report the results of your highest-scoring exam.

Without the essay, the SAT costs $45 per student, and the ACT costs $42.50. We assumed a student would take each test once, then take one a second time. To approximate the costs of taking one of the tests a second time, we averaged the two costs ($43.75).

“If you do have a test you score better on, then we say, repeat your stronger test,” says Beth DeBeer, high school guidance counselor at John Jay High School in Cross River, New York.

The price of each test includes the option to send your scores to up to four schools. Additional score reports cost $12 each for either test. If you apply to eight schools, you’ll likely need four additional score reports, costing a total of $48.

Preparing for the test

To prepare for the SAT or the ACT, some students use books or online practice tests; others hire private tutors. Online test prep courses are a good middle ground for many. In our calculations, we used the cost of an online course by the test prep company Magoosh, which partnered with NerdWallet on this study. Their six-month online course costs $99. College preparation stalwarts Princeton Review and Kaplan each charge $299 for a self-guided SAT online test prep course.

Applying to college could cost much more

“At least” is the operative term when ballparking college application costs. You’ll see your test prep expenses increase quickly if you hire a tutor at $100-plus per hour or opt for a pricier test prep course. Princeton Review’s “Ultimate Classroom” option, for example, is a traditional classroom prep course that starts at $849, while Kaplan’s “Unlimited Prep” option costs $1,599. It lets you take and retake PSAT, SAT and ACT courses as often as you want until December of your senior year.

Add-ons such as the essay, an SAT subject test, or additional score reports also increase overall costs:

Additional costs SAT ACT
Test with essay $12 more $16 more
Subject test $26 (flat rate registration fee for up to three subject tests) + $20 for each test N/A
Additional score reports (four are included) $12 each $12 each
Rush/priority score reports $31 $16.50
Late registration $28 $27.50
Test date or center change $28 $25
Preliminary test (if not covered by your high school) $16 $12


Visiting a far-off school can also add to your application expenses. And some students can’t afford the costs of travel, accommodations and food.

However, the college visit can signify interest, an important admissions factor, especially at the most competitive schools. According to the 2015 State of College Admissions Report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 16.9% of colleges surveyed said a “student’s demonstrated interest” was of considerable importance and more than one-third said it was of moderate importance.

It’s an important factor in admissions to Connecticut College in New London, Conn., says Andy Strickler, the school’s dean of admission and financial aid. But the college recognizes that visiting campus can be cost prohibitive to some applicants, so it hosts an annual fly-in program known as Explore Weekend. During this weekend, interested students from underrepresented groups receive transportation to campus, lodging and meals. Many colleges nationwide offer these programs.

“There’s a certain level of access that’s afforded to families who have socioeconomic means at their disposal, so this is an effort on our part to combat that barrier to the process that socioeconomically disadvantaged families might experience,” says Strickler.

Other ways to save on college applications

If your family can’t afford application costs, there are other ways to save. First, ask prospective schools about fee waivers. Schools typically require only that a high school guidance counselor confirm you qualify. You might if you benefit from free or reduced lunch programs.

“I haven’t run into any institutions where an applicant says an application fee is a barrier to apply and have not been granted a fee waiver,” says Strickler, adding that among Connecticut College’s nearly 6,000 applicants last year, one-quarter were granted a fee waiver.

The SAT and ACT also offer fee waivers, and there are less expensive ways to prepare for standardized tests, including borrowing materials from your high school or local library. Some colleges today don’t require a standardized test at all; if one of these is on your list, you stand to save some money.

Next steps

Once you’ve been accepted and chosen a college, turn your attention to financial aid. Exhaust your federal options first, including federal student loans, scholarships and grants. Private student loans generally carry higher interest rates, but can help you cover additional expenses if necessary.

Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski. Victoria Simons is a data associate at NerdWallet. Email: vsimons@nerdwallet.com.


  • College application fee: $50, the most common amount reported by schools to U.S. News in a 2015 survey.
  • We assumed students would apply to eight schools (8 x $50 = $400 in application fees).
  • SAT fee, without essay: $45.
  • ACT fee, without essay: $42.50.
  • We assumed each student takes both tests once and takes one test again. We averaged the cost of both tests to represent an approximate cost of taking one test an additional time: $43.75.
  • Because only four score reports are included in the base cost of the ACT or SAT and we assumed each student applies to eight schools, we assume students will pay $12 each for four additional score reports: $48 total.
  • We used the cost of Magoosh’s six-month online SAT prep course ($99) to calculate the minimum a student might spend on college applications.


The article Applying to College? Expect to Pay at Least This Much originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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