By Rebecca Lake
When it comes to paying for college, parents need to be ready for curveballs.
"We were surprised when we received our very first tuition bill and it included a cost for health insurance," says Leah Ingram, author of The Complete Guide to Paying for College. "Our daughter was already covered under our health insurance plan, so we didn't understand why we had to pay thousands of dollars extra for the college to cover her."
As it turns out, Ingram didn't have to, since her daughter was able to provide proof of insurance in the state where her daughter attended college. But it's unexpected expenses like these that can add chaos to an already–stretched budget.
The average in–state student at a public four–year school spends just 39% of their total budget on tuition and fees, according to the College Board. The rest goes towards covering all the little extras that can add up to a big pain in the wallet.
Whether you're the parent of a student or you're paying your own way through school, factoring these six costs into your college budget is crucial.
Textbooks are essential, and they often come with a high price tag. The average cost of a textbook during the 2015–16 academic year was $67, according to the National Association of College Stores. Multiply that by five or 10 books, and you've already added several hundred dollars to your college tab.
Ingram says her daughters used their online retailer memberships to carve out savings on textbooks. Not only could they buy books for less, but they also got free two–day shipping. Eventually, the girls hit on an even better money–saving solution.
"After shopping around for the best prices on textbooks, they discovered that renting was cheapest," Ingram says.
Digital e–books are another option, but don't overlook tried–and–true ways to save. Recent college graduate and communications specialist Alec Sears went another route. He saved several hundred dollars by borrowing from the library, versus handing over big bucks to the campus bookstore.
Sears tells students not to make a move on purchasing textbooks until they've been to class.
"Rule number one: don't buy the book until you know for sure that it's required," Sears says.
Travel can be another budget buster for parents and students.
Ingram lucked out when it came to footing the bill for travel because both of her daughters opted to go to schools that were within driving distance of home. For other parents, however, the costs of trips home for the holidays or spring break travel can add up quickly.
In that scenario, Ingram says a travel rewards credit card can be a parent's best friend.
"I'd recommend that parents and students decide in advance what kind of rewards they're going to need most," Ingram says.
In her case, she says a credit card that allows her to redeem rewards for gas gift cards is an ideal choice. If her girls had to fly, however, she'd choose a credit card that made it easy to redeem dollars spent on the card for airline mileage rewards to lower the cost of a flight.
David Levy, editor of Edvisors, an online platform dedicated to helping parents and students pay for college, offers some tips on managing credit cards.
"First, shop around for the lowest–cost credit card," Levy says. "Look for the card with the best interest rate."
Levy also recommends helping your student get in the habit of tracking their purchases. Doing so can increase awareness of what they're spending so they can better manage their finances.
When booking travel for your student, pay attention to the timing. Spring break and the holiday season are busy travel periods, meaning flights, rental cars, or hotel accommodations are likely to be more expensive. Booking well ahead of schedule could help you snag a better rate. You can also consider reserving flights during off–peak dates and times, such as early morning and mid–week.
Many colleges require students to live on–campus their first year. If your student will be living in a dorm, they'll need some basic supplies to feel at home.
Dorm room expenses alone could add up to $1,000 or even more, including the cost of a new computer, plus other necessities such as linens, a trash basket, and lampss.
Some dorms provide mini–fridges and microwaves, but if yours doesn't, you'll need to add those to the list, along with a power strip to plug them in, and some snacks to fill them up. TVs, rugs, and decorative accessories are optional, but if you're planning to pick those up, you'll need to factor in those costs as well.
Ingram says her online retailer membership was once again a lifesaver for keeping these costs to a minimum.
"It was invaluable for getting dorm supplies and food when my daughter didn't have a car on campus and couldn't easily get to a store," Ingram says.
A cash back credit card is another way to save.
Certain cards offer cash rewards when you shop at places like grocery stores, wholesale clubs, and other retailers. That's a plus if you're purchasing something big, like a new laptop. Consider applying for a cash back credit card several months before classes start so, once approved, you can take advantage of accumulated cash rewards well in advance of spending.
Also, don't forget to explore your credit card's online shopping portal, where you can find discounts and deals from partner merchants. You can use your card to pay for purchases while earning rewards, or redeem your existing rewards for the items on your list. The best way to take advantage of a cash back credit card is to pay your bill in full and on time every month.
Living off–campus adds an entirely new category of expenses to your budget. Those expenses may include the first month's deposit, monthly rent, utilities, renter's insurance, transportation, car insurance, or furniture. The furnished college rentals from years past are few and far between today, so saving belongings such as unwanted furniture and kitchenware could prove helpful — just don't forget to add in the cost of moving and storage.
Looking for another option? Ingram says finding deals on furniture and other off–campus supplies is all about the timing.
"We found out that the end of the school year was the best time for buying items for the next semester," Ingram says. "That's when everyone was selling stuff they didn't want to move home."
Ingram recommends checking to see if your child's school has a private social media group where parents and students can sell off unwanted items. She purchased a refrigerator for her daughter and plans to sell it once she graduates to recoup some of her initial investment.
There are lots of little fees that can quickly add up for students and not all of them are included in the list of required fees.
"Class–specific fees may include charges for materials, studio or practice room time, and lab fees," Levy says. "The same is true for per–use fees, such as the athletic facility, pool, or weight rooms."
Sorority and fraternity fees, or health center fees to use the campus medical services, would also fall under this umbrella. Student organizations, including cultural, arts, sports, or service groups, may also have their own fees to maintain membership. Using one rewards credit card to cover all the various fees can make it easier to keep track of what's being paid while also earning cash back, points, or miles.
A new wardrobe might be in order when going to college if there's a change of climate. Students who are pursuing internships or participating in certain campus organizations may also need business attire.
Shopping consignment or thrift stores is one option; opening a store–specific credit card is another. Store cards often offer an upfront discount on your initial purchase. These cards may come with a higher annual percentage rate compared to a traditional rewards credit card; however, paying the balance in full can eliminate interest charges.
Paying for college can bring financial headaches, but having a plan in place for dealing with the unforeseen costs can make it less stressful. Choosing the right credit card, looking for ways to reduce or eliminate expenses, and streamlining your budget as much as possible can help keep your bottom line firmly in the black.
[Writer bio] Rebecca is a financial journalist from North Carolina. She has a Bachelors in Political Science from the University of South Carolina. She covers the intersection of public policy and personal finance.
Utilize these resources to help you assess your current finances & plan for the future.
Learn how FICO® Scores are determined, why they matter and more.
Review financial terms & definitions to help you better understand credit & finances.