Most discussions about the high cost of attending college focus on hefty tuition bills plus room and board, but there are other expenses college students incur that can be overlooked in the planning process. If you—or your child—are heading off to college in the fall, here are some expenses to factor into your budget, and suggestions for keeping these extra costs to a minimum.
Resist shiny marketing campaigns for dorm necessities
New students can expect a small deluge of mail from vendors selling “must-have” items such as dorm bedding, towels, storage containers and mini refrigerators. In some cases these offers are a good deal, but often you’re paying extra for items you can buy elsewhere for less. Look for deals on bedding and other dorm accessories online, with free shipping direct to your campus. As for the mini fridge, consider renting to avoid the expense of summer storage, and wait to see if your roommate is willing to share the cost.
Manage the meal budget
If your school offers meal plan choices, be realistic and conservative. Unless you absolutely need three square meals a day, you might opt for fewer trips to the cafeteria. Many campuses offer a range of options, which may include a budget for eating at local restaurants or on-campus cafés. If you can’t live without your fast-food burrito or morning latte, it may be wiser to get a smaller meal plan or opt for one with less cafeteria meals and more flexible dollars that can be spent at other campus locations.
Study up on affordable textbooks
The cost of textbooks each semester can easily total $500 and up, with each costing anywhere from $10 to $200 or more. Request course syllabi from professors in advance and look for bargains online. You can often find the same textbooks for less at places such as Amazon.com and Textbookdirect.com. You may also be able to beat the rush for used textbooks at the school’s bookstore. Some textbooks offer e-versions that can be downloaded for less, and others can be rented.
If you do purchase textbooks, keep only those you’ll reference in the future. You can recoup some money by selling your textbooks online, at your school’s bookstore or directly to a student entering the class you just completed.
Keep tabs on transportation costs
Remember to factor in the cost of transportation to school, especially you live out of state and will want to fly home several times during the year. Book air travel at least 30 days in advance to take advantage of the best prices. You can enlist the help of a travel site such as Kayak.com to track the price of your proposed trip and alert you to changes. You can also see the price history of your trip on major airlines to determine what you can expect to pay.
Enroll in a frequent flyer program and you may be able to earn points towards your trip that can save you money. If you have some flexibility in your travel dates, you can bid on flights at Priceline.com or try your luck on Hotwire.com. Bus, train and cab fares can also add up. If you need to connect to another form of transportation, be sure to check schedules and availability in advance.
Shun baggage fees, shipping and storage costs
It’s amazing how much stuff college students can accumulate. When the school year is over, this stuff needs to be packed up and stored or brought home. This can quickly add several hundred dollars to your college tab. Challenge yourself to embrace a philosophy of minimalism. If that plan fails, see whether any of your college friends who live in the area might be willing to store boxes in their basement.
Going to college is one of the biggest—and often costliest—transitions in a young person’s life. Considering everything can be nearly impossible, but spending time thinking through the things you’ll need and want—from a laptop computer to a new backpack—may help you when it comes time to head to college this fall.
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