Budgeting Tips

Budgeting Tips

We are not able to offer formal budget advice, however, we have some tips and tricks that can help anyone with creating a basic budget.

Getting Started with a Budget

Why do I need a budget?

A budget isn’t just looking at how much you spend each week, but it also looks at how you spend your money. Sometimes the small purchases (e.g., a coffee, trip to the dairy, or just popping to the supermarket to pick up one thing) can really make up more of your weekly spend than you realise. Planning is the best tool that you have to understand where you are spending your money and it can help you make more informed choices.

Having a budget is especially important for students because you tend to live on a low income, all while dealing with the demands of studying, working, and learning how to manage your finances. But budgeting is a tool that can help everyone, as it can empower you to take control of your spending and achieve your financial goals, big or small.

How do I get started with a budget?

The first step to creating a budget is figuring out what you actually spend each week. All of the small purchases add up, so it’s important to understand what your spending habits are like, and where you may need to make some changes.

There are many different ways that you can figure out how much you generally spend, so it’s about finding what works for you. You can use your bank statements to go back 2-3 months, and add up how much you spent on each expense (you can use a budget template to help figure out how to categorise each expense). This is the most time consuming part of putting your budget together, so make sure to use technology to your advantage and use a spreadsheet to add everything up for you.

Once you have calculated what your spending has been over the last couple of months, you can figure out what you have spent on average per week (e.g., if you calculated expenses over 3 months, then you divide the total by 12 or 13). It is easier to process your expenses when you see them on a weekly basis, otherwise it can be difficult to get your head around the numbers.

Now that you have your average weekly spend set out, you can start to look at your spending and assess where you are doing well and what you may need to cut back on. Understanding your habits means that you can set up a more realistic budget that you will be able to stick to long term and create better habits in the future. If you get takeaways three times a week, then it’s not realistic to cut back to having them once a month – you’ll find it hard to stick to, and might give up. It’s okay to have those stricter goals in the long term, but your first budget needs to be realistic so you can get into the habit of being mindful about your spending.

How do I plan my budget?

You know you need a budget, you know what your spending habits are, and you know that you need to be realistic. Now what? Now you plan your budget!

There are heaps of budgeting tools online that can help you put together your budget. We recommend the UCSA budget template or the budgeting tool on sorted.org.nz.

The important thing to remember is to budget for your essentials first (e.g., rent, power, internet, groceries, transport, insurance), then you can allocate funds for the other expenses (e.g. takeaways, clothes, alcohol etc.). If you are able, make sure to leave some room for the things you like to do, as it is hard to stick to a budget that is overly restrictive and makes you feel horrible about budgeting.

If you would like to focus on saving for an emergency fund or for a particular item and if you have an excess in your budget, it can be helpful to put that excess into a savings account every time you get paid. This means the money is out of your main account and you are less tempted to spend it.

For example, if you have met all of your expenses and have $10 leftover in your budget each week that you put into your savings account right away, then over the course of the year you will have saved $520 (plus any interest that accrues).

It’s a small step, but it can help you get that much closer to your goals, or help you meet any unexpected expenses that come up.

If you are struggling to plan your budget, then there are a few strategies that you can use to help you along with the process:

  1. Write down your goals – what would you like to achieve by having a budget? What is your “why”?
  2. Have a chat with your friends about budgeting – see what they do, and what has worked for them. Budgeting doesn’t have to be isolating, and it can help you stay on track if you don’t feel alone.
  3. Chat with a professional – there are heaps of free budget and financial advice services available. We recommend checking out MoneyTalks, which has digital budget resources, free online budget advice, and can point you in the right direction if you want to speak with someone in person. This is also a great option if you want some help with things like debt management or navigating WINZ processes.

How to I keep track of my budget?

It’s great that you have a budget, but now you have to stick to it. This seems easier said than done, but with a little bit of planning and routine, it can be super easy!

Tracking your spending is really the core of what budgeting is all about – you need to keep track of things so that you know whether you are sticking to the plan. There are heaps of different ways that you can track your spending, so it’s important to find what works for you. You can use a spreadsheet (don’t forget to use online services like OneDrive and Google Sheets so you can check your budget on-the-go), a budgeting app, track things in a notebook, or any other method that works for you. As long as the numbers add up, then whatever works for you will work for your budget.

Tracking your spending accounts for the fact that you often won’t spend the same amount each week on your expenses; sometimes it’ll be more, sometimes it’ll be less. If you are tracking what you spend in each category, then you can account for the differences in spending week-to-week because it all evens out over time.

We recommend taking some time to think about what you require from your budget tracking. Do you want flexibility? Ease-of-use? Synchronisation with your bank accounts? If you want minimal set-up and ease-of-use, then finding a budgeting app or website is generally the easiest option. However, you will need to consider whether you like the user interface, whether the free version gives you the features you want, and what information you are comfortable sharing with the app or website developer. The most basic option is using a spreadsheet, but there can be a steep learning curve if you’ve never set up your own equations before.

It can take a bit of trial and error, but it’s important to persevere and find what works for you.

