Eating Healthy on a Budget

Eating healthy and saving money doesn’t seem like it would go hand-in-hand in the minds of most grocery shoppers.  However, with strategic planning and a little bit of discipline, eating healthy on a budget can be an attainable goal.  Here are some quick tips:

Make a grocery budget-  This is the most important tip.  Before you even make a grocery list, figure out how much you can afford to spend per month and then plan accordingly.  When you go to the store, make sure you stick to your shopping list!

Plan meals ahead of time-  Knowing exactly what ingredients you’ll need for each meal will cut costs in the long run.  When shoppers don’t have a meal plan, they’re more likely to buy extra ingredients they end up throwing away.

Buy generic brands-  Unless you have a favorite brand you absolutely love, there’s no reason to spend extra for essentially the same product.  On average, you can save up to 30% by buying generic!

Don’t shop hungry-  If you go to the grocery store on an empty stomach, you’re more likely to buy extra cravings you otherwise wouldn’t buy- especially sugary and fatty foods!

Stick to the edges of the store-  Typically, the healthy, less processed foods are at the edges of the store such as dairy, meats, fruits, and vegetables.  These also tend to be the essential foods for a well-balanced diet.  By avoiding the middle aisles, there is less temptation to buy extra unhealthy items.

Bonus Tip- Check out this resource that has tons of yummy and healthy meal ideas for under $4/day and start planning today:

Speaking of healthy eating, make sure you check out the upcoming Chopped event on March 10 put on by Campus Nightlife and co-sponsored by the Student Money Management Center! Enter your team by March 3rd to participate, or simply go watch the contestants! Bring a food item to donate to OpeN Shelf, UNL’s campus food pantry for students, located in the Lutheran Center. Find more details at:

As always, feel free to stop by our office in room 237 of the City Union for handouts with more tips on eating healthy on a budget or schedule an appointment with us at for personalized help!



America Saves Week: 7 Ways to Automate Your Savings

7 Ways to Automate Your Savings

by Camilla Cheung, Wise Bread

Sometimes, building a healthy cushion of savings can seem like a daunting task. We all know how easy it is to make a late credit card payment, or to end up spending all of your paycheck without remembering to save part of it. One easy way to get started on saving this America Saves Week is to automate your savings. Having technology work to save money for you takes much of the effort out of the equation, saves time, and makes it easier for you to achieve your goals.

  1. Automate Retirement Contributions

If your employer matches retirement contributions to your 401K or retirement plan, be sure to take advantage of the free money! Sign up for retirement contributions to be automatically taken out of your paycheck. This saves you money in several ways. First, it contributes money before you even see your paycheck and get an opportunity to spend that money; and second, it saves you money on taxes as it is withdrawn from your pre-tax income.

Even if you don’t have a retirement plan with your employer, you can still schedule your account to contribute automatically to your own retirement plan. Scheduling your contribution a day or two after you receive your paycheck ensures that saving for retirement is a priority.

  1. Transfer Money to Savings Accounts

To prioritize savings, schedule an automatic transfer of a certain amount of your monthly income into a savings account. Your savings will benefit from being set aside from your regular spending, as well as benefitting from a higher dividend rate. Eventually, even just a small amount squirreled aside every month can translate into a healthy buffer of savings to hold you over on a rainy day.

If you are self-employed or a freelancer and you have to pay quarterly or yearly taxes on your income, sending the estimated tax you owe to a separate account every month will help you to avoid an unpleasant surprise at tax time.

  1. Pay Bills Automatically

Avoid late fees by paying your bills automatically. Some bills can be put on your credit card, whereas others can be set up to be paid directly from your bank account.

It’s also a good idea to set up your credit card bill to be directly paid from your bank account. That way, you avoid late fees as well as costly interest on overdue amounts. Be sure, however, that you have enough money in your account to avoid overdrawing your account and incurring additional fees.

  1. Get Money Back With Credit Card Rewards

There are many no-fee credit cards that offer cash back or rewards points. Use your card for all your regular purchases (and your monthly bills), and you’ll earn free rewards or cash back for your spending. If you plan to spend money on travel, rewards points that allow you to buy airplane tickets or hotel stays can also help save you money. Choosing the right credit card can also net you additional perks like car rental and travel insurance when you pay with your card.

It’s important to use your credit card responsibly, so be sure you can pay your balance in full every month to avoid extra fees.

