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Watch Out for Hidden College Expenses

September 28, 2017

rsz_istock-636199580.jpgCongratulations, you did it! You have successfully raised a college-bound child. I’m sure you’ve been doing quite a bit of math lately, calculating what tuition will cost when you factor in scholarships, savings, etc. You’ve made a list, you’ve checked it what seems like a million times… but what are you forgetting? As the parent of a college student, I’m here to tell you about a few costs you might have overlooked.



Rent seems pretty straightforward: you pay the sticker price on the dorm, apartment, or house, and that’s it… right? Maybe not. You must also factor in utilities, furniture, and other supplies for your newly-independent child. Additionally, you must consider how these items are getting to and from school—do you need a trailer? Are you bringing them home over the summer, or will you need to pay to rent a storage space? These are all questions to consider early on, but keep an eye out for sales right before summer break. Apartment complexes and storage units often slash their prices at the end of the year because they’re desperate to fill up spaces.


Ah, the memories of a freshman dorm. For most, the memories are fond, but we would never return. Freshman living is marked by tiny rooms, community bathrooms, and dining hall food. If your student is living in a dorm, they most likely have an expensive meal plan since there will be no kitchen available for them to use.  In order to make sure your money is being spent wisely, talk to your child about how often they should be eating outside of the dining halls.

If your child is living in an apartment or house, they have the opportunity to buy their own groceries and cook their meals. However, college is a busy time, and they might not always feel like cooking. Most universities offer cheaper dining plans if you’re willing to look for them—for example, my daughter’s plan only covers lunches and she makes her own dinner each day. Figure out what’s best for your child, their schedule, and (most importantly) your wallet.


If your child is attending the college right down the street, you can go ahead and skip this one. However, if they attend a school in another zip code, you’re about to incur several hefty costs. Flights aren’t cheap, and gas prices will continue to fluctuate. When you move them to their new home, you’ll take multiple cars or even a trailer full of furniture. They will come home during school breaks, and you’ll want to go visit them (which most likely includes the cost of a hotel stay). There’s a lot of back-and-forth that needs to be accounted for, because it adds up quickly if you’re not anticipating it.


Believe it or not, the textbook industry is worth more than $10 billion. I know, I didn’t believe it at first either… until I saw the price tags in my daughter’s school bookstore. Fortunately for you, there are a lot of options to cut the cost of required reading: sites like Chegg or even Amazon will rent out their used textbooks for a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, however, more and more colleges are requiring “download codes” for online study materials that can cost hundreds of dollars. These can’t be ordered from secondhand sites, but you can still avoid the needless markup of university bookstores by renting hard-copy books from somewhere else.


At this point you may be worried about how your college costs might derail your retirement plans. We do have to remember, however, that it is not just about the money. All parents react differently to starting their lives as empty nesters. Some rejoice, some cry, and some do both. But all parents will inevitably miss their children… and all children will eventually miss their parents. Make sure to set aside time to call your kids. Reserve some space on the calendar to attend their school’s Homecoming or Parents’ Weekend. If you have a free afternoon, offer to come visit for the day and take them to lunch. Lend a patient ear when they ask your advice about something that seems insignificant—they miss you, and they value your input. They might be “adults” now, but they’ll always love dear Mom and Dad.

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Byron Ellis

Written by Byron Ellis

Byron is the Managing Director of The Woodlands, TX division of United Capital Financial Advisers, and a well-known financial educator. In addition to helping families with their financial life management, Byron is a weekly columnist that has the ability to turn complex topics into clear and interesting essays.

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