How to clamp down on spending for college
Tuition and housing are expensive enough. And what about books, school and dorm supplies plus a few bucks for fun? It all can add up quickly, but there are ways to stretch a family's college budget.
The Washington Post
Getting that college tuition and housing bill under control is only the first step. Then comes the comforter and refrigerator and textbooks and — well, the College Board has a list of 118 to-buy items on its off-to-college checklist.
And don't forget the pizza money.
The bill to outfit a freshman can run into thousands of dollars if you're not careful, financial advisers say. As recession losses have trimmed college funds and part-time jobs have become more elusive, families are finding creative ways to stretch each dollar.
Summer for Sharon Okolicsanyi and daughter Helena has been defined by college-prep bargain-hunting.
Okolicsanyi, of Manassas, Va., has scoured the Web for deals on a laptop for Helena, 18, who will be a freshman at George Mason University. They finally found a bargain: $499, marked down from $700. A security and software upgrade cost $100, and a printer cost $30, marked down from $70.
"I don't know much about computers," said Okolicsanyi, a teacher and single mother. "I had to keep looking and looking. I had to find the best deal."
On a recent trip, the Okolicsanyis picked up $68 worth of supplies, including spiral notebooks, pencils, dividers, pens and packs of paper.
They also cut down the cost of an $80 "11-piece dorm-in-a-bag set" with a 20 percent coupon.
On top of her loans, Okolicsanyi borrowed $500 to help cover expenses.
For pocket money, Helena plans to work part time through the federal work-study program and may rely on Mom.
She has sought out a financial adviser on campus and is awaiting word on a scholarship.
"On the one hand, you want so much stuff," Helena said. "On the other, you don't want to pay for it."
Financial planner Christine Parker, president of Parker Financial in suburban La Plata, Md., advises mindful preparation.
Parker used the checklist drawn up by the College Board, best known for its SAT and other tests, to estimate the cost of moving into a dorm.
By her count, there are paper towels for $6.99, notebooks for $19.99, audio equipment for $64.64 and a computer-printer combo for $897. Toiletries add up to $245.77.
Buying all 118 items on the list would cost $4,250.35, enough to "break the back of most American families," she wrote in an e-mail.
Parker suggests making a shopping list to avoid emotional purchases. Rather than buying new, take as much as possible from home. And "separate wants from needs."
She suggests parents and students draw up a budget. How much will the student need each week to cover personal-hygiene items, laundry, the phone bill and a movie or food off campus?
"How much are you going to allow them? Or how are you going to help them understand what money they are going to spend?" Parker said, adding that some parents provide monthly allowances typically ranging from $100 to $500.
In 2008-2009, personal expenses averaged $1,906 nationally for a student living on campus at a four-year private school, according to the College Board.
Too often, students leave home with unrealistic ideas about spending and accrue giant credit-card balances, Parker said.
According to a study issued this year by student lender Sallie Mae, college freshmen carried a median credit-card balance of $939, compared with $373 in 2004.
The average for graduating seniors is more than $4,100.
"Most financial literacy for kids comes from their parents," Parker said. "You have to be actively involved. It's better if we're teaching them, than letting the credit-card companies teach them."
Parents should remember the federal stimulus plan has broadened options for covering college costs, Parker said. Students can now use 529 college-savings plans to buy computers and pay for Internet service, for example.
An expansion of one credit allows low- and middle-income families to offset up to $2,500 spent on qualified education-related costs, such as tuition, room and board, and books.
The cost of textbooks can easily approach $700 a year, according to a committee that advises Congress on student aid.
Some texts are available free at the Flat World Knowledge site (www.flatworldknowledge.com).
Alexa Stott, 17, of North Brunswick, N.J., is headed to the University of Maryland and plans to rent her books online from Chegg.com. Chegg will send the books and return packaging, which Alexa will use to ship the books back after the semester.
"It's hard to get back what you spent" on books, Alexa said. Renting "is going to save me a lot of money."
Some parents provide help with dorm-room essentials as well as cash.
Andrew Holleran said his parents were waiting until early September to outfit his room at Ohio State University, because by then "most students will have gone off to college, and there will be some sales."
As for day-to-day money, his parents have opened a checking account, where they'll deposit a couple of hundred dollars a month.
They'll settle on a budget after a couple of quarters, once they have more of an idea how much college life costs, his mother, Donna Holleran, said.
Andrew is the first of four siblings expecting to go to college.
"My husband and I haven't been in college for 25 years, so we are not exactly sure how it's going to play out," Holleran said.
She and her husband, a lawyer, lost 25 percent, or about $7,000, of money invested in a 529 college savings plan when the market tanked last year, she said.
Andrew is doing his part. He got a job at a golf clubhouse. He'll use his earnings, plus some savings and graduation gift cards, to cover daily expenses.
"That's probably going to — hopefully — get me through the first year," he said.
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