  1. Use Technology to Cut Energy Costs

If you spend a lot on heating and cooling costs, investing in a smart thermostat can automatically save you energy and money, by reducing your energy usage during hours that you are away from home or at night. Many thermostats can also set different zones of your house to heat and cool differently depending on your needs, making your energy usage more efficient.

When your appliances are in need of replacement, replace them with energy-efficient models that will automatically reduce your energy usage every time you use them.

  1. Simplify and Save While Shopping

Many people can’t be bothered to cut out physical coupons and fiddle with all those little slips of paper at the store, but with smartphones, it’s much easier to automate the couponing process. Many grocery and big box stores have apps that allow you to choose the coupons you need from the app, and then apply them all by scanning your phone at checkout. Other apps aggregate coupons from many different retailers.

For regular purchases of things like diapers, toilet paper, and other necessities, consider joining an online subscription service, which will deliver your purchases to your door regularly, as well as offer a discount in the process. That way, you won’t be stuck paying full price when you have to run out and buy these items at the last minute.

  1. Keep an Eye on Your Accounts

Staying aware of the activities in your accounts helps you to track your spending, as well as detect any fraudulent activity. But it can be a bit of a pain to sign into each individual credit card and bank account separately. Instead, tie your accounts into an app (such as that allows you to see your transactions at a glance. This will help you to rein in your spending if needed, transfer money to savings or investment accounts, as well as save time keeping track of your accounts.

By setting your finances to automatically save for you, you’ll quickly be on your way to saving both time and money.

What will you do during America Saves Week to automate your savings?

Wise Bread is an online personal finance and credit card education magazine.

America Saves Week is coordinated by America Saves and the American Savings Education Council. Started in 2007, the Week is an annual opportunity for organizations to promote good savings behavior and a chance for individuals to assess their own saving status.

How to Start Budgeting- Part 4

Once you’ve determined what amounts you would like to spend on each budget category, you need to figure out how you’re going to track your spending and stick to your budget. Again, expenses should be equal to or less than income. If you have leftover income, that is an opportunity for saving or investing. There are many different tools out there to help you track your spending.

  • If you are not very tech savvy, the most basic option is to keep receipts and write down your purchases on paper. Of course, at the end of the month, you will have to add everything up and compare it to your budget goals for each category. This method is usually not best for people that have problems overspending because they may not add up everything that they have spent until the end of the month, and at that point, it is too late to cut back on spending to make sure that you stay within your budget goals.
  • Another option is to use excel spreadsheets to track spending, which can do all of the math for you. Of course you will have to manually input everything you have spent, so again, if you wait to do this until the end of the month, it may not help you to avoid overspending. However, if this is something you are wanting to try, we have multiple spreadsheets available for you to use on our website here.
  • Another popular choice is using a budgeting app. Budgeting apps are becoming a favorite among students, especially people who have their phone with them all the time. It is easy to see where you are at with your spending for the month because you have it right at your fingertips. There are many different budgeting apps out there for you to use with varying features. There are also other apps that help you save money as well. You can find some of our favorite apps here.
  • One of our favorite ways to track spending is by using Mint. Mint has both a website and an app. One of the reasons we love Mint and other budgeting websites and apps, is that you can see all of your financial information in one place. You can connect your checking and savings accounts, debit and credit cards, student loans, investments, and more, in addition to being able to see your net worth. It is nice not to have to log in to all of those different websites, especially if you are spending with more than one debit or credit card. In addition, it does all of the math for you. It will figure out that a purchase at Runza should go under your fast food budget category and then it will subtract your purchase from the amount you have budgeted for fast food. This makes it very easy for you to see exactly how much you have leftover in your fast food budget category to spend.

In addition to tracking your spending, you will also need to stick to the amounts you have prescribed for each budget category. One of the easiest ways to do this, especially if you use Mint or a budgeting app, is to check how much you have left to spend in the category BEFORE you decide to make a purchase. If you friend texts you to ask if you want to go out to lunch, all you have to do is check your budgeting app on your phone. If you only have $2 left to spend in your going out to eat category, you will have to say no. Another method that we often suggest to students who are just starting to budget is the envelope method. This can also be really useful for people who are struggling with overspending on just one or two budget categories such as clothing, entertainment, or going out to eat. With the envelope method, you take an envelope and write on the outside the name of the budget category, such as “Clothes.”  Then, you put cash inside the envelope for whatever amount you have allocated for that budget category. For that category, you can only use cash, and not a card. This method prevents you from overspending because you simply cannot spend money that isn’t there. So the main way that you can stick to your budget is to check your app or envelope before you make a purchase, instead of swiping your card and realizing later that you have overspent. For members of the UNL community, you are also welcome to make monthly appointments with us here at the SMMC. We can give you someone to be accountable to if you need that extra outside push. Please schedule an appointment with us at if you need helping making a budget or if you have any questions.

