How much spending money does a college student need?
August 11, 2012 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Monthly "allowance" for a college student?

My Little Darling daughter leaves for college for the first time next week. She is using her savings for her personal expenses but has asked me to help her set up an "allowance" system - a monthly transfer from a relatively inaccessible savings account - so she isn't tempted by having a large amount of money in her checking account at the beginning of the semester. (Which is awesomely self-aware of her.)

Trouble is, I'm not sure what amount is reasonable. I'd like it to be enough to give her some freedom to eat out occasionally or go to a movie, pay for her own iTunes purchases and the occasional shopping trip, etc. But since this is a teachable moment and she will likely spend whatever she has, I don't want it to be too much. How does $50 a week / $200 a month sound?

Other facts that might be relevant: She's attending a small liberal-arts college in a small town. We will put money on a campus-based debit card to cover her books and school supplies. She will live in a dorm and be on a full meal plan. She enjoys shopping but has modest tastes, and won't have a car. I'm happy to provide other info if needed.

posted by Sweetie Darling to Work & Money (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Why not suggest she put together a draft budget for the first month? How much she'd expect to spend on clothes, movies, beer, whatever. Then add a 10 or 25% contingency to the top, and see how it goes. Have her tell you how much to adjust the amount for the next month.
posted by colin_l at 2:08 PM on August 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

Given that all of her basic needs (housing, food, books) will be taken care of through other funds, I think $200 per month for "fun money" is very generous.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 2:10 PM on August 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

I agree $200/month sounds generous. Why not play it by ear month-to-month?
posted by schroedinger at 2:38 PM on August 11, 2012

My daughter's college was much like the one you describe. She also was on the meal plan and had a college 'card'. We found that $50 was more than enough. After Christmas we cut it back to $25, I think. But we live close enough that she would come home for an occasional Sunday dinner instead of eating out.
posted by toastedbeagle at 2:41 PM on August 11, 2012

Which region of the country will she be in? (The more specific the better the answers will be). $200 will vary from reasonable to excessive depending on the cost of living.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:46 PM on August 11, 2012

Similarly, I too had my tuition, room, and board paid for my freshman year of college. I got $200 a month from my parents for 'fun money' and whatever over that I wanted I had to work for. So I worked like 10-15 hours a week at a campus job so I'd have a little extra when I needed it. It worked out well and was not terribly taxing and didn't distract from my studies (any more than anything else, that is).
posted by greta simone at 2:46 PM on August 11, 2012

Then again, that was 12 years ago, so maybe $250 to factor in inflation. (holy shit that was 12 years ago)
posted by greta simone at 2:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

$200 is indeed generous, assuming it's just a plain ole small college town. If you want to be generous then, hey, go ahead. God knows we're long past the point where a college student can just easily go ahead and get a job, especially an incoming freshman. If you don't want to be too generous, I'd start at half that and tell her to get in touch with you if she needs more. Next month, bump it up a bit based on how much more she needed.
posted by griphus at 2:48 PM on August 11, 2012

Having her put together a budget will help, but there are things she may not consider, not having lived on her own before, including: toiletries, cosmetics, feminine hygiene products, first aid stuff (I used a ridiculous number of band-aids my freshman year -- collegiate paper cuts?), etc. It may help to walk her through literally every moment of her day, from morning ablutions (oh, face wash! tooth paste! vitamins!) to bedtime. If she's never bought her own school supplies, she may be surprised by the cost of printer ink. Indeed, you may find going through a speed-version of her day with you will be a happy memory you two will share for decades to come.

FYI, when I was in college, the main campus bookstore often ran out of books for a particular class, meaning I had to go to one of the off-campus bookstores, requiring I pay from my checking account instead of using my college debit card. Some textbooks are hugely that's an outlier for the budget.

Also, I didn't have a car my first two years, and the best thing I ever purchased (and continued to purchase after I had a car) was a campus bus pas so that I could make it between classes at opposite ends of campus (in rain or snow) on time, where even a fast clip of running would have made me 15 to 30 minutes late (on a "small" Ivy campus), let alone soaked. That was $50/semester...27 years ago. And lest someone come in and moan that walking is so GOOD for you, it's also not necessarily safe to walk alone and the prospective safety of taking a campus bus at night allows both parents and students to sleep more soundly. This is the kind of expense that falls outside the usual-and-sundry you might be considering she cover. Similarly, consider the cost of a dorm mini-fridge, which is usually rented through the dorm rather than purchased outright.

