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Become a budgeting master and avoid student debt

by Valeria Cori-Manocchio January 26, 2016
Become a budgeting master and avoid student debt

The ultimate tips for constructing a budget and making sure you save money where it counts

Planning a budget is always a good idea. It stretches the student dollar farther and helps finance future plans. Meghan Drennan of Concordia’s Student Success Centre and also a former student explains the basics of creating a budget and managing your finances as a student. Here are some of her tips.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Be goal-oriented

Before opening an excel spreadsheet to make your calculations, set a S.M.A.R.T goal. This involves coming up with a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Knowing your end goal is motivational and keeps you focused. However, it’s essential to remind yourself of said objectives. Drennan suggested keeping pictures on the fridge or in your wallet to help deter you from a moment of consumer weakness.

Budgeting basics

1) Start by identifying and jotting down every source of income you make. This includes paychecks, part-time jobs, savings, tax refunds and even bursaries and loans—just be aware of the fact that loans must be paid back.

2) Next come the one-time, upfront expenses like tuition, textbooks, utilities set-up and moving expenses.

3) Once you have expenses and sources of income narrowed down, then your monthly income is calculated by subtracting expenses from income and dividing the balance up per month. Most student budgets are divided by eight to correlate the length of the school year, but if you don’t plan or returning home for the summer, divide your monthly income by 12.

4) Finally, determine your monthly expenses, such as rent, transportation, entertainment, food, internet and your phone bill, and subtract that from your balance.

Note: It’s common to end up with a balance of $0 or less the first time you make a budget. The key is to minimize monthly expenses and find ways to save as much of your monthly income as possible.

Tips: Drennan suggested getting a roommate to decrease rent and electricity costs, preparing your own lunches, shopping around at less expensive grocery stores to scope out the best deals and splitting entertainment expenses, for example having a Netflix account among several friends.

Following through

Drennan said staying on track can be particularly difficult because you want to participate in what your friends are doing, regardless of the cost. She suggested treating yourself with mini-rewards that will not break the bank—enjoy a cup of tea with a friend or take a relaxing bath at the end of the week.

It’s also important to know what you’re paying for. Whenever you’re shopping, consider the number of hours you will have to work to pay off the purchase.

She also recommended using Excel or budget apps like MVelopes and You Need a Budget. They are easy, user-friendly ways to keep progress going. Taking the time to file receipts is another, more tangible way to assure your budgeting is being carried out.


Drennan also has guidelines for students with debt. Firstly, write down every one you need to pay back—it’s nerve-racking, but you’ll know exactly how much you owe and to whom.

Drennan stressed the importance of learning about Concordia’s existing services. The People’s Potato offers free lunches daily and a food bank twice a month. The Student Emergency Food Fund assists Concordia students, providing gift cards to purchase food.

In terms of school costs, Drennan said to check-out Concordia’s Co-op Bookstore or abebooks.com, instead of purchasing course books at full price. For International students, she recommends Work Study, which permits students to work on campus for sometimes more than minimum wage and build a network of contacts. Meeting with Financial Aid and Awards or setting up an appointment with the Career Resource Centre is always a good idea to figure out if you qualify for any awards or bursaries.  

“Think of budgeting as a lifestyle,” said Drennan. Once you develop a rhythm it becomes almost natural.

Dos and Don’ts

Don’t plan an entertainment budget of $0; no one can live like that.

Do carry cash to give you a visual idea of how much you can actually spend, especially if you’re the type to unconsciously use your debit card to pay for everything. However, carry cards if having cash on you is too difficult to resist.

Do look into applying for in-course bursaries—the application is lengthy, but the funds you may receive will be well worth it.

Do buy things in bulk when you can afford to.

Don’t use your credit card to pay for purchases you cannot immediately pay back in cash.

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