Personal Budget Guide

Updated September 28, 2022

This guide can help you set up a budget that works well for your needs and find tools to simplify the college application process. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Young woman paying bills online Credit: Blend Images - JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Like most people attending college, accounting students juggle a variety of priorities. Consequently, sometimes they put commonplace skills like personal budgeting on the backburner.

Despite the fact that only 41% of Americans use a budgeting system, creating a budget while in college will help you with proper money management and may serve as a foundation for academic success. When you control your personal finances and welcome the benefits of budgeting, you can handle challenges more adeptly and stay on track toward achieving your financial goals.

This guide can help you set up a budget that works well for your needs and find tools to simplify the process. Read on for information on how to get started, budgeting terminology, tracking your income and expenses, tools you can use for budgeting, tips for cutting costs, and links to additional resources.

Budgeting Terminology

Total Income: Your total income includes all financial sources, such as money in the bank or investment accounts, financial aid, and income from wages or salary.

Monthly Income: Your monthly income figure represents your recurring intake from employment. This figure may vary according to the number of hours you work.

Discretionary Income: Your discretionary income figure indicates spending money, or the amount available to you each month for spending on nonessentials.

Essentials: The figure for essentials includes expenses for all necessities that support your success in school, including living expenses plus items such as tuition, textbooks, and exam fees.

Nonessentials: The nonessentials category includes the amounts for optional personal expenses and any other elective goods or services you can live without.

Fixed Expenses: The fixed expenses category represents items for which you pay the same amount each month, such as rent or mortgage, insurance premiums, and car payments.

Variable Expenses: The variable expenses category represents items for which your expenditures vary each month, such as clothing, groceries, restaurant meals, and entertainment.

Emergency Funds: In the emergency funds category, include any money stored in savings or investments accounts set aside only for use in dire or exceptional situations.

Track Your Spending

  1. Assess Current Financial Spending: Good budgeting begins with accurate tracking of your current spending habits. Start by obtaining copies of your financial statements for the last few months from your financial institution. Examine them closely and put together a list for an average month including everything on which you spend money, along with the amount you spent for each item listed.
  2. Categorize Expenses: Once you've assessed your current spending, move on to your expenses. Sort each element of your budget into essential or nonessential categories. In the essentials category, include fixed expenses such as housing costs, insurance, student loan payments, tuition, and car payments, as well as necessary variable expenses such as groceries, transportation, and utilities. Also account for essential education-related expenses such as internet access, textbooks, exam fees, and class materials.
  3. Do the Math: Next, add together the figures you calculated for all the expenditures in your essentials list and subtract this total amount from your monthly income. The resulting figure represents your discretionary income.
  4. Create Your Budget: To establish the basis for your budget, examine the discretionary income figure you calculated in step three. This amount represents how much money remains for spending on nonessentials. If your result shows more expenses than income, you know your current monthly spending exceeds your intake. Many student loan recipients find themselves in this situation. Nonetheless, you can free up wiggle room by cutting costs, even for essentials. Small expenditures add up quickly, but frugal habits such as meal planning and finding cheaper textbooks or phone plans can go a long way toward achieving a balanced budget. For more suggestions, explore our list of cost-cutting tips below.

Financial planners frequently recommend a 50/20/30 rule for budgeting, meaning that ideally you should allocate 50% of your income to essentials, 20% to savings, and 30% to nonessentials. This guideline can serve as a general framework, but keep in mind that few people follow these proportions exactly, especially during college years. Find what works best for your situation and use the process of making a budget to help you identify your priorities. Spending less in one area permits you the choice of spending more elsewhere or saving toward future goals.

Maintaining Your Budget

Proper budget maintenance can help reduce your long-term financial burden and the amount you need to borrow for financial aid. Review your accounting student budget regularly, especially when your circumstances change. Comparing actual figures to the budgeted figures shows you where you need to make adjustments. Unexpected expenses come up for everyone, and part of proper budgeting involves learning to project expenditures as you go. To ensure your budget remains useful and reliable for financial planning purposes, keep the information current. Accuracy serves as a tool to help you understand where your money goes and keep you on track toward your goals.

Finally, update your budget at regular intervals, especially if you discover major discrepancies between projected and actual spending. Many financial planners recommend budget reviews every few months.

Budgeting Tools

Left to Spend: Left to Spend provides one easy-to-follow feature within a simple app for iOS users. You set an allowance you know will remain within your budget; when your allowance runs low, the app alerts you to how much money remains for you to spend.

