An image of a calculator.

Worried about your finances during the school year? Here is what I have learned over my 4 years of trial-and-error budgeting…

In my first year, I was a ditzy teen who relied heavily on materials and possessions — and that’s okay. The first few weeks for an incoming university student will be filled with miscellaneous expenses, whether it be those for your dorm room, new textbooks, an unexpected Uber ride when you get lost downtown late at night, shared utilities with your roommates…and so much more.

This will be temporary, but the greatest advice I can give you is tracking these expenses through budgeting!

What is budgeting?

It’s a plan to allocate an amount of money for your daily expenses. This could be recurring weekly, monthly, or even once in a blue moon. But, it helps you record the difference between your expected expenses vs. actual expenses. It also helps you track how much of your revenue/allowance you’re using. The leftover money can be used as savings, as an investment, for your taxes (if you have not deducted them already), or even as a rolling leftover amount for next month’s expenses.

So how do you do this budgeting?

If you’re a beginner, spreadsheets are your best friend.

My go-to is Google Sheets, because it saves to Drive immediately and I tend to easily forget to save my work whenever I am working offline.

I split my expenses into categories such as ‘food’, ‘gifts’, ‘transportation’, ‘laundry’ and so on, and assign each transaction to one of these categories. The mode of payment is useful for me since I am trying to go cashless, and try to limit most of my expenditures to my credit card. 

A screenshot of Piya's October 2022 expense spreadsheet.
A screenshot of my October 2022 expenses, tracked on Google Sheets.

It did take me a while to estimate how much I spend downtown. Growing up in India, food was extremely affordable, and dining + takeout + going out and living, in general, would amount to <$500. If you’re an International Student, set a general expectation based on this post by Student Life for each categorical expense you may likely run into.

Using tools which require little to no manual entries.

Tool 1: Mint (free)

If you have a Canadian bank account, chances are that you can likely link it to Mint, which is an app by Intuit that auto-enters your expenses into self-assigned categories. All you have to do is check if these expenses are in the right category and assign a budget. The interface is simple, and you get a visual representation of how much over or under-budget you are. It also shows patterns and trends depending on your previous transactions and recommends an amount that you should allot. 

Image of Mint app's Budget section.
Image of Mint app's sample expense tracker.

I’ve been wanting to go for a solo trip for a while now and I am really under a time crunch to save. What am I doing? I entered an amount as my ‘saving goal’ for the end of November and it auto-assigned a monthly saving amount I should be maintaining to reach this goal.

Image of Mint app's sample saving goal.

I find it amazing how little I have to do, but at the same time, I am prompted to look at my habits and recognise anything that needs changing or controlling.

Tool 2: U of T Financial Planner (free)

Not every incoming student has a Canadian bank account to begin with, so U of T's Financial Planner is the perfect alternative. I personally haven’t used it yet but I know a couple of friends who have in the past, and they believe it’s a fairly good estimate of how much money you will need to cover tuition and fees, housing costs, food and everything else for the upcoming academic year. You'll provide some background and income information, and you will be shown a budget summary and directed to some useful resources to help you save money.

Image of UofT's Financial Planning Calculator.

And lastly… the good old-fashioned way.

Collecting bills and writing them down on paper.

My grandfather used to do this, and he is one of the best budgeters I have seen in my life. It’s a lot of manual work, but not everyone may have access to the online tools above or one may want something offline to be referred to in the long run. I have noticed that I tend to be more conscious of each expense when I write it down rather than entering my transactional entries into software. It also makes me more disciplined, since I need to track expenses daily rather than scramble to mass-import all my monthly expenses in one day. It’s neat, visually stimulating, and you have no boundaries of having to build or meet a certain ‘template’.

This article has some excellent tips as to why bullet-journaling your expenses is one of the best things you can do.

Other tips

  • Learn to say ‘no’: Your friends may not have the same financial background as you, so if it’s the end of the month and you only have enough money leftover for groceries, try not to go out to spend out of peer pressure. Learn to listen to your goals — that’s a big rule for making your budgeting a success.
  • It’s okay to not save every month: I haven’t been able to save much these past few months since I was transitioning roles and also handling unexpected expenses pertaining to my health. Not saving shouldn’t be a habit, but saving doesn't have to make you be extremely stringent or strict with yourself. It’s the thought that counts and the effort you are putting in every month.
  • Have a tracking ‘buddy’: The way going to the gym with someone makes you more accountable, the same way having a common saving goal with a friend or family member can help you stay focused on your budgeting goals.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help: We realize there might be unexpected circumstances that affect your ability to finance, so please reach out to your financial advisor to discuss your personal goals through a more professional lens.

– Piya

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