Many families find it tough to estimate the cost of college, especially for the first child who heads off for higher education. Tuition, of course, is the big-ticket item. But what other costs can families expect? How much do they need to budget for college? And what are ways they can trim those costs?
Beyond tuition, finding a place to live is the single most expensive burden on a collegiate budget. While a few people forgo this cost by living at home with their parents during the college years, most people must find a place to live, either because their parents live too far away from campus or because they want to learn adulthood and independence by moving away from home.
College dorms are generally more expensive than nearby apartments, in part because college dorms are held to a certain standard, and in part because college dorms often include an expensive meal plan. Some colleges let you waive this meal plan; others won't.
Each college and university has a distinct "norm" governing how many years most students live on-campus. Many universities require freshmen to live on-campus unless they have family within a specified distance from the campus. Some universities require students to live on-campus all four years, while others encourage students to move off-campus after their first year.
Students who live off-campus can cut their housing costs by sharing an apartment or house with roommates. Living alone is the most expensive option because the overhead is higher: only one renter supports the cost of a kitchen, living room, roof, and utilities. Once you live with a roommate, the overhead for those common spaces, plus your utility bill, gets cut in half. Adding a third or fourth roommate further chops the cost.
Some college towns, like Boulder, Colo., are pedestrian-friendly: it's easy to walk, ride a bike or take a bus anywhere you need to go. But other colleges, Metropolitan State College of Denver or the University of Cincinnati, are not in pedestrian-compatible zones. Students will have a hard time navigating the area without a car, and most jobs and internships will be located in places that the student needs to drive to.
The cost of a car - both the purchase, the fuel and the maintenance - is the second biggest budget-buster of the college years.
The student's travel back home during holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, can also add up to hundreds of dollars, especially if those trips require long drives or flights.
Students are expected to be on the cutting-edge of technology: at a minimum, they will need a cellular phone or smartphone and a laptop. If they're studying certain graphic or programming disciplines like film, art or multimedia design, they'll almost certainly need an Apple, which is more expensive than a PC.
Students can save money by opting not to get a printer; most colleges have computer labs that offer printing. Some allow students to print for free, while others charge a nominal fee.
Students can also save by opting to have either a laptop or a desktop plus a tablet. There's generally no compelling reason to own all three.
Everyone thinks about the cost of rent, but many forget the cost of all the items that go inside your home: dish towels, sponges, dishwashing detergent, forks, a can opener, sheets, pillows, a mattress, a towel rod, closet hangers, file folders, a desk. These are the mundane, small items necessary for daily modern life, and while each item individually is cheap, these collectively add up fast.
Scour thrift stores and Craigslist to find as many used items as possible. Forgo things that aren't necessary: there's no need to buy the frame for a bed, for example, when you can easily put a mattress directly on the floor. And be creative: when I was in college, I stacked empty milk crates on top of each other to serve as my bookshelf.