How to budget as a university student

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle UVic 101

A guide to affording life in one of Canada’s most expensive cities 

Budgeting, stock photo of a piggy bank with coins and a mask
Stock photo by Konstantin Evdokimov via Unsplash

Especially in a city like Victoria, one of the most difficult parts of university can be simply affording to live here. 

As a young university student, I definitely struggled to manage my finances when I first moved to Victoria. I had all new things to spend money on (who knew plates and cleaning products were so expensive?!) and very measly income. I know many of my fellow students found themselves in the same predicament. 

I’ve detailed some of my tips below — many of them are inspired by the mistakes I or my friends have made. As a disclaimer, I am not a financial specialist. 

This is not a guide to Girl Boss-ery. I am not going to tell you to invest in Bitcoin or start selling multi-level marketing products on your Instagram. 

I am also not going to tell you that all of us are in the same boat. Some students come from privileged backgrounds, whereas others will need to work multiple jobs to afford university. Although you can certainly move up the metaphorical ladder, there are some realities to our capitalist structures. No amount of manifesting, influencing, or even Bitcoin investing will drastically alter the fact that Jeff Bezos owns more money than every UVic student combined. 

That being said, having some financial smarts will assist you in navigating your personal finances.

1. Find a way to track your finances that works for you 

In the first month of university, you’ll probably be overwhelmed with new bills. From wi-fi to groceries, it may seem like the spending never stops. The best way to have some peace of mind about your spending is to create an actual budget and track what you’re spending, what categories you are spending the most on (i.e. groceries, restaurants, clothing), and check in with yourself monthly. 

There are apps that will sort your spending and tell you what you’ve spent on certain categories. For me, the classic budget spreadsheet works wonders. The first time I made one, my jaw dropped when I saw how much money I was spending on food. Google Sheets has templates you can use to start off with. I created my own and made a budget for the full semester and then tracked my spending in monthly tabs. 

2. Take a break before you buy 

Social media, and especially Instagram, is programmed to make you want to buy whatever an influencer is selling right now. They don’t want you to think about whether you need a scarf that doubles as a shirt because they know that if you think about it, you’ll be less likely to buy it. 

Whenever I see something I’d like to buy, I write it down in my notes app and, if it’s a big purchase, plan for it in my budget. For example, I want roller blades but they are $150 with the safety gear. I noted this wish down in my phone app and on my budget sheet. When I have a month where I don’t spend as much as I thought and have the money for roller blades, I might just buy them. 

Having this time delay before a purchase may help you to resist the urge to impulsively buy things you don’t actually want or need. And although I definitely want roller blades, I can also be smart about buying them without spending money I don’t have.

3. Make a grocery shopping list 

Once you’ve done a few grocery shops, you’ll figure out what foods you like and what foods are most affordable. If you can plan your shopping trips and meals, that is always a great way to save a few bucks. 

Also, don’t only buy cheap food at the expense of your health. A package of Ichiban noodles might be 0.55 cents, but it has close to zero actual nutrients. However, adding some chicken, peas, an egg, and actual broth to your Mr. Noodles can create a decent lunch.

If you have a few recipes for quick and easy meals, you can better plan your grocery lists and feel less overwhelmed when it comes to meal times. This way, you can keep things interesting with meal options that are somewhat varied so you don’t get completely bored.

There are also organizations such as the UVSS Food Bank, Community Food Support, and Community Fridge. If you are struggling to find the money for food, do not go without it — these organizations are accessible, non-judgmental, and ready to assist you.

4. Save like a student

I recognize that many students put all their income into their bills and may not be able to save long-term right now, and that’s okay. If you do have an income and money to save, it is good to get into the habit of putting some of your pay cheque into a savings account every pay period. 

I always thought of my savings like a piggy bank — I could smash it in case of emergency, but otherwise the money was not mine to spend. 

These two words are the most important in this article: emergency fund. In university, any number of emergencies could be thrown your way. Your apartment could flood, your computer could crash, or your bike could be stolen. These things are an added expense that, without an emergency fund, you might not be able to afford. 

If you put away small amounts of money, you can build a fund to tap into when things get dire. Generally, financial experts recommend that your emergency fund equates to about 3-6 months of your expenses. 

You can save for big goals like trips, special events, or grad school. But if you find yourself scammed and broke in Bali, you’ll wish that you had saved for an emergency fund, too. 

5. Know when to not invest and what your options are

There are countless articles by Jordan-Belfort-wannabes that will tell you to invest. They’ll say a certain stock is hot or claim that the pandemic is going to end and certain stocks will skyrocket. All of this will be very enticing, but if you’re a student struggling to make ends meet, the risk might just outweigh the reward. 

You should know when to not invest and have a clear idea of what that means for you. If you do decide to invest in something, start small and only invest the amount that you could be okay with completely losing. (Yes, this especially applies to Bitcoin.) 

Of course, saving long-term is another ball game entirely. If you have the money to open something like a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA), you could explore those options at a bank. These options often require that you have money saved and you want to keep it in savings for multiple years. 

6. Consider your mindset around money, and try to shift it

Although I don’t think you can manifest yourself into a millionaire, you definitely can help yourself by changing your mindset around money. It can be helpful to think about your relationship with money, why you may feel certain anxieties towards money, and why you think spending money on certain things is a necessity (this applies to gel nails and expensive cars, not groceries). 

Try to track your finances, figure out whether or not you need to cut down on spending, and find support in the community when you need it. There are plenty of local organizations and on-campus supports, like the Career Services office, Work Study program, or counselling at the Student Wellness Centre, that can help you with various finance-related troubles.

Although we are not all in the same boat, you’ll always find people willing to throw you a lifebuoy.