Budgeting While In School

Money management is rarely an easy task, but for students, it can be even more challenging. With limited income streams, evolving financial obligations, and numerous transitional life events to plan for, budgeting while in school is a complex undertaking!

Generally speaking, budgeting and creating a spending plan involves a fairly universal process. Yet as students, you're faced with unique considerations and a financial reality unlike any other you are likely to experience. For instance, how many people can say that their main source of income is also simultaneously putting them into debt?

This section aims to speak to budgeting concerns and subsequent approaches Duke students should reflect on when creating their spending plans. Considerations highlighted in this topic section include:

  • Typical income streams for students
  • Expenses and other costs to plan for
  • Implementing and supporting your spending plan 

As you think about your unique financial reality at Duke, remember that if you need help balancing your income and expenses, our office can help you speak towards a budget and provide a space for further reflection through our 1:1 appointments!


There are many different types of income streams students may rely on for budgeting while in school. Each income stream has unique considerations, and will require a different way of planning its use. 

First, identify the source of your income: 

  • Pre-established savings from previous work or summer earnings 
  • Wages earned while working in school 
  • Financial aid funding such as stipends or loan refunds 
  • Support from home

It's common that students will use a combination of income streams to support themselves 

Next, think about the timing or consistency of your income stream: 

  • For lump sum incomes that come from savings, financial aid, or other funding sources, divide out your resources based on the number of months these funds will be sustaining you. For example, if you have $5,000 in savings that you plan to utilize for 9 months of the year (mid August- mid May), your "monthly income" would be $555.55. 
  • NOTE ABOUT FINANCIAL AID REFUNDS: Students that plan on using a refund from their financial aid award should assume that the funds will not be available until 2-3 weeks into the semester. Subsequently, students should plan to use a different income stream to cover expenses at the beginning of the term, specifically the months of August and January. For example, you may want to set aside summer earnings to cover expenses for the month of August, and budget out a Fall financial aid refund to cover September-January. 
  • Certain employment positions have irregular hours, or at times, your schedule may not warrant steady and reliable wages. Think about your income needs during the school year and create a strategy that will account for this reality- Can you work in the summer or during winter break to supplement income? Can you find a second position or pick up a lower effort side hustle to make up the difference? 

Student income has unique timing constraints compared to most other types of income streams, and it is critical to think about these limitations before the school year starts. 

Finally, students should recognize that because their income streams may differ from the traditional, "earned" income sources that are typical, there may be underlying nuances to be mindful of: 

  • Income from a student loan will eventually become an expense; borrow only what you need and contact your financial aid office if you realize you have overborrowed as you may be able to return the portion you no longer need.
  • Income from scholarships, grants, or fellowships may have a taxable liability. Review our resources on Preparing for Tax Filing to learn more!

While student income is oftentimes limited, the expenses you will be managing in school are not always reflective of the financial reality you face and the access to funds you have. 

The following breakdown represents a realistic picture of expenses for a student living off campus with a roommate, close to West Campus, and relying on a semesterly loan refund for a majority of their income:

Example of a student budget


Rent- $950

Utilities (Electric, Internet, Water)- $100 

Phone Bill- $50 

Auto Insurance- $80


Rideshare- $20

Groceries- $350 

Dining Out- $125 

Co-pay- $75 

Personal Care- $75

Course Materials- $20

Socializing/Entertainment- $150

Savings for Travel Back Home- $120

Savings for Emergency- $100 

Student Loan Interest Payment- $50 

Other- $50

TOTAL: $2,390

*Assumes ~$10,150 in semesterly refund, spread out over 5 months plus working 6 hours per week at on-campus job for $15 hr.

Remember, a balanced spending plan will prioritize your most essential expenses while still speaking towards enjoying your money as well as planning for your future self through savings goals! 

With your income and expenses planned for, it's important to create a financial system that can facilitate and support your spending plan. Components of a spending system could include: 

  • Different savings accounts or checking accounts for specific facets of your spending plan- like a separate account for your rainy day fund! 
  • Utilizing a pre-set amount of cash when out with friends to avoid overspending 
  • Inquire about changing due dates to align when your income is available and when bills are paid
  • Using auto-pay features for timely bill payments 
  • Avoid charging campus purchases to your Duke card 
  • Consider using a pre-loaded debit card for expenses that are easier to overspend on like rideshares or online shopping

As you use your spending plan in school, take time every 2-4 weeks to review your anticipated budget and compare it to your spending reality. When assessing your plan, consider the following: 

  • Is your initial spending plan attainable? It can be easy to create an ideal approach to budgeting, but is it realistic? Did you strike balance in your spending or did you try to limit yourself in too extreme a way? 
  • Has your anticipated income changed? 
  • Are there certain spending categories like Dining Out or Shopping that you are consistently overspending on? 
  • Has anything in your budget become outdated? 
  • Are there any expenses like streaming services or monthly fees you forgot to plan for? 

From there, you will want to think about the ways you adjust your spending and budgeting moving forward: 

  • Are you in a position to increase your income? 
  • Is there flexibility in your expenses and can you decrease spending accordingly? 
  • What factors in your environment can you change to help you better stick to your spending plan? For instance, do you need to change your morning schedule to grab the bus so you can avoid ride sharing fees or paying for parking? Are there certain apps that cause more influence on your spending that may warrant taking off your phone? 

For additional suggestions on you can adjust your spending plan, check our featured resources on the Goal Setting page!

Additional Budgeting Resources

Living On A $28K Annual Stipend In NYC | Millennial Money

Budgeting as a student looks different for everybody! Hear from one student on how she budgets and manages her money in medical school

Charles Schwab Budgeting Tool

Need a quick tool to help put your budget together? This online budgeting calculator allows you simple and straightforward access to create your spending plan. 

Link To Budgeting Tool

Budgeting Beyond Tuition

While tuition and fees are the driving costs of your college experience, the additional expenses associated with being in school can have just as much of an impact on your day-to-day money management concerns and overall financial well-being. Check out this article for other college costs to be thinking of in your budget! 

Link To Budgeting Article