Also bear in mind that it's not usually reasonable to expect she'll eat in the dining hall on Friday and Saturday nights; nobody ever did unless they were flat broke.

A monthly allowance is a good start to help her, but as she becomes more adept, consider changing it to a semester to give her more practice and longer-term planning. When I went to college, I was also in the dorm and on a meal plan, but found that walking half a mile to get breakfast when my blood sugar required I eat within moments of rising didn't work, so we dropped down to a 2 meal/7 day a week plan, and used the extra money to fund dorm-fridge groceries. My parents started me off with $1000 in my account at the beginning of the year. The goal was to still have $500 at the end of the semester, and they'd top it back off, up to $1000, at the start of the next semester. Anything up to $500 was my own business; any overage between $500 and $1000, I had to explain as education- or health-related (like textbooks from the off-campus store or a prescription the campus health center couldn't fill).

I had very modest tastes, too, but I also had emergency back-up credit card. YMMV. Since I had $500/semester for 18 weeks, or $27.77/week, at $200/month, your kid will have ~$46/week...27 years later, that's probably similar purchase ability, depending on whether it's a rural/suburban/urban setting. Assuming you're paying for her cell phone coverage and the cost of internet is included in the dorm costs, and given inflation, this seems fair, but possibly a bit low. You might set aside a separate amount for "start up costs" like the bus pass, dorm fridge, etc.)

(That said, if dorm laundry runs on quarters rather than a debit card, just give her a bunch of rolls of quarters; in a sock, it's even self-defense!)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:49 PM on August 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

The thing that matters in determining the sum is how much she has saved. If your $50 a week sum is reasonable given how much she has saved (for example, it won't exhaust her savings by the end of the school year and she can earn it back from a summer job before the next school year), then that is a good starting point.

Additionally, I agree that it is very self-aware of her to ask you to help her this way, but it isn't going to teach her the big skill of personal restraint. I suggest agreeing to this under the condition that each year she takes more personal responsibility. For example, freshman year, you transfer money weekly. Sophomore year, you transfer money monthly. Junior year, you transfer money bi-monthly. Senior year, she's responsible for her own restraint.
posted by ifandonlyif at 2:50 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I was in college (not too long ago), I had a job. I usually made ~$70/week, and I spent most of that, not just on fun things but also my subway pass and art supplies for classes. Having an on-campus job is a great way to not exhaust your savings (believe me, it was nice to have some money saved up after I graduated), meet other people, and learn to budget your time effectively.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:59 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

And I went to college in an expensive major city.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:04 PM on August 11, 2012

I'd say let her spend what she wants in the first month then revisit this and make a budget. It's hard to know what your life expenses are, etc. when you haven't done them before or done them in that location.

If this account is "sort of inaccessible" because you're going to be taking ownership of it/transferring the funds to her then ax that before it starts. Help her setup a reoccurring transfer from this savings account to this checking/debit card account. If her account doesn't do that then open up an ING account or something.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:21 PM on August 11, 2012

Another thing you might consider is whether there are clubs that have dues. She may have paid a student activity fee up front that covers everything, or she may find that joining clubs at the start of the year, they require a fee to go into their pizza-party fund or whatever. Studio art classes and some other classes will require a materials fee too - though she may be able to pay this with her bookstore card? If you contact the admissions office they'll be able to answer this type of question for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:27 PM on August 11, 2012

Will she be on work study? My parents gave me money at Christmas and my birthday (and random other times throughout the year) but I mostly lived off the spare money I made from working 5-10 hours a week. This usually came out to about 300 dollars a month, which was more than adequate to pay for my bad Starbucks habit and misc. shopping/dinner/movie needs.
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 3:36 PM on August 11, 2012

It sounds like several responders think you are providing the money, not that she is spending her own money from her own savings, and that is coloring their responses.

I think $200/month is a minimum; when I was at uni I missed out on a lot of the important parts of school because I had zero fun money. I missed out on meeting new people, networking, extra educational opportunities etc because I couldn't afford dinner out or transportation to these "extras".
posted by saucysault at 3:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think $200/mo is a reasonable place to start. For the first month I would give her the $200 and have her track what she spends it on. Adjust up and down as needed.
posted by 3T at 4:00 PM on August 11, 2012

I was spending around $400 a month in college a few years ago, but that was everything but housing, tuition and health/car insurance. So it included textbooks, cell phone, gas for my car and all of my food (not on a meal plan) as well as "fun".... so probably around $200/month after the expenses she won't have are taken out.

