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How to Budget for Your Student Loan Payment

A lot has changed since March 2020—including our budgets. Even if you haven’t been paying on your student loans for the last few years, you’ve probably got several other increasing expenses that have made things a little tight (ahem, food and gas).

But with payments on federal student loans starting back up this October, now’s the time to get your budget ready. Like, right now.

You might be thinking, I literally don’t have any money to spare. We hear you—and we’re going to show you how to fit that student loan payment (plus some) back into your budget.

Step 1: List Your Income

First things first, you need to know what you’re working with. List out any money you usually make each month. That includes regular paychecks, estimated commission, side hustles, freelance work, child support, etc. Lay it all out on the metaphorical budgeting table.

If you’ve got an irregular income, take a look at what you’ve made the last few months and list the lowest amount as this month’s planned income budget line. You can adjust this later in the month if you make more—and then you can add that extra money to your student loans.

Step 2: List Your Expenses

Now that you’ve planned for the money coming in, it’s time to plan for the money going out by listing your expenses. Go ahead and open up your online bank account or pull out your hardcopy bank statements for the past couple of months to refer to (this makes the process way easier).

Start With the Essentials

Before you can start paying for your student loans, you’ve got to cover your essentials. The first thing you should budget for is giving (yes, really!). We believe in putting 10% of your income here and always having a spirit of generosity! Also, if you don’t have an emergency fund yet, you need to make saving your next priority. Because being prepared for life’s curve balls can keep you from going deeper in debt.

Then you need to cover your Four Walls: food, utilities, housing and transportation. That means before you set aside money to spend on anything else, you need to make sure you’ve got enough to pay your light bill. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to run out of money for the necessities if you don’t plan ahead.

List All Other Monthly Expenses (Including Your Student Loans)

Once you’ve got your essentials covered, now it’s time to budget for your student loans and other expenses. Be sure to include things like insurance, childcare, subscriptions and other debt. Add in all your debts as individual budget lines (and list them in order from smallest to largest) so you can make sure you’ve got the money to at least pay the minimum payments.

Step 3: Subtract Your Expenses from Your Income

Your income minus your expenses should equal zero. We call this a zero-based budget. That doesn’t mean you let your bank account drop down to zero dollars. (Leave a little buffer in there of about $100–300.) It also doesn’t mean you blow all your money.

Zero-based budgeting just means you give every dollar a job to do—giving, saving, spending or paying off your student loans.

Any money you have left over should go straight toward either your starter emergency fund or your smallest debt. With a zero-based budget, you’ll be able to see exactly how much extra money you have to throw at your student loans.

Step 4: Find Areas to Cut Back

So, what if you have a negative number? What if you’re having to decide between filling up your tank or paying on your student loans? Hey, it’s normal if your budget ends up in the red at first. But just don’t let it stay there.

There are plenty of ways to scale back your expenses, increase your income and adjust your budget for rising costs. Try buying generic, meal prepping, not eating out, taking on extra hours at work, selling stuff, getting a side hustle, or giving up your 15 beloved streaming services (yeah, those suckers add up real fast). If you get creative and resourceful, you can find all kinds of ways to cut back your spending.

Yeah, we know that may not sound like fun—but neither is defaulting on your student loans because you fall behind on payments. The more you’re willing to sacrifice now, more you can put toward your debt. Just remember, it’s not forever.

Step 5: Track Your Expenses

It’s not enough to just make your budget. Now you actually have to stick to your budget. And a big way to help you do that is by tracking your transactions.

Whether you’re manually inputting your receipts or automatically tracking your purchases in a budgeting app, staying on top of your spending starts with knowing where your money is going at all times. It may seem like a hassle at first, but once you get in the habit, you’ll love the feeling of being in total control of your money.

Pro tip: Create your free budget with EveryDollar! Whether you’re a budgeting pro or you’ve never made a budget before in your life, EveryDollar makes it easy to tell your money where to go, track your expenses, and make more progress on your student loans every month.