Ask the average student about stressed in the middle of midterms, and they’ll tell you anxiety is a normal part of their university career. The impact their grades will have on their final GPA isn’t the only thing that can shift their adrenal glands into overdrive. Money—and distinctly, a lack of it —is often the cause of student stress.

Financing a four-year degree at any one of Canada’s top universities is an expensive commitment. Roughly half of all post-secondary attendees end up turning to student loans to help them graduate. Limiting how these debts can affect your mental and financial health after you graduate hinges on your level of financial literacy now. And, unlike that Latin language class you took as an elective, mastering your financial fluency is an easy task with the right mindset.

Understanding the basics

When you first started to read, your parents and teachers didn’t start you on the Iliad. You were introduced to the Berenstain Bears and other appropriate characters for children. You should take the same approach to your finances even now that the Berenstain Bears are no long a bedtime story but a conspiracy theory.

You don’t need to understand economic trends affecting the Bank of Canada’s recent rate hike, nor do you need to know why experts predict the housing bubble will burst in 2019. You’re at the start of your financial education, so you can start with the basics.

The cornerstone to financial literacy is relatively straightforward. Basic numeracy and an understanding of core concepts influencing the financial services you use is all you need.  The Government of Canada offers a great stepping stone into this world with its Financial Toolkit. It covers things like banking packages, debt management, and — the most important tool in this kit — the household budget.

A budget is a student’s best friend

A budget is great for beginners because it teaches the basics of tracking expenses and setting financial goals. For most students, the primary goal is to limit debt, but the budget evolves as your goals change to focus on repaying loans, living on your own, and starting to save.

Though tuition and incidental fees vary from university to university, the average Canadian student can expect to pay $19,498.75 each year according to Maclean’s. Their breakdown covers everything from tuition, housing, and books to travel, alcohol, and extracurriculars.

A budget is at its most effective when you track expenses accurately, so Maclean’s estimate should only act as a guideline for what to expect. You should also avoid vague estimates when tallying less concrete expenses, like groceries and eating out.

These are considered your variable expenses. They can be difficult to pin down because they fluctuate from week to week. To get a good understanding of how you spend your money on these variable expenses, look to your past financial statements. Look back at least three months to figure out the average of what you spent on things like food, drinks, and travel. This should give you a good idea of how you spend your cash.

Use your budget to find savings

A budget is more than an objective witness to your spending. It’s a tool to help control your spending, so you can save more. Your variable expenses are the easiest targets. Unlike tuition, which is a fixed cost, things like books, groceries, and entertainment aren’t set in stone.

If you aren’t sure how you can lower these costs, financial experts like Gail Vaz-Oxlade and financial companies like GoDay offer great insight into saving on a budget. Vaz-Oxlade made her career helping Canadians in debt find a way out of the red. Meanwhile, the folks behind GoDay help Canadians find online payday loans to cover their emergencies. They understand people on a small budget need a special kind of advice; rather than telling you to cut out non-existent charges on daily lattes and Uber rides you don’t take, their blog and Financial 101 page offer practical savings tips for anyone struggling with debt.

While these tips were designed for the spoiled spenders on Vaz-Oxlade’s show Prince$$ or the people who use payday loans, they work for your student lifestyle because they don’t assume you’re spending expendable cash you don’t have. They help you determine realistic targets for your spending. Some of them include:

  • Your groceries: Using a campus meal plan is a convenience a few students can afford. If you have access to a kitchen, consider making your own meals. You can keep your grocery shopping bill low by using Leanne Brown’s cookbook, Good and Cheap. It shows you how to eat well on just $4 a day.
  • Your books: With top marks in mind, you may think you need to purchase all course materials new. In reality, you can share textbooks or buy them used without jeopardizing your grades. You may also find the books you need on this free resource.
  • Your shopping: Even on a budget, you need to buy things like household items or clothes. You can reduce their overall cost by using the rebate and other shopping apps, as well as tapping into the sharing economy with the BUNZ app.

Last but not least, you want to consider making more money to offset these costs. The CBC reports millions of scholarship money goes unclaimed each year. While it takes time to apply, a scholarship or bursary you aren’t expected to pay back can go a long way to help your finances.

Another essay on top of your existing workload may not be ideal, but it could help balance your budget. And that’s what financial literacy is all about: balance. The time you put into making your budget during your degree pays off by easing the financial pressure you feel on and off campus. A budget breaks the stranglehold your finances have on your university career, so you can devote more time and energy to your classes.

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