Microsoft Excel: You can use spreadsheet applications such as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to organize and maintain a budget. They simplify the process through employing free or low-cost downloadable templates for focus areas such as wedding budgets and holiday gifts. Spreadsheets provide many useful functions, including analyzing and displaying differences between actual and budgeted spending, embedding budget summary or spending graphs into other documents, and tracking budget items by percentage of monthly and/or annual income.

Mint: As a popular and free web-based personal finance app, Mint offers personalized money management services. Mint's features include automatic downloading of transactions, alerts for unusual charges, creating budgets, investment tracking, setting and managing goals such as paying off credit cards, and checking and monitoring credit scores.

Personal Capital: Personal Capital is a free, award-winning, investment-oriented financial planning and wealth management tool you can use to track your investment portfolio, display your net worth, and plan for your retirement. Its features include easy importing of data, a brokerage fee analyzer, and dashboard graphs that automatically display summaries of income and expenses. provides online banking with integrated budgeting features. You can deposit checks, make transfers using your mobile device, and save automatically by setting goals. includes a safe-to-spend feature, detailed reports, auto tagging of transactions, fields for hashtags and personal notes on transactions, and an account-sharing feature.

Wally: A free personal finance app for iOS and Android, Wally offers budgeting tools to help you track your spending, compare income and expenses, and set financial goals. Wally features easy receipt scanning, customizable fields for notes and categories, and basic budget review analysis by spending category and time frame.

YNAB: YNAB is a personal finance app with an emphasis on budgeting to help you pay down debts and build a financial cushion. YNAB features at-a-glance displays of any amount overspent or carried forth unspent from the previous month, and students with proof of enrollment pay no monthly fee.

Tips for Cutting Costs in College

Adopt Healthy Spending Habits: Practicing healthy financial habits and tracking your spending during college offers many benefits. Sensible financial choices and responsible planning can serve as keys to building a good credit rating, providing a strong foundation for future financial goals, and minimizing the amount you need to borrow through student loans. To help you see where you can make changes, consider using resources such as Spending Tracker and Habitica to track your everyday spending, and Slice to track your online shopping.

Prepare Meals at Home: Many budget-conscious students elect to prepare most of their meals at home as a cost-cutting measure. Students who bring lunch from home only spend around $6.30 on lunch, while those who go out for lunch spend around $10. When you do go out to eat with a group, use the CheckPlease Lite app to figure appropriate amounts for tipping and splitting the bill. For help planning meals, consider using meal planning apps.

Use Student Discounts: As another way to save money, avail yourself of perks available to college students. Many businesses — including restaurants, travel services, software, electronics, and clothing stores — offer discounts of 10% or more to current students. Ask if an organization or business you patronize offers student discounts. For free or inexpensive entertainment and activities, look into attending campus events such as lectures or concerts, and consider joining student organizations.

Find Cheap Textbooks: You can often save money by taking time to seek out free or cheap loaner textbooks and other necessary school materials. Search second-hand bookstores, online bookstores offering discounts, and public or university libraries. Sometimes you can obtain ebooks for lower prices than print books, especially if you apply promotional codes, cash-back deals, and coupons. You can also search online textbook search engines and marketplaces such as StudentRate Textbooks that offer price comparisons.

Graduate Earlier: Consider increasing your credit load to enable you to graduate a term earlier than expected. Some students can complete 15 credits instead of 12 per semester, or take advanced placement classes during high school to place out of certain requirements. If you choose this strategy, try to select a college that helps students graduate on time. Take classes relevant to your major early on, since graduation delays often result from switching majors during your junior or senior year.

Additional Resources

  • The Wealthy Accountant: This award-winning blog is written by a tax accountant whose frugal ways, savings habits, investments, and careful budgeting allowed him to achieve financial freedom.
  • Budgets Are Sexy: This is a lively, non-boring personal finance and money-management blog targeted toward inspiring younger generations to save, invest, budget wisely, and develop clear financial goals.
  • DailyBudget: Designed for those who prefer simplified budget tools, DailyBudget provides an app offering one basic function: Telling you how much you can spend every day after subtracting necessities.
  • SmartyPig: SmartyPig features a free online "piggy bank" solution — a microsavings service with high-yield interest rates, the ability to track multiple savings goals, and retail gift cards with cash bonuses.
  • Digit: Digit provides an automated savings account to analyze your spending and automatically set aside money toward your savings goals; this will help you save without requiring frequent tracking.
  • Toshl Finance: Toshl Finance is a personal finance app allowing you to monitor all your cash, cards, and payment methods, including features such as budget graphs, bill-paying reminders, and automatic or manual tracking.

Recommended Reading

Search top-tier programs curated by your interests.

Let us know what type of degree you're looking into, and we'll find a list of the best programs to get you there.