Happy budgeting!

How to Start Budgeting- Part 3

So now you’ve figured out how much you want to allocate each month to debt repayment and saving for an emergency fund and financial goals. You should have also figured out your income and what you have been spending for the past few months. Once you have these things down, you are ready to make your budget. You will need to decide how much to want to budget for each expense category. This may be more or less than you were spending before. Just remember that total expenses have to be lower than total income!

A lot of students will ask us to tell them how much they should be spending on each budget category, however this is a very personal decision, and everyone’s budget will be different. However, there are some percentage ranges that we recommend to students:

Dave Ramsey Other Experts
Charitable Gifts 10-15% 2-10%
Saving/Investing 5-10% 5-10%
Housing 25-35% 20-30%
Utilities 5-10% 4-7%
Food 5-15% 15-20%
Transportation 10-15% 6-20%
Clothing 2-7% 2-4%
Medical/Health 5-10% 2-8%
Personal 5-10% 2-5%
Recreation 5-10% 2-5%
Debts 5-10% 15-20%

We tell students that they should mostly be concerned about the bolded categories- housing, food, and debt repayment. You don’t want any of these categories, or any other category, to be 40%, 50%, or more of your income. If you let one budget category get that high, it is likely that you will not have enough left over to cover everything else. Other than that, you can choose how you want to spend your money. People who have medical conditions might need to budget more for health costs, for example. Or students whose parents live far away from UNL might need to budget more for transportation costs when they make visits back home.

If you are having a hard time trying to decide how much to allocate to each budget category, think about your wants and your needs. Needs are items such as rent/mortgage payment, utilities, food, and other items that are necessary and that you MUST pay for. Wants are items that you don’t need but that would be nice to have, like internet, cable, more clothes, a cell phone, and fast food. You should always start with your income and then take out your needs. Emergency fund savings, financial goals savings, and debt repayments should be taken out next. Lastly, you should prioritize your wants according to their importance and how happy they make you. For example, a cell phone and internet might be more important to you than cable or fast food. Once you know how much you have leftover for wants, you can cover your wants starting from the most important until you run out of money.

If you run out of income to allocate before you have covered all of your wants, you can try to decrease the cost of some of your wants to get all of them covered. Here are some tips:

  • Go to the movies on Tuesdays when it is $5 or Thursdays (students only w/ Ncard) when it is $5. Skip the popcorn, candy, and drinks to cut down on the cost and be able to go to the movies more often.
  • Cut down the number of times you go out to eat or use coupons so that you can save money to be used for other wants. Skip drinks, appetizers, and desserts to save even more.
  • Do you need all of the data you are paying for? See if you can switch to a smaller data plan for your phone.
  • Buy clothes when they are on sale or ask for giftcards for birthdays and holidays to save your money to spend on other things.
  • Limit the number of concerts you go to each year or cut out some of the smaller concerts so you can save to go to more expensive ones.
  • Instead of buying a coffee everyday, brew your own coffee at home and buy flavored creamer.

Stay tuned for our last installment in our “How to Start Budgeting” blog series which will cover ways to track spending and make and stick to your budget.


How to Start Budgeting- Part 2

So by now you’ve made a list of your average expenses and compared it to your income. Remember that you also need to include savings as an expense in your budget. Do you currently have an emergency fund? An emergency fund is extra money, usually in a savings account that can be used for unexpected expenses that are not included in your monthly budget. Examples could include a major car repair, a broken laptop, reduced hours at your part-time job, being laid off from your job, medical bills, etc. This is important because you don’t want to have to take out additional student loans, ask your parents or family for money, or put something on a credit card just because you don’t have an emergency fund. If you’re living on campus, we recommend that you have a few hundred dollars for your emergency fund. If you’re living off campus, we suggest 3-6 months living expenses. This is important because if you get laid off or aren’t able to work you will still need to pay rent, utilities, etc. Using your tax refund to save for your emergency fund can be a great way to get started. Decide on an amount that you want to start saving each month to build up your emergency fund. It will take some time to build up 3-6 months worth of living expenses, and that’s ok. Having a small emergency fund in your checking account also ensures you’re not living paycheck to paycheck and that you are not at risk of overdrafting your accounts.

