With the cost of college in the stratosphere, think twice about these expendable expenses.
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.
To avoid paying unfathomable new-book prices, see whether your university offers a rental program -- which is most often available for the school's core-curriculum and prerequisite classes. Or rent from a Web site such as CampusBookRentals.com, through which you can save up to 90% off the list price of books. Select your textbooks based on author, title, keyword or, better yet, ISBN number, which ensures that you’re getting the right edition.
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CampusBookRentals.com offers several rental-period options, including a 30-day guarantee in case a student drops a class and a 15-day grace period for returns. Shipping is free, and after your book arrives, you’ll get a prepaid, preaddressed envelope for the return. You can save up to 90% on some textbooks using Chegg.com, which plants a tree for every book you rent, but take note that shipping charges apply.
As for used books, check out BigWords.com, which searches the Web for the best prices on used textbooks. Again, using the ISBN number to search helps you get the right edition, but make sure you check with professors about peripheral materials that come packaged with textbooks, which used books may be missing.
A high-end laptop or desktop computer
An inexpensive laptop or desktop should do the trick. Netbooks are cheap, but their small keyboards and slow processing speed won’t make the grade for a student’s first year in college. One powerful, portable and affordable option is the Asus K50IJ-BBZ5 laptop. It has a 15.6-inch screen, weighs 5.8 pounds, and has 4 gigabytes of memory and a 320GB hard drive. The Asus is available at Best Buy for $530.
If you skip this, you’ll save about $50 for a printer, $30 a pop for replacement ink and $9 per pack of paper. For about $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 may already be paying for. Students may also have the option of sending files directly from their dorm room to a computer-lab printer.
Some schools include a technology fee in room-and-board costs -- $100 per semester in some cases. But make sure you ask about page limits and any printing fees.
A pricey smart phone plan
Students may think that a smart phone -- especially the iPhone or Droid X-- is de rigueur to deal with the rigors of campus life, but contracts with data plans can run as high as $200 a month. Fortunately, there are less-expensive alternatives, including some affordable, no-contract deals. Wal-Mart, for example, offers the Straight Talk prepaid cell-phone service, which uses Verizon Wireless’s network. Simply select a phone, choose whether you want to keep your existing number or get a new one, then add your plan online at StraightTalk.com. You can refill your plan every 30 days, or as much as you like.
Wal-Mart’s Straight Talk offers unlimited minutes, text messages and data nationwide anytime for up to 30 days of service for $45 (plus taxes and fees). Even though the iPhone and Droid X aren’t available for the plan, the selection isn’t as limited as you might think.
Your kid can catch movies and TV shows online. Hulu.com, Fancast.com and let you download recent TV shows free. The movies offered on these sites have long since left theaters, but you can get a Netflix DVD-rental subscription for as little as $5 a month. For $9 a month, you get unlimited DVD rentals, plus on-demand streaming to your computer or TV through a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox 360 or a TiVo HD.
See Net Movie Night for more sources of free or cheap programming and movies.
In a nine-month academic year, according to AAA, the average new sedan driven 10,000 miles would rack up more than $5,800 in expenses, including costs for gas, standard maintenance and insurance. 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.
A credit card
The average freshman who had a credit card amassed more than $2,000 in card debt in an academic year, according to a recent study by Sallie Mae. To curb the frivolity of first-year credit-card spending, Uncle Sam is now enforcing stricter credit-card rules. 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.
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.
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 the hometown bank, she could spend up to $5 when she withdraws money from an out-of-network ATM. If she withdraws money, say, once a week, she could spend up to $260 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 or 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 hers. 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.
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.
A big meal plan
You’ve heard of the Freshman 15, 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 the 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.
Campus health insurance
If you have family health coverage, your child may still be covered under that plan when he 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.
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.
You still have time to apply for federal student loans to cover the bills this school year. Look for scholarships -- they're easier to get than you might think.