When was the last time you said, “Lunch is on me?” and really knew what you were getting yourself into?

Illustration by Megan Mulholland

Budgeting isn’t rocket science, but it sure is math. And there’s something about math that seems too time-consuming to have a place in most of our schedules. Many of us struggle to find satisfaction with the way we’re spending money, and coupled with tuition and rent, the woes snowball into heart-wrenching Visa bills and empty bank accounts.

Here’s the deal: you can’t be upset about something that’s completely in your control. You have full authority on the purchasing decisions you make.

Like any project, the first step is research. Track your pennies for a month — either by notebook, a spreadsheet or a smartphone application — and calculate where your cash seems to fly. Categorize your costs and tally up your income. Check yourself to see whether you’re breaking even on your income, making a positive gain in your account or losing money with each bank statement. Take some time to really understand where your money goes and what you spend it on.

In their book, “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan,” authors Elizabeth Warren — now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts — and Amelia Warren Tyagi propose a budgeting method that involves dividing all your spending into wants, savings and needs. According to their vision of the ideal budget, no more than 50 percent of net income should be spent on needs, 30 percent on wants and at least 20 percent on savings.

What? Savings?

Yes, savings. A 2013 study by Demos found that the average family’s burden of $53,000 in student debt can lead to an average of $208,000 loss in wealth over a lifetime, calculated in present day values. Assuming that the interest rate for a direct unsubsidized loans is approximately 5 percent, that would be like paying off the $208,000 in lost income with approximately $2,660 of loans every month for 10 years. That’s over $31,000 paid in student loans every year by a family — a little less than a third of the average American family’s income and over half of the average starting income of a University of Michigan undergraduate engineering graduate.

OK. Breathe.

It’s not all bad news. If you include savings into your semester budget, you can cut down on the expenses you’ll have to incur several years down the road. It will also mentally prepare you for when remunerating student loans becomes a significant part of your paycheck.

Warren and Tyagi envision the perfect budget as a balance. But the first step to creating a budgeting method that works for you is to understand whether being in a static balance is even an option. Chances are, it’s not. I spend significantly more during Spring Break on travel expenses, food and gifts and the beginning of each semester on textbooks and supplies than during other parts of the year. When I’m traveling home for the holidays, the spending gets cut in half, since mom and dad foot the food bills.

Zero-Based Budgeting, traditionally used in the public and corporate sectors, might just be the solution. Rather than setting a fixed amount each semester to be used on food-related expenses, Zero-Based Budgeting would have you look at that total amount of income you’re projected to have in the month, and then allocating your money accordingly.

It’s simple: Keep aside at least 20 percent for savings, and balance out your wants and your needs. Look at your spending history to predict what you’ll be spending, and be realistic with your needs.

Sometimes it really does feel like cash has feet. But it’s just paper, after all.

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