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Spending Habits of College Students: Where Their Money Goes

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According to The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2009, a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, two out of three college freshmen said they were either somewhat or very worried about their ability to finance their college educations.

With so much talk about the rising costs of college, it’s easy to stop and wonder how in the heck people are still managing to go to school. After all, it’s not uncommon for private universities to charge tuition that is $30,000 per year or more.

How are College Students Paying for School?

At the other end of the spectrum, though, are public colleges and universities with published charges of $9,000 or less per year. The College Board estimates that nearly half of all full-time undergraduate college students attend those lower-priced schools.

It’s also important to remember that as college costs rise, so does the availability of financial aid for students. The College Board reports that more than $154 billion in financial aid was awarded to undergraduate students during the 2009-10 academic year. The average amount of aid for a full-time undergraduate student was about $11,500, including more than $6,000 in grants that don’t have to be repaid.

In their analysis of College Student Spending Behavior, O’Donnell and Associates reported that the American Council on Education found full time college students receive financial aid (72%), grant funding (59%) and/or a loan (45%) to help offset the cost of college. Some experts estimate that students only pay about one-third of the actual costs associated with a college education out-of-pocket.

The stereotypical college student might claim to live on Ramen noodles and cry broke, but most students are spending more than you’d imagine.

College Students Spending More on Non-Necessities than Ever Before

Alloy Media + Marketing’s 10th Annual College Explorer Study, powered by Harris Interactive, reports that nearly 16 million college students between the ages of 18 and 34 were starting or returning to college in the fall of 2010, bringing with them an unprecedented and immense $306 billion in projected spending power – a 13% increase from 2009 estimates.

Despite the current dismal state of the economy and the fact that non-discretionary costs are on the rise for everyone, college students still have a fondness for purchases that they consider “must-haves.” As a result, annual discretionary spending figures among college students for 2010 have risen to an estimated $69 billion, a 10% increase since the prior year.

In agreement with Alloy Media + Marketing’s findings, O’Donnell and Associates reported that nearly 40% of college students’ spending is on discretionary items. The vast majority of students have a cell phone and a computer, and today’s students tend to have money to spend on products that appeal to them.

Looking good and feeling good must be a high priority among today’s college students because entertainment, personal care products and technology items other than cell phones show a slight increase in monthly spending. Alloy Media + Marketing found that college students between the ages of 18 and 34 are spending 3% more per month on discretionary purchases than they did last year for an average of $361 per student.

Average College Student Budget Figures

Westwood College provides additional insight on the spending habits of college students with their Breakdown of Average Student Budget, which was created with information provided by O’Donnell and Associates, Monthly Labor Review and a Student Monitor survey. According to Westwood’s data, college students receive an average of $312 per month from home and earn an average of $453, for an average total of $765.

Of that monthly income, college students spend an average of:

  • 40% on discretionary items such as entertainment, apparel, services, travel, vacation and other
  • 26% on room and board (Note: Inconsistent relationships between percentages of income spent and actual cost of tuition, room and board expenses can be explained by the financial help given by parents toward tuition, but not necessarily toward housing and food costs.)
  • 19% on tuition and fees
  • 8% on other expenses, including health care
  • 4% on books and supplies
  • 3% on transportation

Money Management Tips for College Students

Making a budget is a good idea for everyone, and college students will benefit from learning to manage their money while they are still in school. Bank of America offers the following advice for creating and sticking to a budget:

  • Start your college student budget in the fall, when you’ve saved your summer earnings and received your student loans.
  • Identify all your sources of income – scholarships, money from parents, savings from jobs – and when you expect to receive the funds. That’s your income.
  • Now make a list of all fixed costs: tuition, phone, rent and utilities, and when they’ll come due. Here’s a tip – if you bank online, ask your bank to send you payment reminders for when things are due.
  • Next, estimate your regular discretionary expenses like food, laundry and entertainment, as well as infrequent expenses like trips home, books and course materials.
  • Add a little extra for unexpected or emergency expenses, like a computer crash.
  • Write down your expenses for the first few weeks and compare it to your college student budget. Are you eating out more than you planned? Did you have to buy new textbooks instead of used? If so, adjust your budget.
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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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