Basics of the Budget

The first few weeks of school are pretty damn exciting. There’s welcoming events, moving, meeting new people, new classes, and, for a growing number of students these days, a giant student loan deposit in the bank. For many students, that lump sum payment is more money than they’ve ever had at one time.

Having that much money all at once can be a little overwhelming for some. Seeing that there are possibly thousands of dollars in your account can feel like you will never run out of money this semester. Once tuition is paid for the term, everything that’s left seems like fun money. Suddenly you can eat out, hit the bars, shop, and do all the things real grown ups like to do.

Except, you can’t.

You see, once that money is gone, IT’S GONE. Unless you have another source of income, you have to make that money last you. Hell, even if you DO have another source of income, you can’t run around blowing money on every little whim. You have to make (and stick to) a budget.

I know, that’s such an evil little word. “Budget” means “I have money, and I want to spend money, but I’m not allowed to spend money, so life just freakin sucks”. It also means, though, “I can afford to keep my bills paid off every month, have a bit of money to play with, don’t have to live in fear of eviction or not having money to spend on food, AND I get to practice this whole ‘being a grown up’ thing a little more”.

Before we get into how to make one loan payment stretch a whole semester, let’s go over the very basics of what a budget is, and how you can make one of your own.

1) Figure out how much it costs you to live every month.

Do you have to pay rent the first of the month? What about utilities (heat, electricity, water)? Internet? Phone? Look at every single thing you have to pay for every month. This isn’t just your living expenses, either. If you have a car, then you need to include any bills for that. If you have a balance on your credit cards, then payments need to be included too. Basically, any bill you have that needs to be paid off every month needs to be included.

The easiest way to do this is to just make a list. On one side of the page, list out all these expenses. On the other side, put how much they cost. Do you have something, like a cell phone or internet bill, that is a little different each month? Err on the side of caution, and write down what a more expensive month would cost you. Now, add everything up and…. voila! You have your basic bills!

2) How much money do you actually have?

Take into consideration every single way you get your money, whether it’s student loans, a part-time job, or an allowance from your parents. If it’s money coming in, then keep track of it! Again, just make a list of everything and add it all up. Do you have enough to even cover the costs of your basic bills?  If not, go right to step #6. If you do, then just read on.

3) What’s left for everything else?

I know, you want to take everything that’s left and go have some fun with it. And you can…….. possibly, in moderation. First, you need to figure out what you’ll need to spend on food every month.  Don’t kid yourself and say, “I can live on $5 a day” or “I can eat nothing but ramen all term”. Go to a real grocery store, look at the food. Figure out what you need, and budget for it.

Once you have food covered, then you can look at spending some on a little fun. Just don’t spend it all at once.  While it might feel great to go out one night and buy drinks for all your friends, that could cost you your whole month’s budget, leaving you stuck at home the rest of the month while everyone else is out having fun. Wouldn’t it feel better to just have a drink or two, and then save the rest for………. more nights out? Or a bit of shopping? Maybe you have a latte addiction you want to spend it on, or like to take cabs everywhere. You need to account for, and prepare for, all of this in your budget.

4) Where can you cut your costs?

Buying a coffee (or seven) every day can get pretty damn expensive. Same goes for taking cabs, eating out, using vending machines, and dozens of other things we tend to do every day. If you find yourself guzzling coffee, invest in a coffee pot and a few good (and large) travel mugs. If you cab it everywhere, grab a copy of the local public transit schedules to keep with you. All of these little things can start to add up and really eat away at your budget.  You need to find a way to cut back on these expenses, without totally depriving yourself (but that’s a topic for a whole other posting).

5) No matter your age, but a little something aside and try to be prepared.

You don’t have to open an RRSP and make big monthly contributions right now, but you should be saving something. Many students think that just because they’re not saving for retirement right now, they don’t have to save for anything. Well, that’s just damn wrong.

Do you want to buy Christmas gifts? What about big expenses, like clothes for a formal event or wedding? Will you be needing to get plane, train, or bus tickets once a semester? These are all things you need to plan for now. Saving part of the cost each and every month makes it easier to handle than letting it eat up a huge chunk of your budget one month.

Also, it is always a great idea to stash some money away for emergencies. Pretty much all the experts agree that you should have at least 6 months living expenses stashed away, in case your cash flow stops coming in for whatever reason. I know that seems like a lot, so just start small.  But a little aside at a time. Throw your change in a piggy bank. Have a portion of your pay check put directly into your savings. You can build up this emergency fund bit by bit now so that, when you need it most, it’s there for you.

6) Don’t have enough money to pull all this off? 

Well unless you find a way to cover all your costs, you are pretty much screwed.  There is no way to sugar coat this: you need to get off your ass, stop reading this blog, and go find more money NOW. Apply for scholarships, bursaries, grants, anything you may qualify for.  Start applying for jobs. Get (more) financial aid. Ask family members for help. Believe me, the LAST thing you want to do is start making up the difference with credit cards! At first, you think “Well it’s just a few hundred dollars, and I can’t just NOT buy groceries, so I’ll pay it off when I get more money”. The next thing you know, you’re getting ready to graduate, and have thousands in credit card debt ON TOP OF your school debt.

It’s not going to be easy, but there are ways you can get more money each month. Talk to a financial counsellor (if your school provides them), or someone you know who is great with money. There are also a lot of great resources out there (Gail Vaz Oxlaid, The Wealthy Barber, bank websites) that can give you more ideas and help than I ever could.

So that’s it: your basic budgetting. Now that you have it on paper, try to stick with it. I admit, it won’t always be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.

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