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week's question from
Peter T. , Colvington, KY
What are some of the most unexpected costs for incoming freshman?
Buy before college to save them money once they get there!
Ideally, families need to talk about who is going to pay for which parts of the four year experience, whether it is tuition, room, board, books, ski trips, study abroad, dating expenses, pizza, beer, or fraternity life. It is wise to take advantage of the known rather than exposing the family to the unknown. One is always safer on one's own home turf. Therefore, take care of visits to your personal doctor, dentist, chiropractor, optometrist, etc. and make sure you stock up on personal items of prescribed medications, OTC drugs, and other items of personal use and hygiene.
Caveat Emptor: the fine print varies from college to college!
When it comes to financial matters, don’t assume there’s an industry standard! Try these unexpected jolts: scholarship income is generally paid to the student and the college jointly; some colleges reduce their grant aid by as much as 50% of that student’s scholarship money! When new college policies no longer recognize your family medical HMO as adequate insurance, suddenly your budget must accommodate $1500+ in student medical insurance! All colleges deal directly with students on finances - meaning that students lacking in practical money intelligence (the majority) are let loose to budget by gut, praying that things will work out! OOPS!!
College is your time to develop wise spending habits
College is anything but cheap. Books often go over budget. The cost of food not covered by your meal plan adds up fast. Fraternities and sororities have membership dues and fees. Even if you don’t partake in Greek life, having any sort of social life can quickly deplete your funds. Don’t waste money. Make sure your bank has ATMs nearby so you won’t be paying unnecessary ATM fees. Make sure your cell phone plan makes sense for your new lifestyle. Wise financial decisions made in college will help you become more responsible with money for the rest of your life.
Costs beyond textbooks: printing, study guides, software, and more!
Director of the Office of Diversity Programs in Engineering
According to the College Board, the average cost for college course materials per year is $1,137. Depending on your major and your chosen courses, you may find this to be rather conservative estimate. Therefore, budget wisely and shop around for the best prices on your textbooks. Also, keep in mind that you may need to invest in supplemental items such as software, study guides, and printed materials. Consequently, your budget should include room for these items as well as. Accessing the syllabi for your courses in advance should provide you with some of the additional insight needed to more accurately project costs for course materials beyond required textbooks.
Date or laundry this Saturday night?
Laundry and off-campus trips are unexpected expenses that can add up quickly. Most dorms are equipped with coin-operated machines but may not necessarily have a coin changer nearby. Doing a few loads a week means keeping quarter rolls handy ($10 each). Some campuses today do offer free laundry machines to assist with these costs. There were plenty of on-campus activities, but occasionally I would want to visit San Francisco. An urban center like San Francisco typically meant transportation, meal, concert/theatre tickets, which could be $100-150 for a Saturday night outing.
Expect to save money by planning for the unexpected
Planning to fly home for Thanksgiving or winter break? Make those flight reservations ASAP. Holiday airline prices only go up! Poster sales: every campus has them at move-in time; plan to buy a couple for those bare residence hall walls. And while you are decorating that room, you will also find someone selling carpets nearby. Professors’ class notes are usually available at the bookstore…for a price. Eating out or bringing pizza in? Plan for more times than you might think. Finally, you will want your school t-shirts for those football games; unless you can find the free ones!
Extra expenses can add up quickly
If you decide to attend a college far from home you need to factor in travel expenses. How often will you go home? How will you get back and forth? What about climate differences? If you’re going from home in Florida to college in Maine, you’ll need to purchase a very warm winter coat, hat, gloves, snow boots, warm socks, etc. What about clubs and organizations? It costs money to join fraternities and sororities. If you go to college in an urban area expect to spend more since city life can get pricey. I suggest having a conversation with your parents about setting a monthly budget for all those extra expenses.
How not to pay for the little things
One of the most dangerous things that a college student can do is to get a credit card. They are so easy to get and to use, but please be wary. The little things add up, and the next thing you know you have a new bill to handle. So, yes, unexpected expenses may make credit a temptation, but stay clear. Look for used books, a consignment shop in the area for dorm or apartment furniture, and vintage clothes. Avoid those pizza runs!
Hurray! It’s time to go shopping!
