Make Sure You Budget for These 11 Hidden College Costs

 November 7, 2019
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Going to college isn’t cheap.

In 2018-19, the average published tuition and fees were $35,830 a year at private colleges and $26,290 per year for out-of-state residents at public universities, according to the College Board.

But these figures don’t account for all college costs. There are several extra expenses that can quickly add up to more than you anticipated.

As the school year starts up again, don’t get caught by surprise by one of these unexpected college costs:

1. Having a car on campus

If you’re a commuter student, driving to and from class is likely a necessity. That means you’ll need to budget for gas, repairs and insurance. Plus, you might have to pay for a resident student parking pass.

If you don’t need a car to get around, you might be better off leaving it at home.

“University parking passes can cost over $500 per semester,” said Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, college funding expert and founder of The Scholarship System. “Leaving the car at home will not only save you money, but can prevent you from becoming other students’ taxi driver.”

And if you end up with a parking ticket on-campus, you could spend anywhere from a couple of bucks to nearly $100, depending on where you parked.

If you need to go off campus, look into public transportation options or consider biking, walking or ride-sharing through Uber, Lyft or Zipcar. Plus, if most of your time will be spent walking to and from your dorm to other parts of campus, a car might not even be necessary.

2. Participating in Greek life

While you may want the experience of becoming a member of a fraternity or sorority, pledging generally doesn’t come free. In fact, it can be a particularly expensive additional college cost.

For instance, new sorority members at Cornell University’s Alpha Epsilon Phi paid $1,486 in dues and $5,595 to live in the sorority house in 2018-19, according to Cornell. Fraternity members at the same university paid between $700 and $1,000 in dues and $4,735 to live in the Alpha Delta Phi house.

Some studies show that an inclusive social life on campus may help students graduate on time, however, so the cost may be worth it if they help you avoid extending your time at college and paying more in student loans.

3. School supplies

Textbooks, supplies and other resources like access to lab time or classroom materials aren’t included in tuition and college costs.

According to the College Board, books and supplies for the average in-state, full-time undergraduate student at a four-year public college cost about $1,240.

Textbook costs may vary by course of study, so you could pay more to complete your major than your peers who study other subjects.

To conserve costs while saving for college, buy your pens, notebooks, and school supplies online — not at the potentially overpriced campus bookstore.

“If a student purchases all their textbooks from the university bookstore, they may have some sticker shock,” said Pearson. “To reduce this expense, try to find used copies or older editions with the same information. You can also purchase them from classmates who already took the class.”

Besides buying used textbooks, you could also ask your professor or instructor if a recently outdated and cheaper edition of the text is acceptable for class.

4. A new computer or phone

Even if you start college with a shiny new laptop or phone, chances are you might need to repair or fix your devices in the future. Try to prepare by setting aside some money each week or month for this purpose.

“Wear and tear, malfunctions or even theft can lead to sudden and unexpected replacement costs,” said finance blogger Tom Blake, who runs the website This Online World. “Even if you can put away an extra $20 to $30 per month into a savings account for a new laptop or phone, you will be much better prepared to replace your devices when the time comes.”

You can also look into used laptops or phones to save money, or make use of your school’s computer lab.

5. Travel

If you’re living far from home and want to see friends and family, you’ll likely have to factor in the cost of traveling at least once or twice a year to visit.

Some routes will be especially pricey — if you’re a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, but your family lives in Miami, that can mean spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in airfare annually.

And for parents visiting their children in college, hotel and rental car costs, including gas driving to and from campus, can add up.

Redeeming travel miles from a rewards credit card can help ease the cost of traveling for both students and their parents. The most efficient way to save, however, may be to book your tickets as far in advance as possible.

6. New clothes, including business attire

Moving from a warmer climate to attend a school where snow is the norm may mean spending to update your cold weather wardrobe.

Students may also need to budget for purchasing business attire for attending career fairs and going on interviews for internships and jobs. Even without designer clothing, a college student’s first investment in business attire can cost hundreds.

Check to see if your school provides a special clothing donation fund, or if your school’s career center has a public closet with jackets or ties to borrow. If your budget is tight, try renting a suit or appropriate professional outfit, which could be cheaper than buying an ensemble you wear just once.

7. Extra credit hours

Extra credit hour fees are usually imposed on students who change majors or drop classes, meaning they take longer to complete their degrees than expected.

For example, in 2015, about 3,770 students from various Florida public universities were charged $2.35 million in extra credit hour fees, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The state-mandated fee, noted the University of South Florida, is charged to each credit hour taken beyond 110% of the hours needed to complete a degree.

No matter where you attend school, consult with an academic advisor to discuss the implications of changing majors. You could end up avoiding taking on more college costs or debt with the right academic plan.

And if you’re still unsure about what major you want to pursue, consider community college as a way to complete prerequisites that can transfer to the university level. Or, see if some courses can count towards multiple credit requirements. This can help you graduate on time, or in some cases, early.

8. Food beyond the meal plan

Dining out on pizza, chicken wings and Chinese food — no matter how cheap — can quickly cost a small fortune if you’re ordering out every night.

“One of the biggest surprises for families paying for college is the cost of eating out,” said Pearson. “While we think meal plans will cover the majority of a student’s food, this requires planning and discipline. Many students find themselves purchasing fast food or going out to eat for social reasons.”

You can save on these costs by cooking your own meals, even if you have only a microwave or slow cooker. For off-campus apartment dwellers, it’s easier if you have a kitchen at your disposal.

Use coupons and apps when grocery shopping to find discounts as you shop. And if eating out is a must, seek out restaurants and eateries in your college town that offer student discounts.

9. Test registration

For the graduate school-bound, taking the Graduation Record Examination, or any other standardized test, can be a major expense.

The fee to take the GRE is about $205, while late registration penalties are $25. It will also cost you an additional $50 if you cancel or alter your test date. Don’t like your score? You’ll need to pay the full fee to take it all over again.

Some of these fees are unavoidable if graduate testing is mandatory to continue into a master’s- or doctoral-level program.

You’ll have plenty of time to plan and save up for exams if graduate school is something you want to pursue, however. Plus, avoiding another fee could be an extra motivator to pass on the first try.

10. Reduced financial aid

The amount of financial aid you receive could change after freshman year. Some schools “front-load” financial aid packages, offering enticing offers to freshmen and decreasing aid as the years go on.

You might also have a scholarship or grant that’s not renewable all four years. Or your family’s financial situation could change, resulting in an adjusted Estimated Family Contribution and less federal aid money.

To prepare for a decrease in aid, make sure to study your financial aid package thoroughly. Find out if your offers for scholarships and grants are renewable for all four years and if there’s anything you need to do to stay eligible or reapply.

11. Emergency expenses

You never know when you’ll have to replace a stolen laptop or fly home for a family emergency. To prepare for these expenses, try setting aside some money in an emergency fund.

If you’re working a part-time job during college, you could automatically transfer a percentage of your income into this account every month. Slowly but surely, your savings will grow, and you’ll have a cushion in case of an emergency.

Conserving your college costs

The cost of college is more than just tuition. Make sure you determine if any of the above expenses apply to your situation before you begin applying for schools, and save accordingly.

As a parent helping a child pay for school, look into options like a 529 savings plan as early as possible to fund college expenses. As a student, explore ways to make money to cover expenses, through side gigs or by earning passive income.

Ideally, by finding ways to save money, you’ll take out fewer student loans and be responsible for less debt after graduation.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

Published in Budgeting & Expenses,