The sticker shock when you first see the bill for tuition, room and board, and all those nebulous fees is bad enough. With the excitement and stress that accompanies the move to college, it's easy to let down your guard and pony up the plastic for a whole lot of other expenses. Sure, you want what's best for your child, but you don't have to say yes to every item on his or her wish list.
Of course, not all students' needs are the same; students in engineering and computer science, for example, may require new textbooks they'll keep or a more powerful computer. In other cases, some students may think it's necessary and cost-effective to buy a printer for their dorm or apartment and share the costs of ink and paper with their roommates. Still others may find it necessary to take their car to class, especially if they live off campus and drive back home for the holidays or extended weekends. But, generally speaking, here are 13 expenses campus life doesn't really require:
1. New textbooks. More and more universities are offering textbook rental programs to help students avoid paying unfathomable new-book prices. And with the average price of a textbook rising more than 80% in the past decade, it's not a moment too soon. Check to see whether your university offers a rental program, which is most often available for the school's core-curriculum and prerequisite classes. Save even more by comparison-shopping online for new and used textbooks for sale or rent.
BigWords.com, CampusBooks.com and DealOz.com help you comparison-shop for new and used books, e-books and rentals. You can even save some trees by renting or buying e-textbooks from such retailers as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, which you can access from your computer or mobile devices. Alternatively, look for students selling used books early in the semester; they will often charge lower prices than any online retailer. Learn more in How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half - or More.
2. A high-end laptop or desktop computer. You don't need the top-of-the-line Apple MacBook Pro, with all the bells and whistles, to get you through a semester of English lit, geography or even statistics. But you shouldn't feel obligated to buy the basic model laptop or desktop, either. Look for a computer that fits both your academic and extracurricular needs and lasts a long time. Cloud computers are cheap and gaining popularity. For students looking for an alternative to more powerful computers, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is a good option. It has a 13.3-inch display and uses Google Drive for its storage, which keeps the hardware to a light 3 pounds.
If you're looking for a more traditional option, the Acer Aspire R 13 Intel Core i5 is a favorite of ours. Powerful, portable and affordable, this laptop is ideal for streaming movies, reading e-books or cranking out that 20-page paper on comparative politics at 2 a.m. It has a 13.3-inch screen, weighs 3.22 pounds (ideal for carrying to class or the library) and has 8 gigabytes of memory and a 128GB hard drive. The Acer is available for $699 on microsoftstore.com. For Mac users, consider the sleek MacBook Air. Its default 4GB memory may be half that of the Acer, but the Air is one of the nimblest and most durable computers on the market. Weighing only 3 pounds, it offers faster all-flash storage and up to 12 hours of battery life. The 13.3-inch version costs $999.
3. A printer. If you skip this, you'll save about $100 for a printer, $30 a pop for replacement ink and $9 per pack of paper. For less than $10, your teen could buy a flash drive instead, save his 20-page term paper on it, and print the paper in the campus computer lab, which you are likely already paying for. (Some schools include a technology fee -- $100 per semester, in some cases.) Students may also have the option of sending files directly from their dorm room to a computer-lab printer. But make sure you ask about page limits and any printing fees.
4. A pricey smart-phone plan. Sure, it's tempting to stay ahead of the curve with the latest generation iPhone, but as the competition between Apple and Samsung continues to heat up, college students are benefiting from less-expensive models and plans.
One of our favorites is the Samsung Galaxy S4 (free after rebate with a two-year Sprint contract). It's a 4G phone that runs Android 5.0, has a 5-inch HD display with 441 pixels per inch (PPI) and has a 13-mexapixel camera that's great for photo and video. What's more, it features Samsung's S Beam tool, which enables you to share photos, contacts, videos and links by tapping together two comparably equipped phones.
Still prefer an iPhone, but don't want to pay $200 for the iPhone 6? Consider its predecessor iPhone 5S, available from Verizon Wireless for $99 with a two-year contract. Although considered old hat by some, it's a beautifully designed phone with a 326 PPI screen, and Apple's App Store offers hundreds of thousands of helpful applications.
As for less-expensive, no-contract plans, check out Republic Wireless, which offers unlimited voice, texting and Wi-Fi data for $10 per month as well as the option to add on-demand cell data for $15 per GB, with any unused data returned as a cash refund. The plan offers the Motorola G, E and X as phone options for $99, $129 and $299, respectively.
Or consider FreedomPop, which offers unlimited talk, text and hotspot Wi-Fi data for $5 a month. FreedomPop offers the aforementioned S4 as a phone option for $330. Boost Mobile, which runs on Sprint's network, starts with a $35-per-month plan for unlimited talk, text and data.
Of course, if you have a family plan, you should consider if it's worth keeping your child on it versus getting him a prepaid plan. To learn more, read How to Cut Smartphone Costs.
5. Cable TV. Cut this additional expense by accessing a wide variety of current entertainment and news online. You can stream programs from your TV set and/or Blu-ray player (newer models have built-in capabilities for Web access and apps), computer or a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox gaming console, a PlayStation 4, a Wii U or a Roku.