I was also at a small liberal arts college in a small town and for me after all my other expenses were paid, that covered eating out a couple times a week, an occasional weekend road trip, any fees for interesting campus groups, new clothes occasionally, and hours spent consuming coffee in front of my laptop at the student cafe... I had the luxury of not having a hard budget though. If I honest to goodness had only had $200 a month and wasn't able to float the money from a different month's budget I might have missed out on some things.

Can you put a few hundred in the account for the first month and then have her come back and tell you how much she wants allocated each month? I feel like this should ultimately be her decision in the interests of learning to budget.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:04 PM on August 11, 2012

I think it sounds low. Less than $10 a day? Not impossible, but that's a pretty austere lifestyle.

It would probably be more teachable, I'd think, if you had her budget out the upcoming week each week, get a little bit more money than that, then live with it. (emergencies excepted)

One thing I used to do, and I still do kind of subconsciously in my mind if not on paper, is take a page from a project management method I learned once. (works with time and money both)

Make an estimate for each day of the week and then add them up, but not the kind of estimate you usually make. Usually, you make an estimate that you're pretty sure you're going to be able to meet. Say, 90% sure. Not this time. You want a very aggressive estimate - 50/50 you won't make it. That's ok.

Then, add 50% to that total. So, say you choose $70/week, make it 105, which is 70 + a 35 buffer. You try not to spend the buffer, but if you do, you do. Since your estimate was so aggressive, sometimes you're going to, that's just the way it works.

You can tell how you're doing on any day by comparing how much of the buffer is left with how much of the week is left. If you're only 3 days through the week, but you've used up 4 days' worth of the buffer, you're in the red zone and had better cool it.

I do better with a hard-and-fast rule, like, if I'm in the red zone, no eating out. Period.

I still think $50/week sounds low. Does she have enough money to maybe start out higher, then adjust down as she gets settled in if it seems pretty easy? She's also going to have some initial expenses like outfitting her room the way she wants, some college-branded paraphernalia, etc.
posted by ctmf at 4:14 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not impossible, but that's a pretty austere lifestyle.

Daughter is not living on $10/day. She's not trying to pay her food, tuition, and shelter bills on $200 a week. Plus Mom is putting money on her campus card and daughter has additional savings from which she paying what mom calls daughter's "personal expenses."
posted by 3T at 4:40 PM on August 11, 2012

My mother and I had joint access to my checking account for my first year or two of college and we operated on a pretty similar system. I would say $50 a week would have more-than-covered me most weeks - I'd occasionally go out to dinner with friends on weekends, or go see a movie, or buy a fun book. If I wanted to do something more monetarily-intense, I'd just plan ahead by a week or so. This is a good thing you're doing - I like the idea of gradually putting more money in and expecting it to last a longer period of time as she gets more experienced budgeting. If she doesn't have a work-study built into financial aid, it might not be a possibility to find a campus job. I don't think that helping your daughter manage your own money is coddling her or treating her like a juvenile in any sense of the world - it's good parenting and I commend you for it.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:11 PM on August 11, 2012

How much does she have saved? Is she projecting to be graduating in 4 or in 5 years? Divide her savings by those numbers of years.

Unless she expects opportunities to say, spend a semester abroad, then subtract that projected cost from the total first.

How much she'll really need will depend on a lot of other things. In 1996 based on estimates provided by the small liberal arts college in the middle of the midwest, I expected to need to spend $2000 over 9 months on top of room and board.

$222 a month didn't nearly cut it as almost half was spent on textbooks in expensive subjects. A lot of that money was on booze, but large chunks were necessary every so often for transportation to the regional airport and chipping in for roadtrips. Airports aren't cheap, even if someone bought my ticket for me. Ended up spending more than twice that in reality. But I drank a lot. But booze was cheap. And I smoked, but cigs were cheap too. Oh, yeah, and I did a lot of drugs and those weren't cheap. I also liked to cook my own ethnic food even though I had a full meal plan.
posted by porpoise at 6:16 PM on August 11, 2012

$200 would have been an obscene amount of "walking-around money" for me in the Northeast in 1995-1999, and my vices were limited to coffee and pizza, but that is many years ago. $200 is probably about right today.

As saucysault says, the networking and "extras" will totally do a person in. I don't know how to counsel you there because I don't know your daughter or your family situation.

