Balancing Your Budget on Co-op and Beyond

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So you’ve gotten the job. Congrats! If this is your first co-op, you’ll probably be pretty giddy when you see the digits on that first pay stub. But, you’re also probably in a new city, and you’ve got lots of cost of living expenses. Before you go off and spend all that cash on a new laptop, let’s think a little more about that paycheck, and what it costs you to earn that money, and how much you might want to save for the semester and beyond.

As is the case with many students, your first co-op might be the first time you’ve ever worked for a full-time salary (or at least above minimum wage!). Co-op is also probably the first time you’ve lived on your own, paying your own rent, paying to commute, and paying for all your meals (and not with Dining Dollars). These are all major factors to keep in mind when you’re looking at your paycheck. To get an idea of how much I’m really earning, I usually do a bit of simple math when I get my paycheck. Most companies pay bi-weekly, and rent is usually required on a monthly basis. So, double your paycheck, then subtract rent, and utilities, if they’re not included with your rent.

Rent probably isn’t the only thing you need to spend money on during your co-op. You also need to feed yourself to live, and you need to get to work! Transit is usually a pretty fixed cost. If you drive, you’ll need to consider things like monthly insurance payments, lease payments, gas, parking, and maintenance. If you take public transit, that’s a lot easier to calculate, as you’ll just need to keep track of the cost of your daily trip to and from work, then multiply that price out across 4 weeks. Food is a bit more variable, and complex. The most effective way to keep track is to diligently record your grocery and meal purchases, but that’s a lot of work. Personally, I stick to a simple budget of $30-40 a week in groceries, and eating out or ordering in once a week. If you’re more prone to eating out, pay attention to the end total of your purchases, and try to get an idea of the average cost of a meal.

In general, the best way I’ve found to save money without saving receipts and punching numbers into a spreadsheet is to be mindful when spending. Think about your rough average monthly earnings you calculated above, and what recurring costs you could reduce. If you’re close enough to work, walking or biking is a great way to save a lot of money. If you drive, perhaps consider public transit (although, you’ll still be paying fixed bills like insurance and lease).

When it comes to food, try to think of ways you can reduce eating out while still maintaining a lifestyle you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to spend most your time at home cooking if you don’t want to. In fact, you can not cook most days! Pick out some foods you love, prep them ahead of time, and store them for the week. This past spring I spent my Sunday mornings cooking a big batch of a couple meals for all of my lunches and dinners that week, which I could take anywhere. If you don’t want to spend half a day cooking, perhaps cook big dinners a couple times a week, and save the leftovers for dinners and lunches later in the week. Additionally you can buy some shelf-stable quick-prep base ingredients, like pasta, bread, peanut butter, etc. to have at the ready when you’re not feeling like eating a prepped meal, or you don’t have any more leftovers.

While there are many expenses during your co-op, there’s also a number of them during the semester. With a bit of mindfulness about your purchases during the semester, you’ll be able to make payments on your tuition, afford books, or save enough to forego a job during the semester, and maybe even fund a few side projects along the way!