Back-to-school season often ignites a desire to reinvent or renew yourself. That, however, can add up to a lot of either necessary and helpful or purely impulsive spends. Along with that, new textbooks and required academic resources can put a sizeable dent in your wallet really quickly. All your college friends might also crawl out of the holiday woodwork for meetups that really add up. Faced with all the incoming stresses of a new term and the allure of food therapy a la Berkeley’s abundant variety of restaurants, it can get challenging trying to balance a college student budget.
Take a look at this Berkeley Bear’s budget for the week while recovering from post-holiday blues.
College: UC Berkeley
How do you pay your tuition and fees?
My parents pay for my tuition and fees, a privilege for which I remain endlessly grateful. I give my academics my all so as to not waste the ease and opportunities they granted me. As my parents rarely used money or material objects as rewards for my work, they taught me the value of prioritizing internal validation rather than luxury spending. In other words, they instilled in me a mindset of spending responsibly on necessary items. I don’t end up buying much beyond what I need for school and unavoidable everyday expenses.
What are your monthly expenses?
No place takes the title for expensive housing quite like the Bay Area. The only college I know that doesn’t guarantee student housing for freshman, Berkeley makes finding affordable housing a great challenge. I pay $1300 a month for a relatively new shared studio that comes fully furnished and provides air conditioning. While this price cannot by any means count as cheap, neither does it shock the people I met. Living off-campus does bring one perk though—freedom from the restrictive expense of meal plans. Cooking by yourself almost always costs less than purchasing a meal plan and creates healthier options than the either flavorless or fat-building (but delicious) food in campus cafes and cafeterias.
To save on time, I tend to do one big grocery trip over a longer period of time rather than a few short trips throughout the week. I generally spend around $60 on groceries that will last me two to three weeks. As I only live a 10-15 minute walk from campus, I walk to school every day and don’t usually spend money on transportation. My school-issued clipper card exempts Berkeley students from paying the bus fare, meaning trips to downtown or Oakland don’t cost anything. I only spend money on transportation when I head to San Francisco on the BART, but those trips occur at most once every two months.
What are your budgeting plans for after graduation?
I plan on getting a job after graduation, so I can start relying on my own earnings. As is common in East Asian families, I’ll likely move back in with my parents and share meals with them. As Hong Kong remains the world’s most expensive housing market, getting a place of my own just doesn’t seem prudent or even feasible. Just because I plan on sharing meals with them doesn’t mean I won’t chip in though. I’ll definitely pay my (and sometimes their) share of groceries and food. That serves as the least I can do, considering the rent money I can save.
How do you pay these expenses?
Like my tuition, my parents cover all my expenses. I don’t want to add to their burden on personal items however, so I do make a little extra on my own as an English tutor. When I head out for food with friends or buy new clothes, I use the money I saved up from working. As an international student, however, most of the money I earn does not come in US dollars. I end up doing a kind of trade situation with my parents where I cover some of their expenses on drinks and food when I go home.
How did you spend your money last week?
Sunday, January 15
The first day back in my apartment after Christmas break. My roommate and I pretty much emptied the fridge before we left to prevent from any spoilage, so come mealtime I couldn’t find much to whip up. I decided to head down to the pho restaurant right below my apartment for takeout. I order the pho with rare beef steak and meat balls every single time, but the rich broth and meat balls never cease to bore me. For this reason, the restaurant acts as my go-to “don’t know what to eat” or “too tired to cook” place.
$16.54 Pho Tai Bo Vien
Monday, January 16
I, or my stomach rather, can only handle an empty fridge for so long. Instead of ordering online as I usually do, I went to one of the local grocery stores to stock up on fruits, vegetables and meat. They were just slightly pricier than Amazon, but their freshness and accompanying longer shelf life prevents me from throwing any food away. I spotted bread from the famed Bay Area Acme Bread Company sold at the store and allowed myself a little splurge on bread as motivation for the new term. All in all, I ended up spending more on this grocery trip than I usually do, but it was likely because I needed to restock the pantry.
Tuesday, January 17
The first official day of spring term kicks off. As I only needed to attend a 9:30 a.m. class, I could eat lunch and dinner at home with my now stocked fridge and save on meals. On my way home I went into Walgreens and got a new lip balm. Aside from the fact that winter completely dries up my lips and makes them unbearably rough, the EOS lip balm I bought several months prior simply doesn’t do the trick, if not adding on a few extra cracks. If my new lip balm doesn’t moisturize at least I can admire the pretty lilac packaging.
$6.38 Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm
Wednesday, January 18
Not much happened on the gloomy second day of school. The three-and-a-half hours of classes I attended sat right in between lunchtime and afternoon teatime, so I didn’t spend any extra on meals today. I picked up milk that I missed on the grocery trip from Walgreens and also, sort of unexpectedly, a scented candle. Since my apartment doesn’t possess great ventilation (opening the window right now would lower the room temperature to an unpleasurable degree), food smells from cooking always saturate the room for hours. Febreze gets rid of the scent in certain areas of the room but only by replacing it with another aggressively overwhelming scent. From my experience staying over at a friend’s, I realized that scented candles create a much gentler smell that gradually permeates a space and decided that it would come as a helpful purchase.
$10.98 Scented Candle
Thursday, January 19
Despite all the melodramatic sighs the first week of classes conjures, motivation for work also ironically sits at a high. Even with an early class time and the hassle of figuring out a unsettled schedule, I managed to make it through the day without succumbing to a boba treat. Quite a feat right? Shameless self-aggrandizement aside, when I got snacky throughout the day, I opted for some fruit and bread from the grocery trip instead. Luckily for me, the strawberries tasted sweeter than honey.
Friday, January 20
My dad flew over from Hong Kong to attend a conference in Las Vegas and came up to Berkeley to visit me. My parents never got the chance to see for themselves what Berkeley was like because of Covid, so I wanted to take him around the area for a tour. Since he landed in San Francisco and came directly to Berkeley, he couldn’t find the time to grab a quick lunch. I went into the local Taiwanese Bakery and bought him a sandwich instead. It took him all of five minutes to devour the whole thing.
$11.5 Bagel Sandwich
Saturday, January 21
My mom also came in on Friday night, and after a quick tour around campus with her as well, we headed out for a Lunar New Year’s lunch. My roommate tagged along, and we tore through as many delicious Cantonese dishes as we possibly could. The rest of the day mostly consisted of catching up with my parents and walking around an outlet mall with them, though I didn’t get anything. They rented a car to drive around town, so transportation didn’t cost me either. For a jampacked weekend, my wallet remained relatively safe.
Week Total: $128
Personal Care: $6.38
Household Essentials: $10.98
School Supplies: $0
How do these breakdowns influence your spending habits?
Though I know that because of an empty fridge and new-term stress, this week’s spending amounted to more than the usual week, I couldn’t help but note how I wanted to spend more when I feel stressed. It seems that boba, snacks and knick-knacks act like treats or incentives to me. While a little treat every now and then doesn’t spell really spell a problem, I do need to watch myself during times of actual stress (paper and finals season) to avoid splurging for self-indulgence. Turning to stress-relief activities like exercise and drawing will likely prevent a budgeting crisis. They seem healthier than junk food anyway.