My parents, thank God, had money and were just able to write all of the big checks for room, board, tuition, and plane trips. The flip side to that is that every single additional item was my responsibility, ranging from books to toothpaste to, yes, pizza and beer. Cry me a river, right? But still, on work-study, which I heartily endorse, that is a lot to cover. I would have thought, going in, that I would be about in the middle economically at my fancy college. My parents assumed, naturally, that I would be near the top. In fact, there were a shocking number of extremely rich people and, what's more, a lot of moderately rich people who thought their reasonable, relatively frugal children should not have to worry during college and thus gave them spending money. This latter view was not held by my parents at all.

I found working a lot very beneficial and I would absolutely do it again or counsel my (imaginary) children to do the same, but I also wish my parents could have thrown me the extra $100 to keep up with the Joneses, which they certainly could have afforded to do.
posted by skbw at 7:20 PM on August 11, 2012

I just graduated from a small liberal arts college in a small town. I earned about $50/week at my campus job, and that was just about enough when I was on the full meal plan. My main expenses were personal items like shampoo, etc. and coffee and a muffin at the coffee shop most weekend mornings (plus the occasional meal out and um, alcohol). I also rarely went shopping because there weren't any clothing stores I liked in town; trips to the mall were rare. If your daughter is a seasoned online shopper she might spend more, or if she lives close to a major city.

In general, I'd suggest encouraging her to be in control of her own money as soon as possible. It's a super important life skill, and there's pretty much no easier place to practice it than a small college in a small town where your major expenses are covered.
posted by MadamM at 7:43 PM on August 11, 2012

I know one of my nearby colleges offers some "college bucks" with the purchase of their meal plan. Depending on which meal plan you purchase, you get $100-300 in extra money on your card that can only be spent at the campus convenience stores, for emergency toiletries and such. Of course, that amount has to last the entire semester, but if her college provides that plus I assume she'll take some toiletries with her from home, she might not need a lot of money for toiletries and such. So that might not be something you have to worry about. I would go with transferring the $200 this month (that should allow for unforseen beginning-of-the-year expenses) and having her tell you to adjust the money next month based on how much she spends.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:15 PM on August 11, 2012

$200/month sounds fine.

I will say this on coins, though: have her have an easy way to save coins. A wallet with a coin purse bit, an as-seen-on-TV coin-sorter/-counter machine, even just a bowl and a piece of paper where she logs what's in there. I hated the end of every year where I would find $50 or even $100 in change in a bowl where I'd tossed it and not really looked at what was there. That was a nice meal out, or a one-day car rental to do a big run to a mall/outlet center I couldn't get to on public transport, or even a taxi!

Also, quarters in particular are easily worth 30 cents a piece when you're on campus and you're doing laundry at 3 am on a Tuesday and there's nowhere open to make change, let alone a change machine that's stocked. Of the $200 a month, $10 in quarters. Mail them to her in little boxes filled with cookies or something.

And not to get your daughter in trouble, but our British exchange students found that 10-pence coins, worth about 16 cents, were just about the right size and shape to fit into the quarter slots of the laundry machines. Signs went up but they were never caught red-handed and they saved a bundle. So.
posted by mdonley at 9:48 AM on August 12, 2012

You might check if the laundry machines, vending machines, copiers and printers in the library, etc take the campus card.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:08 AM on August 12, 2012

Does this cover a cell phone? Medical co-pays? Contacts or glasses? Transportation for trips home? Prescriptions? Toiletries like face wash, body wash, flip flops for the shower, laundry? Dorm room set-up including Twin XLong sheets, bed risers, a few storage containers, bathroom caddy, maybe a microwave?
posted by barnone at 2:33 PM on August 12, 2012

Since she is a woman, I would also make sure has access to funds for an abortion and plan B (unless it is free where you live).
posted by saucysault at 6:18 PM on August 12, 2012

Thanks to everyone for their input, except maybe saucysault (not that I don't agree with you, but it's kind of a buzzkill subject as I nudge my baby gently out of the nest for the first time...).

I think we'll start with the $200/month. As others have noted, this is her money and will be mostly for discretionary spending. We're sending her to school pretty well set with room furnishings, a preliminary supply of personal care products, cell phone, trips home, etc. She probably won't look for work, at least not for the first semester. Part of the incentive for saving was to allow her to focus on school (and fun) while she gets settled in this big new adventure.

But I appreciate the advice, especially about stepping back so she can learn to manage this herself. I've encouraged her to track her spending so she has a sense of where the money is going. I've also told her that there is no shame in learning about money by running short on it (at least at the beginning), so hopefully she will be comfortable asking for help if she needs it.

Additional suggestions are welcome... thanks again!
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:54 PM on August 12, 2012

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