College costs go far beyond annual tuition.

In addition to tuition, students have to set aside funds for books, housing, supplies, food, and extracurriculars. Each year students find a way to make it work through an individualized mix of savings, scholarships, grants, student loans, and hard work.

To give you an idea of what college actually costs and how a student affords everything, we asked a college graduate for her budget while in school. Jessica R. paid for her time at the University of Delaware through a combination of scholarships, student loans, a part-time job, and help from her parents. By second semester senior year, she also had her “life savings,” which was $3,000 she earned from a summer job and working as much as possible over winter break. Her savings account was her back up plan when she went over budget.

Budgeting admittedly did not come easily to Jessica, who accumulated nearly $1,500 in credit card debt her freshman year. After that, she started tracking her expenses through the Mint® app. “Every month is a little different and there are always unexpected expenses, but I’ve forced myself to keep track of everything,” she says. “When you overspend, there’s an urge to tune out—to not look at account balances, to stop tracking expenses—but eventually that just gets more stressful,” Jessica realized. She’s been diligent about tracking her expenses ever since.

Here, she shares a breakdown of her annual tuition spending and a snapshot of one month of expenses from her senior year. This is February—the last month of college where her spending was typical. “March, April, and May were uncharacteristically high due to spring break and graduation,” Jessica said. “I spent $1,300 of my savings.”

Annual Tuition

First, here’s how Jessica paid for her tuition. As an out-of-state student, her yearly tuition and fees were $34,580. Those costs were paid by:

Funding Source Amount
Scholarships $6,000
Direct Unsubsidized Loan $4,500
Parents’ Savings & Loans $24,080
TOTAL $34,580

By the time Jessica started tracking her finances and making a monthly budget, she was no longer living in the dorms. In Newark, Delaware, living off campus and buying her own food wound up being less expensive than living in campus housing and eating her meals in the dining hall. She estimates she saved about $300 per month once she moved.

Since her parents initially paid for her room and board in the dorm, they agreed to continue helping her once she moved off campus. Each month, they gave her $1,000 — all of which came from savings and their income—to cover basic expenses like rent, utilities, and food. She earned about $500–$600 per month (after taxes) working 10–15 hours per week in a restaurant. She also had her $3,000 savings account.

Below is her budget from February of her senior year in college. This was a typical month of spending without too many unexpected costs, with the exception of a deposit for spring break, which she planned for. Her budget was $1,500, which included $1,000 from her parents and $500 from her off-campus job.

Monthly Expenses

Expense Budgeted Actual Cost Jessica’s Comments
Rent $685 $685 On budget.
Utilities $20 $18 This always varied by a few dollars, but it rarely went over $20.
Internet $15 $15 On budget.
Groceries $200 $105 Lower than usual from eating out more, but I didn’t really save money because I spent more eating out.
Eating out/coffee $200 $302 Way over budget. There’s really no excuse other than I was never home.
Ride shares $30 $41 It was February. The colder it is, the harder it is to resist getting a car.  
Entertainment $100 $90 A little under budget. Yay!
Home supplies $20 $16 This was always a little different because you rarely buy the same home supplies every month.
School expenses $20 $13 Beyond the first month of a semester, school expenses were fairly rare. Little things come up here and there. This was a book.
Beauty/drug store $50 $44 Came in under budget, which is usually the case as long as I’m not getting my hair cut.
Clothes $60 $78 Went a little overboard at H&M.
Miscellaneous $100 $360 Would’ve been under budget, but I had to put a deposit down for my spring break trip. That money came out of my savings.
TOTAL $1,500 $1,767 $267 came out of my savings. I planned for most of it.

Jessica knew her costs for February would be higher than her typical budget because of her spring break deposit. Thanks to careful planning and a lot of hard work over her school breaks, she had money in her savings account she was able to use.

If you’re thinking about how you’re going to juggle your savings, grants, scholarships, student loans, and income to pay for school, consider making a budget like Jessica’s and using a budgeting app to keep track. Remember, it’s always smart to add some wiggle room because unexpected costs are bound to pop up.

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