--TV Shows. Hulu.com lets you stream TV shows free from participating networks online. You can typically stream the five most recent episodes of a show's current season free, and programs usually pop up on the site the day after they air on TV (Most Fox shows take eight days to access online after their air date, and current-season episodes of some CBS shows are available at CBS.com, but not on Hulu). Hulu also offers subscriptions, which for $8 a month give you wider access to seasons of current and classic TV shows, thousands of movies (including films from the Criterion Collection) and limited advertising in 720p high definition. You can try a Hulu subscription free for a week before it begins charging a fee.
--Movies. For $9 a month, Netflix offers unlimited TV episodes and movies streaming online through a Web-enabled device. Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster On Demand, CinemaNow, iTunes and Vudu offer movies that you can rent (typically for 30 days) or purchase on demand.
--Sports. WatchESPN.com streams live broadcasts of professional sports, such as professional baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis, and of course college basketball and football. Participating Internet service providers grant you free access to the site.
6. A car. In a nine-month academic year, the average small sedan would rack up about $5,000 in expenses, including costs for gas, depreciation, standard maintenance and insurance, according to AAA. Parking permits and any tickets or breakdowns would add even more to the bill. Keeping the car parked at home could lower insurance premiums, too.
7. A credit card. The average freshman has credit-card debt of $611, according to a recent study by Sallie Mae. To help curb the frivolity of first-year credit card spending, Uncle Sam is enforcing stricter credit card rules. Under the CARD Act of 2009, anyone younger than 21 is required to prove his or her ability to repay any debts or have a parent (or someone else 21 or older) co-sign the card application. So far it's worked, as credit card use among freshmen has declined to only 14% for the 2012-13 academic year, seven points less than for the previous year.
Help your student stay in the black by withholding your signature until he has a long track record of fiscal responsibility. A debit card is a good way to get started. For tips on how to discuss personal finance, see Money-Management Advice for College Students and A Crash Course in Money-Management for Your College-Bound Kids.
8. High bank fees. Open an account for your child at a bank that is close to campus and has nationwide coverage. If your child uses an account with a hometown bank, she could spend about $3 each time she withdraws money from an out-of-network ATM. If she withdraws money, say, once a week, she could spend up to $156 a year on fees. Or consider opening an online checking account with a bank that doesn't charge ATM fees or that refunds ATM surcharges by other banks. Be sure to read the fine print: Some of these banks do not refund ATM fees beyond a certain amount, and some require the account holder to maintain a minimum account balance every month.
When choosing a bank, also find out how much it costs, if anything, to transfer funds online from your account to your student's. This will save you from having to mail checks. Another option is to open an account with a credit union that belongs to a surcharge-free network. Click here to locate one.
9. Overdraft protection. You now have the option when you open an account to opt out of overdraft protection. That means the bank either will not permit you to withdraw funds if your balance is too low or will ask whether you want to pay a $35 fee and proceed with the withdrawal. This is not a one-time decision; you can switch your preference if you decide you want the bank to cover overdrafts. Checks and recurring payments that cause you to overdraw the account are not covered even if you opt out, so you can still incur hefty overdraft fees.
10. A big meal plan. You've heard of the "freshman 15" pounds, so avoid loading up your child's meal account with enough money to feed the football team. Often, the money you spend on a meal plan does not roll over from year to year -- if you don't use the money, you lose it. Best to start low and see how much your student eats. Many colleges give you the opportunity to replenish meal-plan funds midyear. You could also supplement your kid's meal plan with gift cards to the local grocery (or pizza joint). Or you can buy gift cards at GiftCertificates.com.
11. Campus health insurance. If you have family health coverage, your child may still be covered under that plan when she goes to college. If your plan does not cover out-of-network costs, a campus health-insurance plan may be a more cost-effective option. Be careful, though: Some college policies have low coverage maximums, which could leave you with thousands of dollars in uninsured expenses. Your child can also buy an individual policy through the local health insurance exchange (search by state at Healthcare.gov). See 3 Types of Insurance to Protect Your College Student for other options.
12. Private loans. The hefty price tag on higher education makes it hard to avoid student loans, but if at all possible, steer clear of private student loans. They usually carry variable rates (as opposed to the fixed rates of federal loans), have fewer repayment options and allow students to rack up high balances. (See Why You Should Stick With Federal Student Loans.)
You still have time to apply for federal student loans to cover the bills this school year (see Test Your Knowledge of College Financial Aid). And look for scholarships -- they're easier to get than you might think (see 11 Top Sources of College Scholarships).
13. Laundry services. Laundry takes time, but outsourcing it costs money. Services such as DormMom.com and UniversityLaundry.com will process and wash your clothing at a set time each week, but they are costly; Dorm Mom charges $324 per semester for 15 pounds of laundry per week, and University Laundry charges $374 per semester for 20 pounds of laundry per week. University Laundry also only collects clothing on certain days each week, so if you miss your drop-off time, you waste your service that week. Alternatively, a $10 bottle of Tide detergent will clean 48 loads of laundry. Assuming you do two loads of laundry a week, it will last you 24 weeks--longer than a college semester. Add about $100 in quarters per semester for the coin-operated machines at your college, and you'll still save hundreds. Think you don't have time to wash clothing? Take your homework to the laundry room--the white noise can create a great study environment.
Special thanks to Jeff Bertolucci and Lisa Gerstner for their contributions.