The cost of a degree is so much more than a single bill—you need to factor in where you’ll be living, how you’ll get from point A to point B, and how you’ll satisfy your hunger for food and fun.

Each collegiate expense can be put into the category of either fixed or variable.

  • Fixed expenses are recurring costs that can rarely be changed, meaning you know what to expect when the bill comes around.
  • Variable expenses are costs that fluctuate monthly in price. Since variable expenses change, it’s important to stay flexible and track your expenses month-to-month.

Let’s go over some of the specific expenses and ways you can make them a bit more affordable.

Fixed Expenses


Rent is often the biggest fixed expense in a monthly budget. It’s not uncommon to pay 30% of your monthly income toward housing. And while that number may seem like a lot, there are ways to help you get the most bang for your buck.

Amenities like gas, water, and electricity aren’t always included in the monthly cost of rent. That means there will be an added amount of at least $30-ish per month that you’ll need to pay for. For college students, this price is often fixed, but it could be a variable expense, meaning it changes depending on how much you use each month.

Try to find a place that balances affordability with safety. If the rent is almost nothing but the crime rate is high, it’s probably not worth the trade-off. Living with roommates is a great way to make it possible to afford a much nicer place since you’ll be splitting to bill.

Another big help toward housing costs can actually come from your college. Work-study programs sometimes include options to help pay for room/board, so contact your school’s financial aid office and get details on what options they have available.


The cost of tuition depends entirely on where you want to go. For example, out-of-state tuition can be double the price of in-state tuition. The average tuition for out-of-state, public universities is around $26,427 while in-state averages around $9,308. Private schools will almost always be more expensive, averaging around $32,410 per year.

Paying for tuition can be a challenge. Ideally, you would be able to cover the majority of this cost through scholarships or financial aid (such as the FAFSA). There are thousands of unclaimed scholarships out there just waiting for someone to apply for them. Depending on the state, you could also potentially live there for some time, become a resident, and avoid paying out-of-state tuition costs.


There are tons of things that you pay for regularly via a subscription, a bill, or a monthly payment. This includes things like streaming services, gym memberships, insurance, and your phone bill. These payments will be fixed once you sign that contract. Since you can’t do anything to lower them month to month, you’ll need to make cost-saving decisions before then.

It’s often cheaper to stay on your family’s plan than it would be to get your own. Try talking to your family about staying on their health insurance or phone plan for now. You can also look into student memberships. For example, Spotify has a student plan that also gives you access to Hulu and Showtime for much cheaper than the regular plan. And, finally, there may be a few memberships that you cut out for now. One easy one to cut is a gym membership. You’ll likely have access to a gym on campus for free, so it may not be necessary to pay for another one.

Variable Expenses


You’ll need to get to campus, events, grocery stores, and more while at college, and transportation costs add up quickly. On top of gas and maintenance costs for a car, you’ll likely also have to pay parking fees. These could range anywhere from $40 to $2,500 per semester!

The cheapest mode of transportation is walking or biking, and the benefit is doubled because it’s good for your health. If that’s not realistic, public transportation can be a convenient way to save money. Some colleges even provide discounted or free bus passes. If your school doesn’t or the city doesn’t have sufficient public transportation infrastructure and you have to drive, you can still do things to save money. Carpool with room or classmates and try to lump as many errands into the same trip as possible so that you aren’t going out every day.

Books/Study Materials

More often than not, you’ll be responsible to pay for study materials yourself. And textbooks are expensive. A single book could cost you hundreds of dollars, and there’s never a guarantee you can sell it afterwards.

Unless the syllabus or professor says otherwise, it can be beneficial to wait until the first day of class to buy your textbooks. Some professors will tell you that not all of the books listed are mandatory or they might provide pdf versions for you. It’s also a good idea to check if any are available in the school library. Finally, you can save money by buying your textbooks used or renting them for the semester.


Everyone needs to eat! If this is the first time you’ve been responsible for your meals, you may think it’s easier to eat out all the time. Most cheap fast food restaurants cost an average of $5-$10 per meal, that doesn’t feel like much. But eating out once a day adds up to roughly $150-$300 dollars a month. That’s roughly the same cost as a full month of groceries, which will feed you three times a day (and also likely be way better for your health).

Some schools offer meal plans that allow you to eat a certain amount of meals at a cafeteria or give you a reloadable charge card to use on campus. While this may be convenient, you should be careful to ensure you aren’t spending more on the meal plan than you would otherwise.

Fun Expenses

There’s SO much going on at college. Between concerts, nights out with friends, coffee dates, and sporting events, there are plenty of opportunities to spend your money. And there’s no shame in taking advantage of those things. You’ll only be there for a little while, after all. Just remember that you can’t do everything. Not only will that do some serious damage to your budget, but you likely won’t have time for it. What you’re there for is an education, after all, and too much fun can get in the way of that.

Many colleges and surrounding attractions offer discounted event tickets for students. Always check to see if you can save a few bucks before you buy.

It’s best to set a limit for yourself each month for this area based on where you feel most comfortable. For some people that will be a few hundred dollars, for others it will be $20. No matter where you set that limit, there are plenty of ways to have fun and experience college life. Just make sure to stick to that limit or it will negatively impact the rest of your budget.

Ultimately, budgeting is the best way to prepare for the cost of independent college living. If you understand the expenses and know what sort of income you’ll need in order to successfully support yourself, you’re already ahead of the game.


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