How To: The Envelope System as a College Student

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

As you may have read here, in the past six months, I have become incredibly passionate about handling money with wisdom.

I poured my heart and soul into my most time consuming, and most popular blog post. How to: The Envelope System. We loved walking through Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University with some friends, but the real change started when I realized that as a wife, I need to have a huge role in our budgeting, not just hand it off to Ben. The envelope system was awful and intimidating and tedious and I hated it. UNTIL I ACTUALLY TRIED IT. When I let go of some misconceptions and humbled myself, the Lord really used the envelope system to change the way I handle money completely.

It has already had incredible impact on our little family, and I am so looking forward to seeing the goals it helps us reach in years to come. We are certain that even if we reach a point of "great wealth" or whatever, we will live on a budget. It's important to have discipline and boundaries in our lives.

Today, I want to go into detail on how to use this system as a college student. I've gotten so many questions from people in different life stages, and today I want to focus on college students. :)

Can we be transparent for a second? My financial wisdom in college boiled down to this: if I spend less money on food, I can spend more money ordering things online from Anthropologie and J. Crew. During our last semester of college (right after getting engaged, and leading up to our wedding), Ben challenged me to save $1,000. I remember whining and thinking it was impossible. With the goal of honoring my future husband on my mind, I curbed my shopping a little bit, and at the end of the semester I had $1,200 in my bank account, ready to be passed along to Ben. My yucky heart joyfully spent that last $200 on honeymoon clothes. Looking back, I hate where my heart was in that, but I think it was okay to celebrate our honeymoon with a few new outfits. :) I digress...

The point is- I knew ZERO about handling money. I had parents who taught me to never go into debt, and I know my dad saved like crazy... but I didn't know where I fit into all of this. I guess I thought it wasn't my problem. Hello, selfish! I was in college for three and a half years, 7 semesters. I could have saved $7,000 during college. This isn't a guaranteed, and everyones college financial situations are different. I only share this information for one reason: to show you how dark my heart was in the depths of materialism, and to prove that I knew nothing about handling money before the envelope system. 

Let's look at some of the worries I had about the envelope system again: 

  • Carrying around cash makes me nervous, what if I loose it or it gets stolen?
  • I don't want to take the extra time at the cashier, digging through my cash and coins when I could just easily slide my debit or credit card.
  • I like seeing a list of where my money has gone in my online banking. 
  • Real honesty: It sounds like a pain and I don't want to do it. 

Before digging into this, please read my original Envelope System post. It gives background on how we do things in our family of two, and it will set you up with an understanding of the system before I get into how I would handle it as a college student now. The information below doesn't stand alone. You would need to read this post and then take the budget information below to figure out what would work for you. Let me tell you, it IS important to learn how to handle money in college, and the envelope system can totally work! 

Making your budget:

I have put some numbers out there as if I was a college student right now. I was surprised at how I had totally forgotten how much I used to spend on groceries. The amounts for groceries, eating out, and extra entertainment are pretty high. I started out high so that those amounts can be tested out if you want, and then adjusted to what works for you. As I chose numbers, I planned as if I was a college student with a very busy social schedule. Because let's be real, that's often the case. I also  Like I said, adjust. The only thing that makes budgeting work is designing it to fit your lifestyle and your schedule. For example: if you are on campus from 9 am until 10pm on Tuesdays, budget to always buy your dinner on campus. It's do able to pack a lunch, but packing two just wouldn't happen.. at least for me!

Determine your categories and amounts. In our budget, I use monthly and weekly categories. For a college student, I think monthly amounts would be more practical. I would recommend designating a day every month to look over your budget, redo your envelopes, and get ready for the next month. For your busy college schedule, I would suggest writing it in your planner every month on the same day, or even setting a notification on your phone. Make it happen, people! 

Groceries: $160
This covers $40 per week for food purchased at the grocery store. When I was in college, I usually went every other week and spent around $80. This category could be adjusted if you had a schedule that required a lot more eating out. 

Eating Out: $140
$35 a week for eating out is a little high in my mind right now, but I recall getting lunch/coffee/dinner with a friend almost every day. College is the one time in life where you have the freedom to connect with people this much on a daily basis, and I would encourage it! However, you can keep your eye on what you order. This category would also include Sonic and Starbucks runs... really any food or drink you buy anywhere other than a grocery store. 

Misc. Entertainment: $80
I planned for $20 a week, forgetting that movies in most college towns cost $4. Oops. I might suggest cutting this in half if that's the case. But if you had $20 a week, this would include trips to the movies, maybe drinks out with friends (ONLY IF YOU ARE 21! Underage drinking is breaking the law and is the opposite of cool. Also the opposite of wisdom!) , going bowling (did that one time in college. literally one time.), concerts, whatever. This is a category where you could skip a movie for a while and then have money for a concert.. it's one to be flexible with how you spend your money on entertainment. 

5th Sunday: $32 
Okay. Bear with me. Every three months, there is a month that seems longer, because there are five weeks instead of four.  To fix this problem with your weekly amounts, you add up your weekly categories (groceries, eating out, and entertainment) and divide by three months. That way, every three months you'll have enough cash to cover that extra week. For example, if it was $33, then you would put $11 in this envelope every month. Then, during the longer month, you have saved the $33 that you need for the week and you don't have to feel like you are spending more money that month. I hope I communicated that clearly, feel free to email me!