In preparing for your first semester in college make lists of personal things you’ll definitely need and go to the nearest off-price, buy in bulk superstore to purchase them. Take the time to browse. You’ll surely find other things to add to the list. By doing so you’ll save yourself time and money since shops near your college may be more costly and not as convenient to get to. Also, check with your roommate before choosing electronic equipment that you both might be able to share. Last suggestion: Don’t forget the screwdriver, hooks and hammer to help you get your dorm room in shape
I really want this, but do I really need it?
College is full of wants versus needs. So the first test is to distinguish what you can live without and…live without it. The second trick is to be very careful of little everyday expenses. These quickly add up! Picture this typical day on campus: Coffee brewed by a fancy barista: $4.25. Potato chips from student union vending machine: $1.25. Water bottle from sandwich shop: $2. Try this instead: Packing your own lunch, making your own coffee and bringing a refillable water bottle to school—priceless (OK, not priceless, but definitely cheaper). So plan ahead and practice some restraint and you’ll be able to save for the necessities and maybe a few “wants” too.
It’s never just ‘chunk change’
If you must budget closely your first year in college, it will seem as though every quarter counts. And while you may encounter unexpected expenses for classes (a specific notebook here, a special tool for an art class there), most of the surprises will come on the social front: pizza in the dorm; would you like a Coke; tickets for a concert—and a souvenir program; an invitation to a party—and “something to wear?” It all adds up and you may find you have too much month at the end of the money.
Little things add up
One student explained that going to Starbucks was a daily ritual that energized her in the morning, relaxed her in the afternoon, and provided the energy she needed to pull all-nighters. The problem? When she tracked her expenditures she found she had a $20/day habit, $140/week, about $600/month, which was the same amount she paid for fraternity/sorority membership/activities. That $1200/month cost combined with other unconscious costs for texting, student fees, paper, software, bluebooks, Scantrons, school supplies, toiletries, entertainment, transportation, could bring additional monthly costs up to $1,500 to $2,000. Budgeting college expenses is an important lesson!
One tip for students and two for parents
If you are headed north to college, remember to take a winter coat. It gets cold earlier up north, and you don’t want to be forced to buy a new coat that you don’t need. Moms and dads who plan to attend Parents’ Weekend and who will need a hotel near the college, should make reservations now. Rooms fill quickly for events such as athletic competitions, Homecoming, and Parents’ Weekend. Families with small cars who need extra room for move-in weekend sometimes consider renting a trailer. Trailers are in high demand in August, so reservations need to be made immediately.
Orientation, trips home and storage all add up!
One of the most unexpected college expenses is usually the student’s very first time on campus: freshmen orientation. Many college campuses charge a fee to attend and don’t forget to include travel and hotel costs if the family is also going, and meals, since most student meal plans won’t be in effect yet. Another unexpected expense is travel for trips home. Most students are going to want to go home 3-4 times a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, and summer). One final expense is storage over summer break. Many parents rent a truck to take it home for the summer; others pay storage in the college town for 3 months.
Pizza, cell phones, sweatshirts: don't underestimate "personal expenses"
Financial aid offices base their estimates of "personal expenses" on what they think a "prudent student" would spend in an academic year. Ah, prudence! Personally, I know very few teens who possess a keen sense of their own spending habits. College bound students and their parents should take out the calculator and put some real numbers on those personal expenses, set some expectations for what is “prudent,” and then try hard to stick to the budget. Two things you shouldn’t neglect: the cell phone plan and that $75 college sweatshirt
Shop early to avoid astronomical prices for textbooks
Freshmen will gulp when they first see textbook prices! But new federal law aims to help families manage this expense. Publishers have to give faculty pricing information and unbundle textbooks from DVDs and workbooks. Professors have to include textbook information with class schedules and with this information students can compare prices online, buy used books from Amazon and from classmates, rent books from the bookstore or seek out “open” digital content. These strategies work best for students who do their textbook shopping early while still paying attention to requirements for specific editions, especially in technical fields like engineering.
Shopping for college doesn't have to break the bank!
When outfitting your new dorm room, try searching online and at discount stores. You can find the same fun, functional items for less money than at more expensive specialty stores. If you’re in the market for a new computer, be sure to check manufacturers' websites as many offer college student discounts. Compare prices with your college bookstore - they often have very reasonable rates on computers, printers, and cables. And if you’re attending school in a colder climate than the one in which you currently live, consider shopping for outerwear in your new location, to get a better selection at competitive prices.
