Personal Budget Guide

Good financial management skills make life easier, both during school and after graduation. While college students often face increased expenses as they juggle work, school, and personal obligations, careful budgeting can take some of the financial stress out of college life. Developing a budget is an easy and effective way to manage your money and minimize debt as you pursue a medical assistant certification. If this is the first time you have considered creating a budget, you are not alone. In fact, According to a U.S. Bank study, only about 41% of Americans say they manage their finances with a monthly budget. Budgeting might initially seem daunting, but it is simple to put into practice, and can even become a fun challenge.

Every prospective medical assistant knows that school-related expenses can add up quickly, especially after factoring in the costs of externships and exam fees. A budget helps you keep track of essential expenses, holds you accountable for your spending, and lets you easily monitor your finances. While many students graduate college burdened by heavy debt, good money management skills prevent overborrowing and overspending. College is an expensive investment, but it is also an opportunity to acquire new skills — including financial literacy — that provide lifelong benefits. In this guide, we’ll take a look at how you can better manage your funds, develop a budget, and take advantage of money-saving resources for students.

Getting Started

Budgeting Terminology

Mastering any new subject requires learning new vocabulary words, and personal finance is no exception. You are likely to encounter the following terms as you explore the budgeting process.


Total Income: As a student, your total income consists of the money you have when you begin school, including scholarships, financial aid, and money from work.


Monthly Income: This term refers to the entire sum of money you receive from work on a monthly basis. If you are a temporary, freelance, or hourly worker, this amount may vary considerably from month to month.


Discretionary Income: Discretionary income is the amount of money that you can afford to spend on unessential things, such as concert tickets or going out for drinks. It is the sum left over after covering all essential costs.


Essentials: Essential costs are those you need to survive, including food, clothing, healthcare, and rent. For students, this category includes school-related necessities such as tuition and books.


Nonessentials: From fancy haircuts and Frappuccinos to video games and movie tickets, nonessentials are extra expenses — items and services you enjoy, but could live without.


Fixed Expenses: This term is used to designate recurring monthly expenses that cannot be adjusted or negotiated. These include rent or mortgage payments, healthcare, and car insurance.


Variable Expenses: Whether essential or nonessential, all expenses that differ from month to month are considered variable. The monthly cost of food, for example, often varies periodically. Depending on your plans and provider policies, your cell phone or cable bill may also be variable expenses.


Emergency Funds: An emergency fund is a type of savings account which is set up to cover unexpected expenses such as medical bills. Emergency funds typically contain three to six months’ worth of savings.


Track Your Spending

  1. Assess Current Financial Spending: The first step towards better money management requires a thorough assessment of your spending habits. The easiest way to get a comprehensive idea of your expenses and income is to download your last three or four monthly bank statements. With your statements in hand, create a list of your usual monthly expenses and the average amount you spend on each.
  2. Categorize Expenses: Now that you have a list of your monthly expenses, divide them into essential and nonessential categories. Essentials are fixed expenditures that typically cost the same every month, such as rent, phone service, health insurance, and tuition payments. Be sure to include school-related essentials like books, internet service, and course materials. The second, nonessential list should consist of variable expenses, such as food and entertainment.
  3. Do the Math: Add up all of your essential expenses on your essentials list and subtract that number from your total monthly income. The resulting sum is your discretionary income — money which you can spend on nonessentials, invest, or put aside in savings.
  4. Create Your Budget: Now you are ready to develop a budget. Consider using the 50/20/30 rule, which suggests that you should designate 50% of your income for essential items and expenses, 20% for your savings, and the remaining 30% may be spent on nonessential items. If, like many students, you are on a limited budget, you may adjust this rule to better fit your lifestyle.

Your discretionary spending limit says a lot about your current budget. Low discretionary income is a sign of overspending, and individuals who overspend while relying on student loans may find themselves taking out high-interest loans and incurring large amounts of debt. Fortunately, it is easy to trim nonessential costs. For example, do you go to Starbucks every morning, when it might be cheaper make coffee at home? You can also reduce some essential expenses. Instead of buying new textbooks, look for used copies, and save on food by dining at home.

Maintaining Your Budget

Most individuals’ expenses and income differ from month to month and year to year, and everyone experiences the occasional financial setback. With this is mind, it is important to update and amend your budget on a regular basis,particularly after experiencing any significant change in your financial situation, such as receiving a pay raise or bonus. By making periodic budget adjustments, you can avoid unpleasant financial surprises and fine-tune your spending habits to meet your savings goals. Developing a regular budget maintenance schedule is also a great way to increase your financial literacy, promote lifelong healthy attitudes toward money management, and take some of the stress out of making payments.

Budgeting Tools


Left to Spend: This no-frills iOS app tracks your spending, gives you a budgeted allowance, and warns you when you are nearing your spending limit. The history tab provides further insight into your budgeting progress. Downloading the app requires a one-time $2.99 payment.


