Financial Crystal Ball: A College Student Predicts Her Spending

Can you predict what you spend in a week?

You know what they say about best-laid plans: They can end up going awry and getting crazy expensive. Ever look back on your week and realize that you ate out five nights, splashed out on three movies and splurged on a spontaneous shopping spree with nothing to show for it but a shirt that seemed like a good idea at the time? Oops.

The first steps of successfully making the most of your money is planning ahead and predicting how much money things will reasonably cost. Financial planner Rene Bruer says that then it’s important to look at how much money you actually spend and reconcile the two. “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep,” he says. By keeping track of your finances and seeking out ways to save and stretch your money, you can form a better idea of how much leeway you have for splurges vs. savings goals, and develop smart money skills that will pay off over a lifetime. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t impose a lifelong ban on going to the movies, but consider joining a theater’s loyalty program that rewards you with discounts and free snacks, for example, and bring your own candy when you go instead of paying the theater’s upcharge.

To see personal financial planning in action, we teamed up with a real person (in this case: Ally, a 20-year-old college student in Chicago who asked to exclude her last name to protect her privacy) and a personal finance product called Relay that rewards smart planning with cash back, to take a look at a week in Ally’s financial life — her monthly budget and predicted and actual spend.

“I think about money a lot,” says Ally. She works two jobs, one on campus and one retail, takes classes and performs in a student dance group. She did work as a child actor, an experience for which she credits early financial management lessons.

“I had a weird amount of money for a first grader,” she says. “I was like, ‘what do I do with this?’ Even from that age [my parents] started telling me, ‘Spend on this, don’t spend on this.’ They’ve been really good about that, and recently they kind of sat me down and talked. We frequently catch up about money.”

Ally also gets financial help from her parents in the form of tuition, rent, textbooks and cash for essentials and food.

“I use two debit cards and a credit card,” she says. “I have a debit that I put my own stuff on, and one from my parents for food, and then an extension of their credit card that I use basically for anything that’s not food but would be their charge. I went to urgent care a few months ago and they took care of that. I don’t pay for my phone, my parents take that.”

It’s not unusual for college students to not have independent credit cards: the 2009 CARD Act severely limited how much marketing credit card companies can do on college campuses, and a 2016 study by Sallie Mae found that under half, 43 percent, of students aged 18-20 have their own cards. The bulk of college students, the study found, pay for the majority of their purchases with cash or debit cards.

Her mom, Donna, says that Ally holds herself almost too accountable: “She’s really weird,” she says, laughing. “This summer she sat down with [her dad] and me and said, ‘I don’t want you to pay for my stuff anymore, I just want you to help me with groceries and that’s it.’ I said, ‘Ally, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. You should take advantage. You’re not being very smart by not taking advantage of the fact that your parents want to do this.’” Her parents still pay, but Ally still keeps tight track of her budget.

Of course, Ally’s still human, and she treats herself every once in a while. “I’ve been spending a lot more on things since I started working at my retail job,” she says. “I feel like it’s normal, but I hate it. I get a discount on outdoor things. I bought a coat which I kind of needed. I spend a lot of money on books, just reading books. I buy a lot of those secondhand on Amazon. It’s kind of a bad habit because I’ll buy, like, four books and I’m already in the middle of four books.”

She also strategizes to make her purchases count: she has a Target card to take advantage of cardholder discounts and rewards, and brings her own bags to the grocery store to avoid extra charges. “I always use reusable bags because in Chicago, bags cost an extra 7 cents and Whole Foods will actually reimburse you 10 cents for every bag you bring,” she says.

To see how planning stacks up to reality, we interviewed Ally on a recent Monday afternoon about her plans for the week and how much she thought she’d spend, then followed up the next Monday to get the receipts.

“As far as figuring out what Aly spends each week, that is difficult because she works,” Donna says. Her best guess for a week of her daughter’s spending was $175.

Check out the results below.

Ally’s Week of Spending:

Use slider to toggle between predicted and actual spending

MONDAY

”If you can plan meals ahead, that’s huge,” Bruer says.

TUESDAY

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

SATURDAY

SUNDAY

”Planning for events is great, because that’s really where you can get in trouble, where you have no idea what expenses are, and you plan $5 for a drink or some food and next thing it’s $25,” says Bruer. “The more you can do ahead research-wise the better, so you’re not setting yourself up for failure.”

MONDAY

″Working retail, I know what she’s going through,” Bruer says. “Love that stuff. I didn’t have much to show for my paycheck when I was done. You have to have a miscellaneous item in your budget [for unanticipated purchases]. No one can go out there and say I’m not going to indulge.”

WEEKLY TOTAL PREDICTED SPEND: $110

WEEKLY TOTAL ACTUAL SPEND: $126.38

So as you can see, thanks to pre-planning and a parental visit, Ally’s week ended up close to her target. Thanks to an early start of personal financial education, she’s been able to implement good financial habits that will last a lifetime. In college, the beginning of her adult independent life, she’s already practicing budgeting like a pro and making sure she’s getting the most bang for her buck, while still treating herself on occasion.

“I don’t really have the whole college ‘I’m broke’ stuff going on,” she says. “Which is nice, but I think it’s because I get a lot of help from my parents. Sometimes I act like I’m a broke college student, and I’m like, ‘I can go to that movie, that’s OK, I can afford it.’”

FROM RELAY:

Relay is a new financial product that combines an immediate annuity and a prepaid debit card to offer consumers 3 to 7 percent cashback rewards plus interest on their initial lump sum. It’s your money, why not make it work harder for you? From providing your kids with a budget when they’re living away from home to paying for a dream vacation, Relay is a great way to increase your purchasing power. Learn more at relayrewards.com.

This article was paid for by Relay and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.