Some unexpected costs you don't want to forget
Health insurance for your child is a good idea; policies can range from $50.00 per month and up. There may be parking fees if your child brings a car to school. Some parents expect their child to earn their money for food and social activities but if you plan to foot the bill set a limit on the amount they can spend monthly. If your student plans to join in the Greek life there will be fees associated with that too. Then there are extras such as a gym membership or school pride gear.
Studying or working off campus? Be prepared to pay
Director & Certified Educational Planner
Smart families know that hidden costs, such as lab and activity fees, mocha lattes and muffins, and surcharge majors such as engineering or nursing significantly increase the cost of attending college. But what about the study abroad options and internships that colleges promote? Even if your college allows you to take your financial aid package abroad with you, travel and living expenses will stretch the budget of the most frugal student. Internships, often unpaid, can be a valuable learning experience, but they further stretch the typical student budget. Be sure to figure in travel and housing costs and perhaps a few new outfits as you plan for that foray into the professional world.
Textbooks are expensive, but essential
Trying to stretch your dollars by borrowing books from friends in your classes is a recipe for poor academic performance. Find out if your campus has a book rental program. Search on-line for used books, but check the ISBN number to be sure you have the correct edition. Look for less expensive, electronic versions of textbooks, but remember they can’t be sold back to the bookstore at the end of the term. Some electronic versions are now available by the chapter, a great cost saving when the professor assigns only a few chapters of a book.
That textbook costs how much?!?
Even though the cost of books is often figured into what is called the “total cost of attendance”, that estimate could turn out to be quite low – especially if you choose to buy new textbooks at the university bookstore. There you could end up paying hundreds of dollars for a single textbook. However, by doing a little online research, you may be able to save money by finding and buying a used copy of the same textbook or a new one at a discounted price. You may even be able to rent it!
The costs of living more independently
Many incoming freshman may have trouble anticipating and estimating the costs associated with living more independently than they were used to while in high school. The costs associated with keeping clothes clean (detergent, the use of washing machines and dryers, and dry cleaning for those so inclined) may be newly their responsibility. While the costs of printing may have been absorbed by mom or dad at home, they may now be the responsibility of the student. And while freshman may have previously been under a parent’s cell phone plan, those expenses may be a new responsibility.
The surprises that lurk beyond tuition, room, and board
Think about the items in your bedroom, your bathroom, the kitchen and the family room that you can’t live without. If you’re planning on taking duplicates to college, your shopping list will be expensive. Do you need that down comforter? The microwave and refrigerator always at your command? The high-quality entertainment center? Once you’ve installed these items in your dorm room, don’t be surprised to find that the cost of books and school supplies surpasses the budget you imagined. Be prepared to order food outside of your meal plan more than you expected and if you pledge a Greek organization, the costs will jump substantially.
There are many surprise costs along the way
One suggestion is to contact your roommate before buying any furniture/electronics for your dorm room. No need to duplicate, and often there may be a way to buy used furniture at a Salvation Army or Goodwill store close to campus, so you don’t need to lug it all the way there. Finally, watch those nebulous “personal expenses.” I have known several students who went out to eat very often, and spent more than anticipated on entertainment, and depleted their savings in the first two months of school. Set a budget and stick to it. It is good practice for later on.
Unexpected expenses can’t always be avoided but they can be reduced
Unexpected expenses occur frequently for college students from where to store their belongings to fixing a busted computer to spending $250 for one textbook. Kids should speak with older students and RAs about strategies. Many of them will have a friend who is local who can store their stuff or they can find a company who specializes in storage. They can get great discounts on new computers and equipment as college students. They can use all kinds of online book rental and used book sites to reduce book costs.
What you know won’t save you money—hidden college costs
In addition to tuition, housing, computers and books, there are hidden costs that can put a dent in your college spending budget. Some things to think about include purchasing software required by some courses, additional library fees, late night food items and concert tickets. Be aware too that tuition rates may change while you are a student and there could be some healthcare costs (many colleges offer insurance plans for students). Decorating your dorm room with a new carpet, longer dorm bed sheets and a small fridge and microwave can run into more dollars. There are also fees for sporting events and parking passes. Add on travel expenses home too. Budget carefully and spend wisely!