If you're a college student, another semester means another round of expenses — including books, sports equipment and discretionary spending. Financial planning for college involves some work, but it can pay off with a better understanding of your path ahead, allowing you to feel confident you'll be able to avoid surprise expenditures. Planning for financial obligations well ahead of time can also help you better focus on your academic success when classes begin.
By this point, you've may have already developed a broader budget plan for tuition, room, board and other long-term college expenses. But then there are other, smaller expenses you may not have given as much attention to. Here are some common ones college students may encounter during a typical year:
- Books: Whether rented or purchased, paper or electronic, books cost students about $1,200 a year, according to College Board's latest Annual Survey of Colleges. Plus, there may be additional supply costs for class projects, printer ink and paper.
- Transportation: Getting around town costs money, but so does traveling home. If you have a car, you'll pay gas and insurance, and possibly campus parking fees, too. No car? Visiting parents during breaks may mean buying a bus, train or plane ticket. Some schools offer discounts on city bus passes, so be sure to investigate your student ID benefits.
- Sports equipment: If you're part of a varsity or club team, your equipment and uniforms may or may not be covered. Find out!
- Entertainment: All studying and no play makes for a burned-out student. Attending concerts, movies and performances — even on campus — can add up. Put some money in the budget for that. If you're part of a sorority or fraternity, there are additional costs associated with participation.
- Laundry: Since you'll likely be doing your own laundry during the semester, it's worth budgeting for one or two loads a week in your dorm building or at a nearby laundromat.
- Storage: If you're not bringing your college things home during the summer, you may need to pay for storage near campus.
How to Plan for These Expenses
The first thing to do when planning your college finances is determine a budget. You can write down the various categories of anticipated expenses, starting with the categories above, and estimate what they'll cost each month or school year. To determine entertainment costs, for example, you might plan to attend an on-campus show or concert twice a week. You'll see from social media posts or flyers on campus that these shows typically cost around $10 a ticket, meaning you'd add $80 a month for entertainment.
If your school meal plan doesn't include weekend meals, determine where you might find food — whether that's cheap takeout, where you'll spend $5-$10 a meal, or the local grocery store, where you can shop for your own ingredients and better control costs. After filling out the categories with estimated expenses, you can see what you'll likely need to pay for each month, and adjust lower-priority spending according your available funds. Keeping track of your monthly averages can help make this process easier over time.
You can work near home or at school in the summer to save money for college. It's important to remember, however, that you may have housing and higher food expenses if you don't live at home. If you plan your budget to save each week or month, it will be easier to put some money away for college.
It might also be worth considering working part-time while attending school. If a work-study job is part of the financial aid package, the school may provide job options, though plenty of other jobs are available as well. Working during the school year is a good way to earn additional spending money. On campus, students might work in the library, at dining halls, as a residence hall advisor, in a research lab or at an administrative office. Not all campus jobs require that a student have a work-study financial aid package.
Financial Aid & Scholarships
In addition to work-study, a financial aid package includes what you'll receive as a loan, as a grant and what you'll owe personally. If you're an incoming freshman and don't have numbers yet, most colleges have a financial aid calculator on their website you can use to help figure out your overall budget.
Financial aid comes in several forms: Grants, scholarships and student loans. Some schools offer grants as their only form of financial aid. Student loans, which need to be repaid, vary greatly depending on the source. When it comes to loans, it's important to understand the types and conditions beforehand, and to consider whether it's really worth taking on additional debt to cover nonessential expenses.
Many colleges also offer sports, activity and merit scholarships that do not need to be repaid, and which can help cover qualified expenses like books, or free up funds to cover other costs. Companies and community and extracurricular organizations might also provide funding to qualified applicants — if you know what you want to study, there may even be industry-specific scholarships available.
Financial planning for college might seem overwhelming, but there are many options to budget and save for it. With some forethought, a university degree doesn't have to be a financial stressor.