Semester spending: How it all breaks down

College expenses: How do your semester spending habits compare?

Think you’re spending too much? Here’s how to plan for what the average college student spends on living expenses.

Though college students are often stereotyped as eating ramen for dinner and living on notoriously tight budgets, you are part of a group that has a significant economic impact: A recent study showed that back-to-school spending by college students continued to rise from year to year even during the COVID-19 pandemic.1 And it’s estimated that, over the course of a four-year education, students spend close to $53,000 on rent, transportation and personal expenses — 12% more than the average amount they spend on academic needs like tuition and books.2

You can track and plan your spending through budgeting. If you’re new to budgeting, try keeping these seven key steps in mind.

1. Know how much money you make each week

The first step in creating a budget for your semester spending is identifying all of your income sources. For each source of income, note when you’ll be paid and how much each payment will be. That provides your baseline as you move to the next step. They’re unique to each student, but if you want to know generally how your situation compares to others, here are some broad averages: The largest portion of college costs (44%) is paid for with parents’ income and savings. Next up, scholarships and grants pay for 25% of students’ costs. Student loans paid for 13%, while the remaining costs were covered by student savings and income, parent borrowing, and gifts from relatives.

For each source of income, note how much and when you’ll get paid throughout the semester. Match your income against your scheduled expenses to help ensure you’ll be able to cover the essential ones like tuition, books, transportation, and housing; then see how much you have left for discretionary spending, such as entertainment, clothes, charitable giving, etc.

2. Make a list of your expenses and when they are due

Your college costs likely include a mix of essential and optional spending. You’ll want to create a list of the essential costs, and when those bills are due, to make sure you have a plan for expenses such as tuition, books, housing/rent, utility bills, and the like. Then you can get a glimpse of how much you have left for optional spending for things like entertainment.

Remember, wants and needs can seem very similar, but, as you make day-to-day decisions, know your numbers. For example, eating. That’s essential. But the average monthly grocery bill for college students is $250, or $3,000 a year, and the average that a student spends on restaurant meals each month is just over $340 a month, or around $4,100 a year. Even if you spend twice as much on groceries each month to avoid eating out, you’ve potentially reduced your food costs by $1,100 a year.

It can help to keep records of your spending so that you can get a sense of your monthly costs, as well as the impact of periodic expenses such as holiday travel. Over time, you’ll get a detailed picture of your daily, weekly, and monthly expenses.

Another good way to make budgeting predictions is to track your past spending habits, from big-ticket items (like car payments and credit card bills) to the small stuff (like last-minute lunches or coffee). To help yourself plan expenses down to the week, take a look at what real students actually spend.

3. Determine if you have a gap between income and expenses

Once you’ve got your income and expenses written down, look at where your expenses are higher than your income.

You have two options for closing gaps in your budget: You can either find more funds or reduce your expenses. To find more funds, you might take an additional job, or replace your current one with something that pays more. For tuition costs, you could apply for additional scholarships. Make taking out additional student loans your last resort to close a gap.

To help reduce expenses, you could consider cutting any extras and splurges out of your budget, sharing rent costs with a roommate (or two), or shopping around for deals on expenses like your phone plan.

4. Be clear on needs versus wants

A need, or essential expense, is something important that you can’t get by without during the semester — for example, housing, groceries, and transportation to class. Wants are things you could go without, even if they make you happy or enrich your college experience. Clothes, restaurant meals, entertainment, hobbies, and club memberships are enjoyable, but they are expenses that you may need to reduce or cut if you have any budget gaps. Your future self will thank you.

5. Create a budget that works for you

When you know your income and expenses, you’ve set your spending priorities, and you’ve determined needs versus wants, you have the information you need to create your personalized college budget. This clear, accurate breakdown of how your money should be coming in and going out during the semester will give you better control over your spending. Plus, it lets you create a plan to build your savings — which will help you develop a financial cushion for any unexpected expenses.

Tracking your performance against your budget weekly and monthly will help you stay on course so you can reach your financial goals. Refer to your budget often and make adjustments as needed. All semester long, managing your money is much easier when you’re working with a strong budget — one that can help you determine where you might need to cut costs. For example, transportation can be adjusted. College students spend an average of $2,806 on transportation over four years at college,2 but many students minimize these expenses by walking or biking as much as they can.

6. Track your expenses and revisit your budget

Once you’ve got your budget, you can build good personal financial habits by regularly reviewing your spending to make sure it stays aligned to that budget. Start by keeping track of your daily and weekly expenses to get a handle on what you’re spending and where you’re spending it, then use that information to help refine and execute your plan.

Simply put, budgeting is projecting (and controlling) how much you’ll spend. If you’re a Wells Fargo customer, using Budget Watch could help you automate the process of tracking your spending and setting up budget goals. And Wells Fargo My Money Map can be a helpful way to start mapping and categorizing your spending. Another helpful tip is to run all your spending through a debit card so you can monitor it more easily and know whether you’re on or off track in real time.

7. Stick to your plan, using guardrails to prevent overspending

Income, expenses, and budgets can change often while you’re at college. With that in mind, you’ll want to make a habit of reviewing your budget regularly. It’s helpful to review it at the end of each week until you’re comfortable that it’s working for you, at which point you could consider doing fewer reviews — but still, at least once per month is a good idea.

As part of this review, be sure to look at the details of your bank account. Keep a watchful eye on it not only to get a sense of your cash flow but also to protect yourself against any suspicious or fraudulent activity. Wells Fargo Account Alerts4 are an excellent tool to help you stay on top of your account activity. Plus, you can use Control Tower® to get an overview of all your recurring payments and cut unnecessary costs.

You can also automate certain things to make sure you’re paying the expenses that you’ve budgeted for. A couple of examples of automated money tools are Bill Pay, which can connect to your checking account, and automated transfer to savings.

If you’re still having trouble keeping your spending on plan, consider ways to challenge yourself. One way you could help make your budgeting fun is to partake in a no-spend challenge, even if it’s just for a day. Like one of our writers, you might decide you like the challenge so much that you extend it for a month!


  1. “Coronavirus could push back-to-school spending to record level as uncertain families gear up for at-home learning,” National Retail Federation, July 15, 2020
  2. “College Student Spending Statistics and Facts — 2020,”, June 12, 2020
  3. “How America Pays for College 2020,” Sallie Mae, 2020
  4. Sign-up may be required. Availability may be affected by your mobile carrier’s coverage area. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply.

Learn how real college students create their budgets in three steps.

Want to read more about building a spending plan in school?

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