Budgeting & Saving

College Budgeting: What to Know When You Head to Campus

As long summer days start to wane, the time comes for a new crop of college students each year to leave the nest. If heading off to State U is in the very near future for you, don't worry. While college gets more expensive with each passing year, knowing a few of the potential hidden costs ahead of time can help you dodge the worst offenders and keep a few extra bucks in your wallet for emergencies (or that new t-shirt).

Build your budget beyond tuition

Don't think of tuition as an all-in cost for your education: it's not. Make sure you think about these other expenses to avoid getting stuck with unexpected costs that drain your budget.

Course materials and lab fees

There will likely be at least one class you take that charges more for using studios, lab facilities or other materials. There may also be supplies, equipment or protective gear you'll need to purchase on your own, too. Some of these costs you may not be able to skirt, but it can help if you're able to share a calculator with a friend, buy used, or split the cost with a student who'll take the course in a successive term.

It's probably not the case that you think of your books as a hidden cost (often referred to as the combo of "books and tuition"), but they're a cost that's often tacked on when you're much closer to your class schedule that can be significant. Think about either renting your textbooks if allowed, or by planning to use some of the buyback programs that major online retailers offer. And that's just for the books that actually turn out to be required texts.

Transit and parking

Whether you're coming from your job a mile away, or commuting from a home base further off-campus, parking costs can be a hidden pitfall that you don't discover until you're looking to leave your wheels on campus. A parking permit can be another costly little addition to your budget, which can also flex (read: rise) as the campus tries to deal with a possible parking problem or budgetary shortfall elsewhere.

Hopefully public transportation is also an option for you to opt out of a hefty parking fee — and don't forget that some public transportation programs discount especially for students, which can make their rates even more competitive. Online versions of classes can also help you avoid the back-and-forth of commuting too — especially if they fall during peak travel times for your area.

The five-year plan

Nobody sets out wanting their college time to spill over into extra semesters (or, gulp — years). But the reality is that it's taking undergrads longer to claim their caps due to crowded course selection and an impacted system with limited flexibility or exploration. And, if you're trying to balance a work schedule with your classes, it's even more difficult to balance both responsibilities when you get sick, or a class requires extra attention to pass.

It's not an easy thing to plan for, since there are any number of ways that might trigger a change or adjustment that ends up putting your graduation date behind. There may be ways to maximize less expensive summer tuition rates, or classes that are more valuable to you as double-counters that help both your major and your minor, for instance. Getting cozy with your course catalog, and getting a little insight from an academic planner or department assistant can help you make the most of your time on campus without enjoying the privilege of ‘super senior' status.

The basics

Like any convenience dining, dining hall food can be unexpectedly pricy. Meal plans are typically broken into levels that make a certain number of your meals each week planning-free noshes. However, you're usually paying a premium for food that leaves something to be desired when it comes to both price and sometimes freshness, too. It's not hard to do better and eat better even if you're the most junior novice of chefs.

Do your homework before you embark on a mission to make all your meals in a microwave or on an illicit hot plate in your dorm room: after all, you may not even have the time or to shop or the ability to transport groceries back and forth to your dorm room. But student discounts when you do dine out can always help keep money in your pocket.

The other place you can also be savvy about costs are the small things you'll need to replenish on a regular basis: soap. Toothpaste. Glass cleaner. Discounted grocers can help you stretch your money a bit farther- nothing wrong with buying the store brand when you want to scrimp a bit here to save up for your next Spring Break adventure. And you won't have to pay shipping, which is where online grocery subscription services can tack on fees that end up putting them above on-shelf pricing. Make sure you use a comparison tool when you're getting started, to see if you're really taking advantage of the best deals.

As you get started and prepare to head out on your own, remember that small expenses make a big difference in a budget you're just getting off the ground. Keeping an eye out now for the cost-related curveballs that come your way means you can figure out your response and stay on track.