This school year won't look like any other before it, with many universities and colleges choosing to go online for the fall semester.
Instead of heading to a dorm or getting a cool place to share with roommates, you might be staying at home with your parents in order to save money and remain socially distanced. This will cut down on some costs around travel, rent and utilities, but it might be more difficult to supplement your income with things like a part-time job, making it a bit harder to save.
Here are some things to think about when it comes to budgeting and saving money while living at home:
What you should budget for
Whether you're new to budgeting or needing to tweak your budget from the last school year in order to account for living at home, it’s a good idea to take some time to think about what expenses you should plan for this year.
“The unpredictable environment because of pandemic makes budgeting difficult,” says Ava Zarrion, a personal financial planner at Scotiabank. She suggests that the first thing you should do is figure out what money you have coming in, “Look at your sources of income from things like support from parents, grants, scholarships, student loans, or a part-time job.”
Once you know how much money is coming in, you'll be able to then figure out how much you can spend and if there is a gap between your expenses and your income.
To figure out your expenses, Zarrion suggests dividing your expenses into two categories: fixed expenses and flexible expenses.
Fixed expenses include things like tuition, textbooks, cell phone bills, transportation costs, car insurance, and other things you have set amounts to pay and that you can't avoid paying. Flexible expenses include food, entertainment, clothes, and other things that can vary in their costs.
How do you know how much you will likely spend? Look at how much you've been spending in the last few months. What are your typical expenses in these categories? Consider whether they are likely to go up once school starts. You could even look at your expenses from the last school term, if this isn't your first year in post-secondary. From that research, come up with an estimate of how much you think you'll spend this year while living at home.
“Once you know where your money is coming from and where it’s going, you need to compare your money coming out [expenses] to your money coming in [income] to make sure they balance out,” says Ava. “If your expenses exceed your income, you’ve got yourself a problem. With a little tweaking and thriftiness, you’ll be able to find ways to bring down your expenses.”
What to do if you have trouble balancing your budget
Maybe you struggled to find a job this summer because no one was hiring or maybe you didn't feel safe working. Maybe the paid co-op position or work/learn job you were counting on this term was cancelled, or your parents can't afford to help as much as they’ve hoped as they balance their own budgets. There are a lot of reasons why you might have less income coming in this year. So, how do you make up for the gap?
The first way you can try to do that is to tweak your budget to bring down your expenses, says Zarrion. But you can only do that with your flexible expenses. While you'll save on the cost of rent or a dorm by living at home, some of your other expenses might also be lower this year because you won't be on campus, having to grab a coffee before an early morning class, or buy lunch because you didn't have time to pack it while frantically finishing an essay that morning. You might also be able to reduce the data on your phone if you are going to be home more and using Wi-Fi.
Other places you might save are on things like entertainment since there aren't many in person events happening. Invest in something cost effective to keep you entertained instead. Look at your streaming services and which ones you are actually using; keep only what you are really using and enjoying. Also look for free options like the Overdrive app, which lets you use your library card to borrow e-books and audiobooks for free.
Similarly, you might not need a bunch of new clothes if you're going to be hanging out at home in your sweats or other comfy clothes.
But don't cut back too much. Try to find ways to afford small indulgences that will keep your spirits up during what will likely be a tough year. Budget for at least one small treat a month so that you have something fun to look forward to.
If there's still a gap, Zarrion suggests looking into additional scholarships, financial aid, and forms of income to make up the difference.
That could be difficult this year, given that more students are in need, but contact your student services office and tell them about your situation. They might be able to suggest jobs, awards, or student loans to apply for. Many colleges and universities have also fundraised emergency assistance funds for students struggling during COVID. You might be eligible for these funds.
If you're looking for extra work, Zarrion suggests that you consider freelancing out your established skills, tutoring online and paid shopping or delivery services. Many of these services are surging in demand as people try to limit their outdoor contact to comply with public health regulations. Just be sure you protect yourself with the proper equipment if you do these types of jobs.
Other learning from home expenses
While you might expect living and learning from home to be less expensive that going back to campus, there are some special expenses that you might not have anticipated.
“You might need a new computer if you don't have one or to upgrade your internet service,” says Zarrion.
Other things to consider are the cost of computer peripherals like a good headset, a Wi-Fi router, or a printer. You might also need to buy a desk or set up a work area at your home if you don't have one already – which could be expensive. If you're unable to access a library to take out books, you might need to buy more books to complete your research or term papers this year.
Make sure to set aside extra money for those needs so that they don't surprise you. To save money on computer equipment see if you can hold out with your old computer until closer to the holidays – as there are usually some good deals them. You might also be able to buy a refurbished or used computer if you need one imminently but can't afford a new one.
Making the most of studying at home
Studying at home is a new challenge, as you are trying to share the Wi-Fi, and endure the eye strain from hours of watching video lectures. Make sure you plan and budget for breaks and connecting with friends, even if it’s through a screen. It’s an unusual school year. Remember to be as kind to yourself as possible through all this and try to stay focused on your goals – scholarly, financial, and otherwise.