Personal Budget Guide

Enrolling in a public health program represents an investment in your future. Before you can graduate and move into a rewarding career; however, you must consider your finances. Students should make sure to establish a monthly budget.

Nearly 60% of Americans do not use a monthly budget, and an estimated 70% hold less than $1,000 in their savings account.

According to a recent CNN report, nearly 60% of Americans do not use a monthly budget, and an estimated 70% hold less than $1,000 in their savings account. Fortunately, you can incorporate personal budgeting into your life right now, setting yourself up for a future in which you can reach your financial goals.

Many students struggle to create and maintain a personal budget. Public health programs demand a lot from students, requiring hours of class time, studying, and group projects. By investing a little time into creating a budget, students can reduce their daily stress and focus more on academics.

This guide recommends several tools, processes, and resources that you can use to establish your personal budget. It includes methods to track your spending and tips to reduce your spending. We begin with a quick overview of some important budget-related terminology for you as you begin this process.

Getting Started

Budgeting Terminology

Total Income

This includes all of the funds available to you, including financial aid, family support, and paycheck monies.

Monthly Income

This includes the amount of money you receive from a job on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. Amounts vary depending on the number of hours you work.

Discretionary Income

This counts as the spending money left over after covering your essential expenses. Most students possess only a little discretionary income.


Money used to purchase items necessary for living and school. This includes food, rent, utilities, textbooks, computers, and school supplies.


Items that you can live without, such as cable TV, eating out, a gym membership, and daily visits to a coffee shop. While these things improve one’s quality of life, students do not need them to live or succeed in academia.

Fixed Expenses

Bills and other expenses cost about the same each month. Examples include health insurance premiums, mortgage payments, rent, utilities, and vehicle payments.

Variable Expenses

Expenses that vary from month to month often depend on your budgeting and spending habits. They may include money spent on both essential and nonessential items.

Emergency Funds

This refers to money saved for emergencies, such as car repairs or medical bills. All students should try to save a little money in case one of these situations arises.

Track Your Spending

1. Assess Current Financial Spending:

Log into your bank and credit card accounts to assess the past several months of transactions. Make a list of everything you spend money on each month, including the amounts. Look as thoroughly as possible, as this will help you organize your expenses later in the process.

2. Categorize Expenses:

Take your list and categorize each expense as essential or nonessential. Essential items include expenses you must cover each month, such as rent, groceries, car payments, health insurance, and utilities. If possible, divide your essential expenses into education-related and extracurricular purchases. Nonessential expenses include anything you could do without.

3. Do the Math:

Next, add up all the expenses in your essentials list and subtract the total from your average monthly income. The number remaining represents your discretionary funds. This will inform how you allocate your limited resources.

4. Create Your Budget:

If your discretionary income amounts to a negative number, you are spending more money than you make each month. This could cause you problems if you rely too heavily on student loans, as you will eventually need to pay that money back.

You can reduce your expenses in a number of ways. For example, you could pick a less expensive cell phone plan, rent textbooks instead of buying them, and plan your meals to cut back on eating out. Every little bit helps, and those who save by making small cuts will reap the long term benefits. Below you will find more tips on effectively cutting expenses.

The best budgeters typically use a 50/20/30 rule, which reserves 50% of your income for essentials, 20% for savings, and 30% for nonessentials. This serves as a good general framework for your budgeting efforts, although you may need to adjust the numbers somewhat based on your personal income and expense projections. Saving an adequate amount of money each month will provide you with some cushion to cover unexpected expenses, such as a broken-down car or hospital visit.

Maintaining Your Budget

After establishing your budget, review it every several months to make sure you meet your financial goals. You may need to adjust your habits, especially if your income or expenses change dramatically.

To maintain control of your spending, consider creating a spreadsheet to log your income and purchases each month. You can categorize your entries by essential items, nonessential items, and savings. Update your spreadsheet at least once per week so that your efforts don’t fall by the wayside.

As a general rule, check in on your overall budget once every three months and adjust as needed. Think about whether you can further reduce your expenses so that you can continue to meet the 50/20/30 framework.

