Amount of Spending Money a College Student Needs

How much spending money does a college student need? There are a ton of variables, but we have a great starting point to help you figure it out.

Updated July 23, 2024
University student paying in college cafe

Sending a kid to college isn't cheap! While tuition costs are clearly printed on school websites and in catalogs, the amount of spending money a college student needs isn't quite as clear. Determining how much money a college student should have starts with making a budget. So if you're planning to send your kid off to college, it's time to sit down and make a budget for college students, mapping out monthly expenses so you know realistically how much spending money a college student needs.

Sample College Student Annual & Monthly Budget

Diversity, students and walking on university steps, school stairs or college campus to morning class. Smile, happy people and bonding education friends in global scholarship opportunity or open day

We've taken our numbers from national averages and various university rates to get a range of possible costs for each line item. There are always outliers, so costs may be higher or lower depending on the cost of living in the area, the university attended, whether a student has roommates, personal habits, and more. This should be a starting point for your budgeting.

Unless otherwise noted, the monthly budget assumes nine months of the year living at school and summers spent at home. Prices are estimated as of July 2024.

Budget Category Annual Amount  Monthly
Sample College Student Annual Budget
Housing (on-campus) $8,000-$15,000 $890-$1,666
Rent (off-campus - incl. utilities) $11,000-$24,000 $1,100-$2,000*
Furnishings $200-$1,500 $22-$170
Books, supplies, and course materials $1,000-$1,800 $110-$200
Food (living on campus) $4,000-$6,000 $445-$667
Food (living off campus) $3,000-$7,000 $250-$584*
Electronics $270-$900 $30-$100
Gas/Car Insurance $2,500-$5,000 $208-$417*
Cell Phone $960-$2,400 $80-$200*
Transportation & Parking $225-$1,800 $25-$200
Extracurriculars (such as on-campus clubs, sports, music) $180-$1,800 $20-$200
Gifts $180-$720 $20-$80
Entertainment $900-$3,600 $100-$400
Travel (amount dependent on how far away from home you go) $450-$3,600 $50-$400
Total (on campus) $18,685-$42,320 $2,077-$4,703
Total (on campus minus housing & dining hall expenses) $7,000-$22,000 $778-$2,445
Total (off campus) $20,685-$54,120 $1,724-$4,510*
*Assumes 12 months since it's a year-round expense.
Helpful Hack

Don't panic! We know it's a lot, but there are tons of ways to save money and make things less expensive, including the student working part-time, taking advantage of family phone and insurance plans, having roommates to split expenses, and paring back on optional expenses like dining out and entertainment. 

How to Calculate Your College Student's Monthly Spending Money Needs

Group of young women at home studying and having pizza

One of the challenges in determining spending money for your college student is how you define spending money.  For instance, when my son was in college, we paid things like rent for the entire school year ahead of time (even when he was in off-campus housing), so his spending needs didn't include that major expense. His cell phone and auto insurance were already part of our family plan, so he didn't need to pay for that, either.  

So, as you're setting your monthly budget for your college kid and deciding how much spending money they'll need, be sure you take into account the expenses they won't have to pay out of pocket because they're already taken care of.

Need to Know

In order to calculate spending money accurately, you first have to agree on what purchases are considered spending money and what are simply the cost of attending college.

1. Determine the Categories of Expenses for College

The following items may be deemed spending money for college students:

  • Clothing
  • Entertainment
  • Food (eating out, ordering pizza, coffee to go, which may not be included in the food budget for the year)
  • Groceries (if living off campus)
  • Vehicle maintenance and insurance
  • Utilities (if living off campus)
  • Gas or public transportation
  • Cell phone
  • Activities such as soccer club, a dance class, or gym membership
  • Gifts
  • Textbooks and school supplies
  • Electronics 
  • Travel allowance (to come home for Thanksgiving, etc.)

Some items vary widely. For example, if a travel allowance is included and the student goes to school quite far from home, the average round-trip plane ticket costs $404 per trip. Deciding whether to include such expenses in spending money totals is important. Once you decide which items to include, you must estimate how much money to allow for each.

Helpful Hack

Once our son moved off campus, one of the ways we saved money was by teaching him how to grocery shop and cook. Spending a bit of extra time teaching these skills can make a huge budgetary difference. Plus, it gives them skills they'll use for a lifetime.

Related: Essential Things You'll Need for Your College Dorm Room

2. Determine Which Expenses You'll Pay and Which the Student Will Pay

When our son was in college, we paid a lot of his expenses, so he didn't need as much spending money. For example, as I mentioned previously, we paid his rent annually, so he didn't need to worry about that, and his phone and insurance were part of our plan. His books and supplies went onto his college account, so we paid that quarterly, too. He went to school with all the clothes he needed, so his clothing budget was negligible, and we bought all his electronics and furnishings before he started the school year. That left food, entertainment, utilities, activities, transportation, gifts, and travel for him to pay out of pocket. 

You'll want to go through a similar process with your college student, determining which bills are easier for you to take care of and which ones they'll need to pay out of pocket every month. 

3. Determine the Amounts for Each Type of Spending Money

You know your kid best, so you'll have a good idea of their financial needs. For example, is your college student a big eater? Budget more for food. Do they ride their bike most places? Budget less for gas (our son's habit of riding his longboard everywhere saved us a ton on transportation costs).

Need to Know

The geographic region can heavily impact the amount of spending money a college student needs. Be sure to research the area where your student will be attending school so you can budget accordingly.

Set Budget Expectations With Your College Student

It's definitely a process to get your teen ready for college finances. Before you send them off to college, it's important to discuss the financial aspects of their campus lives. For most, this is the first time they've been on their own and had to plan their budget, and they'll probably need a little hand-holding. But they also need to be an active part of the process so they truly understand setting and managing a budget — it's a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Before your teen heads off for college, discuss the following:

  • Teach them how to track monthly spending and reconcile it to their budget.
  • Share potential budget pitfalls and talk through strategies for dealing with them.
  • Discuss the difference between wants and needs. Teach your child to pay for necessities first and then use disposable income to pay for discretionary items.
  • Show them how to track debit card spending and reconcile their account each month.
  • Share your expectations with your teens about how they will manage their money. Don't bail them out every time they overspend.
  • Show them how to build an emergency fund in case something arises.
  • After your kids go to college, continue to have budget conversations with them so you can identify problems before they arise.

Prepare Your Teens for College Spending

The best way to prepare your college student for a successful financial experience is to start early. Stress savings from an early age and encourage kids to track spending. In high school, consider giving your child a teen account to manage themselves so they know how to handle money when they go away to college. By laying the foundation early, you can set your teen up to succeed when they are finally on their own.

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Amount of Spending Money a College Student Needs