Another expense you will need to include in your budget is savings for any financial goals you have. A financial goal can be anything from saving up for a summer vacation to saving for a down payment on a house. If you want more information on how to create financial goals, check out this blog post. When you are saving for something, whether that be a trip or an emergency fund, you want to make sure it is a top priority for you. The easiest way to stay on track with saving is to transfer money from your checking account to your savings account right after you get paid. This way you won’t miss the money as much and it won’t be available for you to spend in your checking account.

You also need to factor in debt repayment expenses into your budget. If you carry over a credit card balance, you should try to decrease expenses in order to have more money available to pay towards your balance each month. You can also work to decrease expenses to pay off other loans such as student loans, car loans, and mortgages more quickly.

Check back soon for our next post in our budgeting series which will explain wants and needs and give you tips on how to save money.

How to Start Budgeting- Part 1

Budgeting can seem like a daunting task. Nobody wants to see exactly how much they spent and then feel guilty about it at the end of every month, right? Well that’s exactly why you should have a budget! At lot of people like to use the term “spending plan” instead of “budget.” That’s exactly the point of a budget- to plan how you’re going to spend your money. For a lot of people who have a budget, it feels good to know that you are able to spend your money (up to a certain amount!) on things you want and that you won’t be overspending. The purpose of a budget or spending plan is to decide how you’re going to spend your income before you spend it. This is especially helpful for people who usually spend more than they make or people who want to save up money for something.

So how do you start budgeting? The first step is to make a list of expenses that you spend your money on. Go through your debit/credit card statements and write down what you have spent your money on for the past 2-3 months. Group expenses into categories like fast food, clothes, toiletries, etc. For expenses that you don’t pay for every month, such as an oil change or a haircut, take the total expense cost divided by the number of months in between the expense to get the amount you should save for the expense per month. For example, if you get a haircut for $30 every 3 months, it would be $30/3 = $10 per month. If you save $10 a month, every 3 months you will have enough to pay for a haircut. This is especially important for expenses that you may only have once or twice a year such as car registration, car insurance, taxes, etc. Next, add up your average expenses for a month to see what you spend each month. Finally, figure out what your net income (the amount that gets deposited into your back account) is per month. Remember to multiply by two if you get paid every two weeks! It is usually easier for most people to have a monthly budget as opposed to a two-week budget since things like rent and utilities are only paid once a month, but do whatever is easiest for you!

The second step is to see if your income is greater than your expenses. If it is, you have some extra money to month to be able to save for an emergency fund or a financial goal, or save more retirement, for example. If your income is less than your expenses, you have two choices- you can either decrease expenses or increase income. Even people whose income is greater than their expenses may want to think about whether they can decrease expenses or even increase income to pay off debt faster, or save for a money goal more quickly. The goal is to allocate all of your income to something- spending, saving, investing, etc.

Stay tuned for the future installments of “How to Start Budgeting” to learn how to decrease expenses, save money, make and stick to a budget, and track your spending.


FREE Tax Preparation for Students!

It’s that time of the year again!  Tax season is in full swing, and the filing deadline is coming up on Monday, April 18.  Whether you’ve filed before or not, you may have many questions regarding filling out a tax return and need assistance doing so.  Fortunately, the UNL Center for Civic Engagement coordinates the Lancaster County VITA Coalition which assists college students and lower income residents with filing their taxes.
Many students wonder whether or not they need to file.  Here’s the brief answer: if you worked at all this past year and had income taxes withheld you should file because you might receive a refund.  There are some cases where you MUST file if:
  • You received scholarships and/or grants that you used for expenses other than tuition and fees (i.e. room and board, personal expenses, etc.)
  • -You are a dependent and unearned income was over $1,050 OR your earned income was over $6,300 OR your earned and unearned income is more than the greater of (1) $1,050 or (2) earned income plus $350
  • -You are not a dependent, single, and made at least $10,300 in income.

The following link lists the sites where tax filing assistance is offered, including one site at the UNL East Campus Union. Days and time available are also listed.  Walk-ins are welcome; however, it may be busy and there’s no guarantee you’ll be served right away.

For more information on the Lancaster County VITA Coalition and other important tax info, check out the link to our website:

Make sure to get started ASAP; as stated earlier, the deadline for filing is MONDAY, APRIL 18.  And don’t forget!  If you do get a return, here are some ideas of what you can do with the extra cash:

  • Pay down debt (ex: credit cards, student loans, etc.)
  • -Put it towards your emergency fund
  • -Start saving for an upcoming trip, studying abroad, or other goal
Happy filing!

Post written by Amanda Owens, SMMC Program Assistant