Budgeting Tools

  • Left to Spend: Through a simple, easy-to-navigate platform, Left to Spend provides users with a quick overview of their financial situation. You can set a daily allowance based on your monthly budget. As long as you don’t go into the negative each day, you can remain in good financial health.
  • Microsoft Excel: You can use various Excel-based spreadsheets to track your income and expenses, simplifying your budget and giving you useful information on where your money goes each month. You may use these templates on your computer or smartphone, especially if you use Microsoft Office 365 or Google Sheets — both of which are accessible anywhere with an internet connection. Simply make a habit of entering your expenses each day to maintain a healthy and up-to-date budget.
  • Mint: One of the most popular money management apps available, Mint allows you to stay on top of your bills and expenses and budget for both essential and nonessential items. You can link the app to your bank account to set up recurring payments and track your expenses in real time.
  • Personal Capital: This platform allows for more long-range planning, giving you access to your current net worth, investment portfolio, and financial planning efforts. It also provides income and spending reports, categorized budgeting tools, and account balances. Personal Capital serves as a great solution for those looking to make the most of their investments, especially when planning for retirement.
  • Simple makes banking easier, helping users reduce unnecessary fees and feel more confident about financial management. The mobile app offers tools like mobile banking, budgeting, and account security, with trackable spending that allows you to review your spending habits and determine where you can most easily cut costs.
  • Wally: This handy iPhone app offers a simple platform to keep track of your income and expenses. You can also set clear financial goals and monitor your progress toward achieving them. Its reporting features show you where you tend to spend money, giving you insights into potential cost-saving opportunities.
  • YNAB: With You Need a Budget, you can sync your bank accounts to automatically track and categorize your income and expenses in real time. In addition to budgeting, the app helps with paying down debt and meeting your short-term and long-term financial goals. YNAB even offers free workshops to enhance your financial management efforts.

Tips for Cutting Costs in College

Adopt Healthy Spending Habits

College serves as a great time to develop healthy spending habits that last you for the rest of your life. This often comes out of necessity, as most students possess limited incomes. You can start by creating a budget, tracking your expenses, and keeping close tabs on how you use your credit card. If you don’t know how to begin, check out helpful online resources like Spending Tracker, Habitica, and Slice, which deliver easy-to-use budgets that you can update in real time.

At-Home Meal Preparation

Cooking at home cuts down significantly on costs. While this often proves difficult for busy college students, planning your meals weekly makes it easier. Bringing lunch from home each day can save you $1,000 or more per year. If you need help with meal planning, consider mobile apps like Yummly or AnyList. You can also save money when going out to eat with friends by using a check-splitting app like CheckPlease Lite.

Use Student Discounts

College students enjoy access to perks that can save them a lot of money. Research local businesses that offer discounts to students who present their student ID. For entertainment, look into on-campus events and organizations that often offer free or inexpensive activities for students. When you put your mind to it, you can socialize and enjoy yourself without spending a lot of money.

Find Cheap Textbooks

Required textbooks cost a lot of money, with some students spending hundreds of dollars per semester. Instead of buying textbooks, see if you can find used books or ebooks, or if you can rent a book from your campus or city library. Take advantage of helpful online resources like StudentRate Textbooks, which can help you find affordable books at a fraction of the cost.

Graduate Earlier

Attending college full-time typically means you must pay a flat tuition rate each semester. If you cut down the number of semesters you attend, you can significantly reduce the total cost of your education. Consider taking an extra few credits each term so that you can graduate early. Work with an academic adviser to ensure that you move through your public health program as efficiently as possible.

Additional Resources

  • MDRC: This organization’s Aid Like a Paycheck Program helps low-income college students manage their financial aid benefits and spending habits so that they can complete their education free of serious money problems.
  • Federal Student Aid Budgeting: The U.S. Department of Education offers great tips on setting up and executing a sound monthly budget, taking into account your income, financial support, and fixed and variable expenses.
  • OneGoal: This Chicago-based nonprofit offers a variety of programs, including budgeting and financial aid assistance, that allow low-income college students to successfully graduate without interruption.
  • College Possible: This group offers support, guidance, and counseling to college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its programs include financial coaching and access to resources like scholarships and applying for financial aid.
  • Consumer Finance Protection Bureau: This federal agency offers numerous guides and resource to help students fully understand and leverage financial aid, financing options, student banking, and debt management.
  • This website offers information on thousands of scholarships available to college students nationwide, giving you access to resources that can help you reduce the amount of tuition you pay.