Budgeting doesn’t have to be a difficult, isolating, or shameful experience – you can still have fun, socialise, and not spend every free moment planning. It just takes a small amount of time now to reap the benefits for many years to come. Budgeting is a skill and being frugal is a habit, so being at uni is a great time to learn how to use these to your advantage.

UCSA Budgeting 101 Guide

Food Shopping

It can be difficult to shop on a budget and have a healthy diet, especially if you are short on time and have to coordinate with your flatmates. With a little bit of planning and know-how, you and your flatmates can take charge of your shopping list and learn how to shop and cook healthily on a budget.

Stocking up the pantry: learn your staples

Your pantry staples are the versatile ingredients that can be used in heaps of different recipes. Working out what your most used staple ingredients are can be a bit tricky if you’ve never cooked before, so we recommend starting with a general list of staples and adapting it as you become more comfortable in the kitchen.

In most households, staple ingredients include:

  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Cooking oil
  • Rice
  • Stock cubes
  • Cereals
  • Instant noodles
  • Baking ingredients (e.g. flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa)
  • Herbs and spices (e.g. mixed herbs, coriander, cumin, chili powder, paprika)
  • Soy sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Sweet chili sauce
  • Garlic
  • Canned tomatoes, beans, fish etc.

Generally, you won’t have to buy these staples that often, and they tend to last a long time in the pantry or fridge. Stocking up on these types of ingredients is also helpful for weeks when you are too busy to go do a big shop at the supermarket, or for times when money is a bit tight. These staple ingredients also have a long shelf life and are incredibly versatile (they can be used in a lot of different meals).

The first grocery shop that you do as a flat is going to be the most expensive, as this is the time when you stock up on everything, including your pantry staples, breakfasts, snacks, cleaning supplies, and ingredients for dinners that week. But once you’ve got that trip to the supermarket out of the way, it’s just a matter of restocking when needed.

Meal planning

Planning your meals is one of the easiest things that you can do to make sure you are keeping your grocery bill down. Sometimes we find ourselves at the supermarket buying things we don’t need, which adds up over time. Planning meals around what is on special and in season can help to make sure you are keeping things as cheap as possible. Coordinating the meal plan with your flatmates and making a shopping list together can also be super helpful, because then you decrease the amount of ingredients on the list by using them across multiple meals (e.g., it’s better to buy one bag of potatoes to use across multiple meals, than buying three different bags of potatoes for three meals).

If you want to save even more money by meal planning, you can check out the weekly specials at your local supermarkets to see what is on sale that week. You can plan your meals around what is cheapest that week and in season.

Meal planning and creating a shopping list can also help to decrease your grocery bill. By sticking to the list, you are limiting the number of impulse purchases and you are also able to make sure you don’t forget anything. Sometimes it’s the quick trip to the supermarket between weekly shops that we are more likely to make impulse purchases.

Stuck for ideas? You can check out heaps of recipes online and the top three NZ supermarkets have tonnes of easy recipes on their websites.

If you aren’t sure about where to start with grocery shopping and planning meals for a large number of people, then check out the UCSA’s shopping guide.

Dairy-Free shopping guide
Egg-Free shopping guide
Gluten-Free shopping guide
Gluten-Free and Vegan shopping guide
No dietary restrictions shopping guide
Vegan shopping guide
Vegetarian shopping guide

Beware of Trendy Initiatives

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy way to make money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Here are some things to look out for.


Social media influencers are often paid by external organisations to advertise products/services to the general public. The goal is to make money. Please be cautious before signing up to anything or taking on their advice. Do some research first, ask around, read the fine print, and don’t spend money on things when you don’t have to. For example, there are some great budgeting apps you can download. Some cost you money while others are free. Go for the free options!

Investing and retirement savings

There are a lot of advertisements out there encouraging you to invest your money in order to grow your savings (things like Sharesies or podcasts like She's on The Money).

During your student years when your income is low (or non-existent!), our advice is to focus on your essentials and your rainy-day fund. Things like retirement savings are important, but they can wait until you're in the workforce.

Buy Now Pay Later Schemes

These are designed to enable you to purchase things you cannot afford. You can pay for a portion at the time of the purchase and then you are expected to pay equal portions at different points in time later.

If you know you will have the money soon, just not now, then it can be really handy. But please do not get yourself into a position where you end up missing meals because Afterpay automatically took out the charges from your account, leaving you with nothing for food. There can also be hefty penalty charges if you miss repayments. Do some planning and see if you can fit the repayments into your budget.

Credit Cards

These are designed to enable you to purchase things you cannot afford right now. If you know you will have the money soon, just not now, then it can be really handy. But be aware of your interest rate. If you can make the payments within each billing period, then you can avoid paying interest. If you can’t then interest will start accruing. This is not ideal because you end up paying more than you otherwise would have.

If you need something essential that you cannot afford, please contact the Advocacy and Welfare Team here. You may be eligible to apply for a grant. Domestic students can also ask Studylink to help with essential purchases.