Toiletries: $40
This covers anything you would buy at the grocery store that isn't food. Paper towels, toilet paper, toothpaste, etc. I didn't really take into account that you might share some of these costs with roommates. Let me encourage you to not be the roommate trying to get out of paying his or her share of  paper towels. That is frustrating, and a really unfair way to treat your roommates. :)

School Supplies: $10
This amount can build up so that whenever you need new pens or paper or printer ink or whatever, there is money there ready! 

Haircut: $15
Putting aside $15 into a haircut envelope each month means that every 4 months you'll have $60 for a haircut at a nice salon! Again, I went on the high side here, because I know I was always nervous about trying places in College Station that weren't nicer salons. 

Cosmetics: $10
I used to think this category was wayyyy under budgeted, but for the most part it works out. I like mostly nicer makeup, and this covers all that I need to buy. I occasionally add my mascara into the general toiletry budget because I buy that a lot, but I think this is great!

Auto Repair: $20
If you pay for your oil changes, not your parents, putting aside $20 a month will allow for an oil change regularly, and save a little bit in case your car needs anything else done in the future. 

Christmas: $30
I just put $30.. but you would determine this category by making a list of everyone you want to buy gifts for, budgeting amounts to spend on each person, and adding up to a total amount spent on Christmas presents. Then divide that by the number of months you have until December (usually 12, if you budget like this always.. but if you started it in October you'd only have three months, so you would divide by 3!) 

  • This doesn't include rent, utilities, a tithe or gas. Using envelopes for numbers that are the same every month doesn't really do anything. I just use envelopes for expenses throughout the month that are different (groceries, eating out, etc.) I also don't advise using envelopes for gas. Two reasons. 1. Because going into the gas station to pay with cash isn't always practical or safe. 2. You can't really limit your driving to work, school, church, wherever. 
  • Depending on the money you're working with, I would also want to include a Miscellaneous Giving category. This is my favorite category that we have. It allows for bringing treats to people, donating to various ministries, etc. 
  • I also didn't include any categories for clothes, or random splurges. You can add that in however you see fit. :) I get a one time monthly amount for these things. 
  • Add or take away categories as needed. Some people may not need the auto repair envelope, or school supplies, or whatever.  Or even groceries, if you live on campus and have a meal plan. MAKE THIS YOUR OWN!! That's the only way it will work! 

Living out your Budget: 

Now, you have to stick with it. You need to work on it. Budgeting is a discipline. For most (hi! me!) it doesn't come easily. It's really hard. But it is important to learn some sort of money management at some point, and there is no better time than college. Follow the procedures listed in my original envelope system post. Spend time praying for the Lord to give you wisdom in handling finances. As I mentioned before, spend time once a month switching out your envelopes and evaluating your finances. 

A few things: 
  • I mention in my original post that for some things, I leave the envelopes at home and use a debit card, with the amount in the envelope in mind. For example, today I went to Bath and Body Works to get a few candles. Because I am obsessed with fall scents. True confessions. Anyways, I spent $30. I paid with my debit card. I then set aside $30 of my fun money to deposit into the bank. I didn't have to bring around all my cash, yet I still spent with the boundary of the envelope in mind. This is great for college because I feel like a lot of times people just have their wallet attached to their keys on them. You could totally just use the envelopes at your house for some things. Why is this even worth it? Because you are setting the boundary. doesn't do this well at all, trust me. Give this a shot. For some college students that really want to give it a shot, it will work great. Others, it won't seem so practical. You could just use it for your groceries if you wanted. Or just for eating out. I would encourage you to find an area to apply it to and see what you think works! 
  • I am fully aware that all college students (and really everyone) have different financial situations. Some are living paycheck to paycheck. Some never see any money and just swipe their parents' card. I don't mean to discourage anyone if this system can't fit in with their financial situation. 
  • I think it's easy to think "I'm a girl. I don't need to know about finances. I can just do whatever and my future husband will take care of it." Not true, ladies. Even when your prince charming comes along, even if he is extremely wise with money... he may have student loans or about to go to law school or WHATEVER. All I'm saying is, saving money is good at any time of life. :)

There you have it, friends! I truly hope and pray this is helpful! If you have any questions or comments.. please leave them below! 

Also, if this post helps you out, feel free to pin it to pinterest by clicking the image at the beginning of the post, or sharing the link on your facebook wall! I'm sure other college friends of yours would appreciate a looksie. :)


  1. Girl, you are ROCKING it with these posts. I love it!

  2. I wish I lived closer to you so you could help me out with this! I love shopping too much, but what girl doesn't? My goal for 2014 is to stick to my budget, and now until December, try and save as much as I can! I need someone to keep me accountable for my actions! Might just have to continually e-mail you ;) Thank you so much for sharing, friend! Helps this poor college girl put things into perspective, especially with wanting to save money to give to my future hubby! Don't want to be a burden on him.

  3. Your links to original envelope post are broken. They should link to

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