Guide to Personal Finance for College Students: Finance Management Tools and Apps

A college student at an ATM.

According to the United States Census Bureau’s “Income and Poverty Report in the United States: 2017,” “among people with at least a bachelor’s degree, the poverty rate and the number in poverty were 4.8% and 3.7 million in 2017, up from 4.5% and 3.3 million in 2016.”

Financial struggles aren’t limited to college graduates, however; they can also include students themselves. Citing information from a 2018 survey, NPR notes that out of those who responded, “36% of college students say they are food insecure. Another 36% say they are housing insecure, while 9% report being homeless.”

The financial difficulties facing college students are real and can make it difficult to maintain a healthy financial state. But there are personal finance and money management tools that college students can use to help improve their financial situation on campus and save for the future after graduation. From budget planning to tracking spending to managing debt, these tools can help college students thrive financially.

Managing Debt

Many college students will incur some type of debt during their time on campus. However, this debt can be managed if students plan and prepare accordingly.

Personal and Consumer Spending

College students living in off-campus housing may have to pay utility bills. Students on commuter campuses may have to take out car loans. And even students who have health insurance may need to visit an emergency room, leaving them with large bills. This personal and consumer debt can be difficult for college students to manage on their already limited incomes, but successful strategies exist. recommends that consumers who are looking to refinance debt should contact the companies they owe money to and arrange a payment plan. For example, if a college student is having trouble making regular payments on a car loan, the student can contact the institution that financed the loan to see if other payment options may be available.

Credit Cards

Credit cards can be effective ways for students to build a strong credit history, which can benefit them both in school and after graduation. According to Sallie Mae’s Majoring in Money 2019 report, 57% of college students have credit cards, and those with credit cards have an average of five.

But there is a downside to credit card spending. Because of interest rates and payment policies, credit cards can lead to sizable debt. Students who don’t have a reliable income may struggle to pay off that debt during and after school.

Writing for CNBC, Megan Leonhardt suggests that for college graduates trying to pay off their credit cards, “it can help to make a plan to pay off debt and set a deadline.” Additionally, Leonhardt writes that “as a general guideline, the nonprofit American Consumer Credit Counseling recommends allocating about 5% of your income toward that goal.”

Student Loans

Writing for CNBC, Abigail Hess notes that “over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. That means that roughly one in four American adults are paying off student loans.”

Often, college students will not have to begin making payments on their student loan debt until after they graduate. But there are still ways they can help manage that debt before receiving their diplomas. The U.S. Department of Education notes the importance of being a responsible borrower and how “it’s important not to borrow more than you need for your school-related expenses.”

For example, if students need $30,000 to cover yearly tuition and living expenses but their lender approves them for a $50,000 annual loan, they should only borrow what is actually needed. Additionally, students should seek out student loan funding options that have low or no interest rates, such as subsidized federal loans.

Another personal finance method for college students is to find alternative ways of paying for college. Community and junior colleges provide the opportunity to take core classes required for a four-year degree at a more affordable rate. Working full-time and completing a four-year degree over a longer period of time can also help students generate more income and avoid student loan debt.

Graduates who are starting to pay off their student loans may have to pay interest on what they already borrowed, depending on the type of loan. Students should pay attention to the information presented during their loan entrance counseling regarding their repayment plan. Graduates who are facing difficulties paying their loans would do well to contact their lenders to negotiate other payment options.

Tracking Spending

One of the best methods that college students can use to manage their personal finances is to track their spending. For students, this involves monitoring spending habits on a day-to-day basis as well as planning for long-term spending.


Tracking and eliminating needless purchases from day-to-day spending starts with making a budget. notes how a budget helps individuals decide “what you must spend your money on” and “if you can spend less money on some things and more money on other things.”

For example, a college student living at home with no credit card debt or other significant bills may have a monthly stipend of $500. The student knows they want to save some money each month, so they choose to allocate $100 for spending each week, setting aside portions for things like food, transportation and entertainment. There may be days where the student spends more and others where they spend less, but as long as they stick to the budget and continue saving, they’ll be in a comfortable financial position.

There are several apps and finance management tools, such as Mint, Acorns and Pocketguard, that can help college students track their spending and save money.

