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Do you know where all your money is going? If you answered “no,” you’re typical of your peers. Almost all of us would much rather drink the latte and eat the pizza than track their prices. But our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (can I afford delivery tonight?) and reverberate through our futures.

Money management has become more challenging in the modern world. Adults aged 18—34 have more difficulty understanding and managing their personal finances than older generations, according to a 2012 study from FINRA Investor Education Foundation. And fewer than half of adults aged 18—32 have a budget, as revealed in the 2014 Financial Literacy Survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

We asked three nontraditional students to estimate their weekly expenditures during the semester. Then we crunched the numbers to see what they’d actually spent and how that matched up with their own estimates.

Financial expert Andrew Krouk, a financial planner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Which would you cut? utlities v. celebrations

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Food, socializing, & entertainment$250$260$10
Transportation$50$75$25
Personal$300$350$50
Rent$800$800$0
Health & fitness$30$25$5
Utilities$126$68$58
Total$1,556$1,578$22


Claire A.*
 is a second-year graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

If this were a typical week, Claire’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $1,144.

Claire’s reaction 
“I had a lot of oversights. I think that I’m good at making estimates, but the actual amounts are more than I anticipated. I took a few trips to Target. Each trip wasn’t expensive, but in aggregate it’s much more.”

Expert’s reaction 
The key issue
Lack of planning ahead

  • Leave your ATM card at home. “If you go to [the store] with $50 in your hand, you won’t spend $51. Have fun, but go with just a finite amount.“
  • Get creative with your socializing and entertaining. Instead of going out to dinner and spending $50 each, invite friends over for a potluck.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Rather than going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. “Planning ahead will drastically cut down your expenses.”

Can you afford your social life?

CategoryEstimateRealityDifference
Food$65$170$105
Transportation$15$25$10
Socializing & entertainment$150$187$37
Personal$30$34$4
Total$260$416$156


Greg S.
 is a first-year graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

If this were a typical week, Greg’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $8,112.

Greg’s reaction 
“This week was irregular because I was going out almost every night for birthdays. This makes me remorseful for how much I ended up spending.”

Expert’s reaction 
The key issue
Overspending across the board

“You pay your groceries and your rent, but instead of paying everyone else first, pay yourself. You’re working hard: Pay yourself for it!” Then live off what’s left. If you put away $2 each day, that’s $60 a month for your savings or leisure activities.

Put loose change into a sock at the end of each day. “It can save hundreds of dollars over time.”

These exercises force savings on a daily basis and build the habit for life.

Student budget tools.

How many students keep a budget?

Of nearly 200 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey…
54% said they keep a budget and plan to continue
24% said they plan to make a budget in the near future
5% said they plan to make a budget at some point
12% said they’d like to but were not sure they’d get around to it
5% said they didn’t intend to keep a budget

What happens when you’re not tracking

CategoryEstimate RealityDifference
Food$70$106$36
Transportation$45$67$22
Personal$80$162$82
Socializing & entertainmentunknownpaid cash???
Utilitiesunknownbilled???
Rent$156$156$0
Total$351$491$140


Mark D.*
 is a third-year student at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles.

If this were a typical week, Mark’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $7,280.

Mark’s reaction 
“Because of my overspending, I cannot make spontaneous purchases. If I spend more than expected, I pick up more shifts at work. Long term, this type of spending will be a waste of my paycheck. Once I graduate, I will pick up better habits.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue
Tracking costs

  • Keep track of cash expenses. Hold on to your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Even when you’re working and earning more, you’ll need to save for a house, mortgage, and more. “Start building those saving habits now.”

*   Name changed for privacy

Strategies that force daily savings and build that habit for life

  • Do a version of this exercise, estimating your expenses per month on food, transportation, health and fitness, academics, socializing and entertainment, rent, utilities, other bills, and personal expenses. Then review your bank records.
  • Create a monthly budget for yourself using a budget calculator.
  • To keep track of cash expenses, hold onto your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Carry your student ID and routinely ask for discounts.
  • Use public transit and student gyms for little or no cost.
  • Leave your ATM card at home. You can’t spend more than the cash you have with you.
  • Make a weekly meal plan and follow it. Planning ahead (and teaming up with family members or housemates) helps you save money. Buy in bulk, avoid rumbly-tummy grocery store splurges, and prevent food going to waste.
  • Get creative with socializing and entertaining. Invite friends over for a potluck or host a movie night.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Instead of going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. Apply this to snacks, water, or anything else you’re tempted to grab on the go.
  • Save. “There’s no cost in saving money. You can always use it at a later time. People think of saving as an expense, but it’s a reward,” says Andrew Krouk.
  • Give yourself a margin for error. “Set aside 10 percent of your income for contingencies/emergencies. This will help you recover if you go over budget one week,” says Kuljeet Notay, a financial aid counselor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Does your spending need a reality check


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Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and the managing editor of JHStyle Magazine based in Jackson Hole, Colorado. Her writing credits include the International Journal of Wilderness, Mountain Outlaw, Teton Family Magazine, Big Sky Weekly, and Dishing. Her MS in natural resources is from Humboldt State University in California.