How to Fit College into a Family Budget

By Beth Dumbauld

How to Fit College Into a Family BudgetA family budget may not be glamorous, but it is powerful. It is the singular mechanism through which individuals within a family are able to finance activities that lead to overall health, happiness, and goal achievement – including a college education.

Your family budget may exist as a living document, recorded on a spreadsheet, or updated real-time through online budgeting programs like or Your family budget might be more of a fluid, ad-hoc system – an internal gut-check through which you just sort of know if you can afford to do something or not. 

Regardless of how you go about assessing your family’s financial health, your family budget has a finite amount of inputs – income. It probably also has an ever growing amount of outputs – fixed expenses and non-fixed expenses (variable expenses) that includes things like savings, groceries, transportation, entertainment, and educational costs. Most likely, there’s not a lot of excess capacity or wiggle room.

How Your Family Budget Compares to the Average Family Budget in the U.S.

The average family budget in the United States is allocated as follows:1

Based on an Average Income Before Taxes: $63,685

Average Annual Spending: $49,705:

  • Housing: $16,803
  • Transportation: $8,293
  • Personal Insurance and Pensions: $5,424
  • Food - At home: $3,838
  • Food - Away from home: $2,620
  • Other Expenditures: $3,381
  • Apparel and Services: $1,740
  • Health care: $3,313
  • Entertainment: $2,572
  • Cash contributions: $1,721

(Average Family Unit equals 2.5 people in household)

As illustrated above, the average family doesn’t have an enormous amount of slack in its budget. As such, it can be a challenge to find the capacity to fit educational expenses within a known system of family inputs and outputs. Though it can be a challenge, with some planning, you can fit college into a tight family budget.

The Cost of College Keeps Rising – How Can a Family Keep Up? 

Yes, it’s true. College is expensive and the cost of college keeps rising relative to income. Average tuition now takes up nearly 40 percent of a family’s median earnings in the U.S., whereas a decade ago, it took up less than 25 percent!2 For the school year 2012-2013, the average sticker price for one year of college for a full-time 4-year degree-seeking student was $22,261.3 That’s thousands of dollars for just one year of college, for one student!

There are a lot of hard facts about the cost of college; there are a lot of myths as well. Instead of becoming discouraged, you and your family need to become aware of all the educational options out there. With the revolution in online education, taking college courses and earning your college degree, can be a reality for even a modest family budget.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditures - 2011, p.1

2Selingo, Jeff, The Quick & The Ed, College Cost Crisis: A Price or Income Problem, 3/12/2013

 3College Data, What’s the Price Tag for a College Education, 2013, p.1

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