Long Term

A college student’s personal finance, spending and saving habits may change as they face new circumstances. For example, a student may want to move into their own apartment or into a house with friends, study abroad for a semester or a summer, or purchase a car to commute to and from campus.

These new factors will affect students’ spending and saving habits, and they must start planning for the long term in addition to the day to day. An apartment will require paying monthly rent and potentially a security deposit. Studying in another country may mean paying more for food and housing. And in addition to car loan payments, students will have to pay for gasoline, insurance and vehicle maintenance.

Financial management apps and digital tools that can help with long-term budget planning include You Need a Budget (YNAB) and MoneyStrands.

Saving Now and for the Future

Just covering expenses does not mean that a college student is in a strong financial position. Finding ways to save money beyond expenses is crucial as well.

During School

One of the largest expenses that college students face are textbooks, which can be hundreds of dollars at university bookstores. But there are online resources that can help students find textbooks at cheaper prices or even allow them to rent books. and Slugbooks show students where cheaper textbooks are available. Chegg enables students to rent textbooks for a lower cost than purchasing them.

College students can save money on their other day-to-day expenses as well. Basket is an app that can help college students discover better prices for groceries. MealBoard is an app that helps students plan meals throughout the week. For students who have multiple subscriptions to online services, Trim can help manage those services, saving money and helping improve a student’s personal finances.

Beyond apps or other digital tools, students can save money by being deliberate and conscientious about what they’re spending. Buying a $2 soda every day may not seem like much money, but it adds up to $60 a month. Spending $8 on fast food in between classes can help stave off hunger, but bringing lunch from home is cheaper.

During Breaks

Winter, spring and summer vacations provide students the opportunity to take a much-needed break from their academic studies. Depending on how they choose to use that time, these breaks can turn into periods of increased spending or can be a time where additional money can be earned and saved.

For a student with a $100 weekly budget, the money usually spent on transportation to campus and on school supplies can be directed toward savings. Breaks also offer the possibility for short-term financial gain, from working a seasonal shift at a local store to participating in a paid internship program to house- or pet-sitting. Much of this additional income can be directed toward a savings account.

This doesn’t mean that students should refrain from spending a single penny or enjoying their time off. Rather, it’s about identifying new opportunities to generate income and save money and taking advantage of both.

Early Career

Many college graduates find themselves in full-time jobs making more money than they have previously ever earned. But students may not consider the taxes they’ll have taken out of their paychecks or the higher cost of living in a new city. For graduates who have taken out student loans, they’ll also need to factor in their loan payments when planning their future spending.

This is where a personal financial advisor may be beneficial to recent graduates as they plan and prepare for their lives and careers after college. U.S. News and World Report provides helpful tips for finding a personal financial advisor and determining how much can be saved.

For graduates who can’t afford a financial advisor, there is another option. They can plan an extensive budget that carefully designates how money should be allocated to address existing debts (student loans, credit cards, etc.), living expenses (rent, food, entertainment), and how much to save each month.

There are financial management tools that can help graduates save and grow their money. Nerdwallet provides a helpful list of saving account options as well as resources for those who are interested in investing. Graduates with full-time jobs may be able to enroll in their company’s 401k or retirement savings program, which enable participants to save money for the future and potentially receive matching contributions from the employer.

Achieve and Maintain Financial Independence

A college education is expensive. It can be very difficult for students to pay for their education while also maintaining other financial responsibilities. However, there are tips, tools and resources that can help students maintain a healthy financial profile throughout college and beyond.



American Consumer Credit Counseling, “ACCC Explains The Importance Of Allocating A Budget That Covers Expenses In Five Key Areas”



CNBC, “Here’s how much the average student loan borrower owes when they graduate”

CNBC, “Over a third of college students already have credit card debt”, Managing Debt




Nerdwallet, “Best Savings Accounts of October 2019”

Nerdwallet, “Investments for Beginners” NPR, “Hunger And Homelessness Are Widespread Among College Students, Study Finds”


Sallie Mae, Majoring in Money 2019



U.S. Department of Education, Loans

U.S. Department of Education, Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

United States Census Bureau, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017”

University of North Dakota, Online Master of Accountancy

You Need a Budget (YNAB)