Microsoft Excel: You may already have access to professional budgeting software on your phone, tablet, or computer. Microsoft Excel spreadsheets make it easy to create a customized budget and track your spending and savings. Not sure how to develop Excel equations? Simply download free templates from PearBudget, or the Google Docs gallery.


Mint: This app is one of the most popular budgeting tools available. Mint alerts you to upcoming payments, monitors your credit score, and tracks your spending through easy-to-read graphs. The app may also be linked to your TurboTax profile. Mint is available for iOS and Android phones. You may also access your account through the website.


Personal Capital: Personal Capital is a free finance tracking app that goes above and beyond simple budgeting. The service combines your investments, credits cards, bank accounts, and loans to create a holistic view of your finances. Users can take an in-depth look at their investable cash, retirement savings, and monthly cash flow.


Simple.com: Want to plan a trip to Spain? Buy new shoes? Simple.com helps users meet their financial financial goals by storing their savings in digital envelopes. This free online checking account comes with its own debit card and online budgeting tools. Customers may incur charges for using ATMs at non-participating banks.


Wally: Scan receipts, manually enter your expenses, and let this free app track your spending as you meet financial goals. Set savings targets and receive periodic notifications about your remaining monthly funds, or track your budget history through colorful pie charts. Wally is available for Android phones and iOS devices.


YNAB: You Need A Budget, or YNBA, is an app created to reduce debt by encouraging users to log their spending, categorize their daily expenses, and set deadline-based savings goals. YNAB keeps individuals financially accountable. You may also track your funds by syncing the app with your credit cards and bank accounts. After a free 34-day trial, YNAB costs $6.99 a month.


Tips for Cutting Costs in College

Adopt Healthy Spending Habits: While debt may linger for decades, acquiring positive spending habits now can help you avoid financial difficulties in the future. The healthy financial habits you develop in college come with lifelong rewards, and there are lasting benefits to frugal living, budgeting, and putting aside emergency funds. Free budgeting apps such as Spending Tracker, Habitica, and Slice offer convenient ways to track your daily spending, cut back on unnecessary purchases, and monitor credit card purchases. Credit cards are useful in emergencies and as a means of building credit, but avoid developing a habit of charging unnecessary items that you must later pay interest on.

At-Home Meal Preparation: Dining out may be convenient, but it is also expensive, and often unhealthy. Weekly meal planning can help you reduce spending, build self-sufficiency, and regulate what you eat. While the process might initially seem overwhelming, it takes only one day to prepare food for the rest of the week. Need further incentive? According to a VISA survey, Americans spend $2,746 a year on restaurant lunches, while preparing lunch at home costs only $6.30 per day.

Use Student Discounts: Your college ID can save you money on everything from computers and software to clothing. Many stores, restaurants, services, and even websites offer student discounts. In addition, most campuses sponsor free or discounted events, including concerts, presentations, and group activities. Campus clubs and organizations also host many inexpensive events.

Find Cheap Textbooks: While tuition comprises the bulk of college-related expenses, textbook costs can certainly add up. Save money by purchasing used books, downloading ebooks, or renting and borrowing texts from your school library. Before ordering textbooks online, Sites like Studentrate.com and BIGWORDS.com let you compare book prices, find coupons, and explore discounted options.

Graduate Earlier: According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 59% of full-time students graduate within four years. While many learners delay graduation due to family and work obligations, some students choose to cut tuition costs by graduating early. Most schools offer prior learning assessments, which allow candidates to receive credit for what they already know and avoid redundant coursework. Others graduate early by taking the maximum number of credits every semester, or by taking general education classes at a nearby college community to save additional money.

Additional Resources

  • Acorns: Ideal for college students on tight budgets, Acorns is a handy investment tool that lets users invest their spare change. The app rounds up amounts spent on daily purchases and deposits the change into portfolios. If you buy a $9.75 lunch, Acorns rounds the cost up to $10 and invests the $.25. Users with account balances under $5,000 pay a monthly $1 fee.
  • Letgo: Letgo is a platform for buying and selling used goods. The app’s easy-to-use interface allows users to exchange messages and negotiate on everything from furniture to clothes, or score freebies through the Free Stuff tab.
  • Claim It!: Connect with companies that are giving away free products in your city or town on Claim It! This site lets users enter company giveaways and win prizes in exchange for watching short video ads.
  • Net Price Calculator: The College Board’s Net Price Calculator estimates the average cost of tuition at your chosen school. Wondering which colleges have the highest and lowest net prices? Check out the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center.
  • Federal Work-Study Program: This need-based, government-sponsored program places students in on- and off-campus positions related to their major. Interested individuals may determine their eligibility by submitting a FAFSA.
  • College Board’s Scholarship Search: The College Board’s Scholarship Search exhaustive database includes more than 2,200 funding opportunities. The site’s search function allows visitors to explore awards by major, degree level, and other criteria.