You (or your parents) just spent a boatload of money on a college education. But there are more bills for more stuff than you ever imaged. So how do you survive the financial deluge all the way to graduation? Here are a few tips:
- Optional Fees - College costs include more than tuition and books. There are additional fees from meal plans to recreation fees. Most schools offer online enrollment with lots of detailed online information. Find out which fees are optional and whether there are alternatives.
For example, if a student lives at home and commutes to school, he or she may not need a meal plan. If he or she is still covered under parents' health insurance, he or she may be able to opt out of a school-sanctioned plan to save those fees. (For more tips on footing the bill for education, check out Pay For College Without Selling A Kidney.)
- Books - The college bookstore is no longer the only place to shop for text books. They are available online at discounted prices from all the big online book sellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). After registration, get the textbook list and highlight the correct edition and the ISBN number. Use this information to shop for deals on books. Remember to consider shipping and handling costs which can eat up your savings.
If you do go to the university bookstore, go early for the best selection of gently used books at cheaper prices. A new textbook trend is on-demand printing. Instructors write texts or supplements to texts and the local print shops sells copies as needed. Look for used copies in the school paper and on school blogs at a discount. (Find out how to keep the cost of your textbooks from approaching your tuition expenses. Read Students, Get More Bang For Your Textbook Dollars.)
- Laptop Computers - Most colleges and universities have negotiated student discounts with computer manufacturers. View the school website to find discounts. Some manufacturers offer package deals complete with a printer and preloaded software. Compare these discounts to advertised sales at your local electronics stores and shop online.
Remember, the cheapest model is not always the best. Some students may need more memory and storage to download and process large amounts of data. A laptop is also likely to suffer a lot of rough handling, so be sure to choose one that's durable.
- iPod - Yes, iPods can actually be academic tools. If a student records lectures, playing them back on an mp3 player can be a great way to study. Also, some college courses have multimedia presentations that can be downloaded to an iPod.
However, podcasts will also run on PCs with the right software. Read through the course catalog and individual course syllabus to determine whether podcasts are often a part of course material.
- Tax-Free Holidays - Some states have tax free weekends each fall allowing parents and students to stock up on back-to-school items without paying sales taxes. Check this website to see if your state has a tax-free holiday and pay close attention to the restrictions. Taxes may not seem like a big deal if you're just buying filler paper and a few pencils, but in some states the tax-free status applies to clothing, shoes, computers and dorm-room essentials like mini refrigerators.
- Shop Continuously - Paying attention to normal prices helps you recognize a good sale. Shop multiple retailers including office supply stores, drug stores, electronic stores and even grocery stores. Remember, you don't really have to buy everything at once. Stock up during fall sales, but after the semester starts stores will put what's left over on clearance to make room for Halloween stuff. And items like printer paper go on sale intermittently year round.
- Budgeting 101- Students should learn how to budget before they leave home. This is usually an eye-opening experience. What is being funded by parents and what the student is responsible for should also be discussed (cell phone bills, car insurance, gas, food and entertainment). (Learn how budgeting allows you to plan for your future, pay off your debts, and still enjoy life today. Read Special Feature: Budgeting 101.)
- Credit Cards - Credit card companies market to college student very heavily. Credit cards are not inherently bad. Students may need to use them for car rentals, online purchases, etc. Participate in the credit card selection process if you decide your child should have one. Teach your student to use it responsibly. Don't just give them one on your account. Start with a secured card to gently build credit. This limits the amount they can spend and allows you to monitor how they use it. (To learn more, check out Is Your Teen Ready For A Credit Card?)
- Renter's Insurance - If your child is staying off-campus, consider tenant insurance only if you've invested heavily in expensive furniture or electronics. If you're paying a monthly premium plus a high deductible, it may not be worth it for a few hand-me-down sticks of furniture and you kid's CD collection. (If you think it's time to test your wings and leave your parents' nest, read Are You Ready to Rent?)
- Health Insurance - With the threat of illnesses like H1N1, protecting your child's health at college is more important than ever. Check your health insurance policy to make sure your child will be covered at school. Many policies have age limits for maintaining your child on your group coverage so it may be necessary to get Jr. his own individual policy.
Some schools offer discounted plans and others require mandatory participation in the school's plan. There is usually an enrollment period at the beginning of the semester. Understand what the policy covers and whether or not your student can waive the policy with existing coverage. (Before heading off to college, read up on health insurance plans. Check out What You Need To Know About Student Health Insurance.)
- Cell Phone Plans - If your child is attending college out of state, check your child's cell phone plan to make sure it is adequate for out of state use. Consider changing to a plan that can be economical for the amount of use your child expects.
Eventually, you'll find yourself happily clicking photos of your cap and gown adorned graduate. Your eyes will water even more when you reach for a tissue and discover you still have a few dollars in your pocket. (Find out what not to do by reading 7 Expensive Mistakes College Students Make.)
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