How To Build A Back-To-School Budget

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Brown Target building and parking lot with two cars

How it always happens: You stare into those red circles and think, “Yes, of course I need four lamps!”

I remember making the big Target trip the summer before my freshman year of college to get everything I thought I needed for school. I went up and down every aisle, generally looking like this guy.

I ended up with a lot of things that I never used (including several (!) lamps), so sophomore year, I started making shopping lists. Each year, I’ve gotten smarter with my spending, but this year, I want to take charge—that means making a budget and shopping on my own for the first time.

I broke my spending into four main categories, allocating a percentage of my money to each. If you’re getting ready to go back to school, consider this a starting point for your budget—with bonus tips on saving money.


Dorm Life

The most obvious cost in this category is room and board or rent. This takes up the largest portion of my budget—35 percent.

But you’ll need other things for your room as well. Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, don’t do what I did and go dorm shopping without planning. Instead, come up with a list of necessities and try not to deviate from it. Here are a few essentials:

  • Sheets and blankets
  • Pillows and pillowcases
  • Power strips
  • Trash can
  • Clock
  • Towels
  • Shower caddy
  • Laundry basket
  • Laundry detergent
  • Cleaning supplies

I already have some of these from previous years, but this year is the first time I’ll have a kitchen, so I’ll also need:

  • Pots
  • Pans
  • Tupperware
  • Microwave
  • Bowls, cups, plates, and utensils

Your list will change from year to year based on where you’re living and what you hold on to. Likewise, how much you spend will vary based on what you need, but I’m shooting for about 7-10 percent of my budget.

Here are some things I wish I hadn’t bought in this category:

  • Iron and ironing board
  • More than one set of sheets
  • Four bulletin boards
  • Bedside lamp
  • String lights

A lot of my unnecessary purchases came from not knowing what was already in my dorm room. See if your school has a list of what’s included or ask an upperclassman.

Textbooks And School Supplies

Freshman year I bought all my books from the campus bookstore, and the grand total ended up well over $500. If I had a budget then, it would have cried. Now I use and Amazon to save money. As an English major, I mostly buy novels, so I spend about 10 percent of my budget on books, but my friends who are science majors have more expensive textbooks and may spend closer to 20 percent.

Other school supplies you might need include:

  • Laptop
  • Printer and ink
  • Backpack
  • Notebooks
  • Folders
  • Pens, pencils, highlighters
  • Stapler and staples
  • Scissors
  • Paper clips

For laptops and printers, Best Buy, Dell, HP, and Microsoft all have student discounts, and Apple gives gift cards to students who purchase Macs. There are tons of back-to-school sales throughout the summer for other supplies. This year, Staples is offering a 110% price match on school supplies—they match a competitor’s price and give you a 10% discount on top of it.

This is another category where costs change from year to year, depending on if you need a new laptop or if you’re just buying pens and pencils. You could spend anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of your budget on school supplies.

Living Expenses

My meal plan gives me 11 meals a week, so I’m on my own for breakfast every day and a few lunches a week. I’ll need to allocate money for cereal, bagels, milk, sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and snacks. The amount you need for food will vary depending on whether or not you have a meal plan.

I’ll also need money for toiletries like:

  • Shampoo, conditioner, and soap
  • Medicine
  • Toothpaste
  • Tissues

These expenses are easy to forget—I never really considered them when my parents did my shopping. If you overlook them, you could overspend—and have to readjust your budget.

I’m thinking setting aside 20 percent of my budget for this should cover me.

Adventure Fund

Just like Carl and Ellie in Up, you want to have what I call an “adventure fund.” You won’t be happy if you don’t have money for fun, so make sure to include it in your expenses!

This September, I’ll buy basketball season tickets, as well as tickets and clothing for senior nights—I have a formal ball and a semi-formal dance in September. I plan on wearing the same dress to multiple events, and I got a great dress for $4 at the Salvation Army. You may want to save money for concerts, day trips, or other occasions.

I’m saving up for my spring break trip to Spain and Portugal, so my monthly deposit toward that needs a place in my budget. If you’re saving for a big purchase, you may want to include that as well.

Since it’s my senior year, my friends and I have a bucket list. I’ll try to heed this advice and spend wisely on my bucket list items, but I plan on saving for brunches and nights out. It’s not bad to set aside money for going out for dinner or drinks—if you’re saving and spending responsibly, you deserve a reward!

I’ll aim to spend 5-10 percent of my budget on fun.


Now that I know what my expenses are, it’s time to make my budget, using this as a reference. One final tip: If your income changes when the school year starts, remember to account for that. I work fewer hours during the school year than I do in the summer, so I’ll be making less. I’ll have to keep that in mind when planning my adventures for senior year!

What’s in your back-to-school budget? Let us know in the comments!

(Photo: Wikimedia)

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