3 min read

How to budget as a university student

How do you budget when your income's all over the place?
How to budget as a university student
Photo by Melissa Walker Horn / Unsplash

Prepare yourself for the cutest ever email.

I have no idea if I'm emailing an automated line or a real person and if this email warrants or will receive a reply or not. I'm going to treat it a little bit like yelling into the void.

I read your book, Sam! I loved it, it makes good points. I'm trying to follow it as best I can. I'm having difficulties applying some of it though.

I'm 20, I go to uni (Rhodents4lyfe), and up until this year I have lived in res. So my living expenses are all really just random things like the once in a blue moon when I need washing powder or decide to bother enough to get milk. Therefore, figuring out what my monthly expenses are (aside from buying dodgy weed - Rhodents4lyfe) has been a nightmare, it's all over the goddamn place. It gets more complex because I bartend and therefore earn an ever fluctuating weekly rate - how the fuck do you calculate a concrete financial plan when you're finances are literally ever changing!

Next year I'm moving into digs! (yay adulting!) and I really, really want to make all of these financial things be locked down by then. But I have no CLUE what my projected monthly expenses are going to be, if I'm able to count on bursary funds and, again, my salary varies from week to week.

I guess the point of me rambling my woes into the void is that I very much back managing my money like a fucking grown up, but am having trouble applying some of your book to my life, because I'm in essence a financial clean slate (oh Lord, minus student loans), have no idea how much my monthly expenses are going to be, and my income is all over the show.

On the off chance that this is more than just yelling into the void, I'd like to disclaim and say I am aware you're not a financial advisor, but also hello! Yay! Thanks!


Hello! This is the void, yelling back at you (actually it’s Sam, hi!)

Dude, you are being a total overachiever by trying to boss your money even before you move into your own digs / start earning a consistent salary, so you are now my hero. At your age I was a total disaster (I once got kicked out of the Rat & Parrot - I bet you didn’t think that was even POSSIBLE) because I vomited all over the bar thanks to some of that extremely dodgy RhodentWeed + about 10,000 litres of Sambuca (classy).

ANYWAY - here’s the simplest solution for you: open 2 bank accounts at the same bank (probably Capitec or Tymebank). One of them is your Grownup Fund, and the other one is your Fuckaround Fund. Your bartending income and your bursary money gets paid into your Grownup Fund. Your dodgy weed allowance gets paid out of your Fuckaround Fund. You top up your Fuckaround Fund from your Grownup Fund every week, and that’s the only bank card that ever goes into your wallet, unless you’re going out to buy textbooks or something (put stickers on your cards or something, so you can tell them apart). Every Friday, pay yourself some pocket money by moving money from the Grownup Fund to the Fuckaround Fund. And over time, try to build up the cash buffer in your Grownup Fund until it’s enough to carry you through if you don’t earn anything for a month or two. Only when you’re in that situation, start thinking about opening up a real savings account for longer-term things.

And sign up for 22seven, so that you can start learning the long-term averages about what your life actually costs. It will all change when you leave res, though.

Living in digs was the time of my life and I’m sure it will be for you, too. My advice there is to agree with your digsmates about how you’ll buy communal home stuff upfront and how you’ll keep track of shared costs (take a look at a new local app called Kin, the international version Splitwise, or try the good old fashioned “everyone sticks cash in a jar at the start of the week” method). Life in digs is full of unexpected financial surprises, so having that cash cushion will really help you.

As for making a full-on budget, I've found that actually they're not all that helpful, especially when you're starting out and don't actually know yet what your life will cost. Focus on gathering the real info from 22seven, rather than trying to predict the future. But if you do want to a budgeting starting point, I found this sample student budget from Educonnect that might help.

Also, learn to love beans+ spinach+ rice, it’s amazing how long you can live off of those three ingredients and they're cheap as hell.

Best of luck! You’re thinking about this stuff really early in life, so you’re doing great :)

Beaming hugs