How Much Should a College Student Be Spending on Living Expenses


Million DollarsCollege tuition is obviously a big part of the expense of college. but if you attend a state school or get a scholarship, living expenses will often be more than tuition expenses.  Part of the problem is that a lot of students spend a lot more than they really should, especially if they are borrowing the money on student loans.  Everything you borrow will need to be paid back with interest, and that loan balance can really add up quickly when you’re adding to it every year without feeling the pain of actually paying anything for it (yet).

Today I thought I’d look at the expenses that a typical college student has and what those expenses should be if you’re really trying to save and not start your life with a huge student loan balance.  Here’s what I found:

Rent: $400/mo or $4800/year

One of the biggest expenses is rent.  While you may be able to save a little money on rent by going home during the summer months, you’ll probably need to sign a yearly lease, so expect to spend money on rent during the summer as well.  Summer can also be a great time to take a couple of extra classes and increase the likelihood that you’ll graduate within four years, and since each year saved means a year saved on tuition and room and board, trying to get out fast is definitely a good strategy.

I think that most students should be able to get by with $400 in rent or less per month.  Note this may mean taking on roommates and/or getting creative if you choose a school in an expensive area.  Just remember that this is temporary and you’ll be able to get out into a better living arrangement in just a few short years.  Maybe also take a look at apartment prices when looking at colleges.  Don’t want to have 5 roommates?  Maybe San Francisco isn’t the city for you.  Looking further from campus might also be a good option since places near campus often fetch a premium (apartments are a lot cheaper just across the bay from San Francisco in Oakland, for example).  Another option to the standard apartment is to rent a room in a home instead of a full apartment (which can be great if you get to use the kitchen and other parts of the home as well).  Perhaps you can even get a special rate for helping out around the place or providing tutoring and some part-time nanny services for the family’s children.

Food: $200/mo or $2400/year

At $200 per month, assuming 90 meals, that’s a little over $2.20 per meal.  While this may not seem like much when compared to restaurant prices – even the fast food chains anymore – it is actually quite doable if you cook at home and are selective in what and how you cook.  Specifically:

  1. Learn to cook basic meals.  Cooking for yourself will cost a lot less than eating out or even buying TV dinners.  Avoid complex recipes that call for 50 ingredients and instead focus on learning to cook basic things like meats and vegetables by themselves.  You can also find many books with easy recipes and limited ingredients.  A basic cooking book (or an online version) like Betty Crocker or the Joy of Cooking is also a good way to learn cooking skills.
  2. Limit meat, making things like chili and stews that can be stretched with beans and potatoes and which use lesser cuts of meat.
  3. Make batches of things and then freeze portions.  This both saves time and allows you to save on food prices since buying more costs less per pound.
  4. Grow a container garden for some of your fresh produce (or see if you can start a small garden plot if you’re renting a room in a home).
  5. Use budget stretchers like rice, potatoes, and beans.  Each of these can be bought extremely cheaply but are filling.
  6. Avoid processed foods.  Not only does processing often add things you don’t want to your food like lots of salt, but it also adds costs.  Buy dry beans and rice, buy ingredients instead of pre-prepared meals that you heat up.  In general, the less that was done to the food before you buy it, the cheaper and better.

Insurance: $1500/year

Here I’m assuming your health insurance is part of your tuition or your parents are paying for it on their plan.  That leaves auto insurance, which might set you back $1500 per year because of your age.  You don’t need renter’s insurance – just don’t have anything in your place that is really valuable.  You also don’t need life insurance unless you have dependents.

Clothing: $100/mo or $1200 per year

Fashion should not be your concern when trying to get through college.  You can get the basics for about $100 per month, maybe asking for clothing as gifts around the holidays as well.  There is also nothing wrong with blood drive shirts and other “free clothing” you gather up.  Thrift stores are also great places to get some nice clothing if you head there often and learn when the new things come in.

Alcohol:  $20/mo or $240/yr

If you have student loans you have no reason to be buying $8 drinks or $4 beers in bars.  It is much cheaper to buy alcohol from the store.  You can also make wine for about $3 per bottle or less and beer for a quarter a bottle or less.  If you go out with friends, just stick to cokes or waters, maybe buying one beer.  Is this a sacrifice?  Yes, but that’s how you get out of college without a lot of student debt.

Gasoline:  $200/mo or $2400/yr

Assuming $40 per tank, $200 will allow you to fill up a little more than once per week.  If you’re living on or near campus, you may not even need that much.  This does not leave a lot of gas for cruising around town, but it is plenty to get back and forth from campus and make an occasional run to the store.   You can also cut your costs by riding a bike to school.

So really, that’s about it for expenses.  Adding them all up, you end up with about $12,000 per year in expenses.  It may not seem like a lot, but if you really cut back to the minimums, it is possible.  This isn’t how you’d want to live your whole life, but it is worth it to live this way for four or five years and graduate with maybe $25,000 in student loans instead of $100,000 or more.

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Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice. It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA. All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.


  1. I literally live behind a State Uninversity and 8 miles away from another one. I think your budget for college students is very generous. I don’t get 100$/ month now for clothing unless you add toiletries in there. But it is a very realistic budget.

    The large problem is the mindset of university students. I have to drive through campus to get anywhere, and let me tell you, their cars are newer and nicer than mine, their clothing is newer and nicer, and the amount of beer they buy while we are in line at Walmart is amazing. I wish I had what they had!

    While I do think that tuition is outrageous, many college students don’t want to “live Amish, or live poor” while they are going to school. Thus, racking up a lot of unnecessary student debt on items and fun that are long forgotten when they are looking at their student loans years later. All of a sudden their fun and things are now supposedly someone else’s problem to take care of?

    I know, because I have paid off a large student loan. I lived poorer during college, but not as poor as I had to live when I was paying off my loan…especially as a sociology major….

    So people do think before you spend extra.

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