The 12 Hidden College Expenses

College is expensive, but don't forget about these additional expenses that add up fast

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With rising tuition rates, the cost of attending college might be more than what many students and parents anticipated when they began saving for a college education. But for a lot of families, tuition is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many expenses that come with being a college student (or the parent of one) that can add up and cost much more than anticipated.

According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing report from 2011 to ’12, tuition and fees account for only 38% of the total expense budget for in-state students enrolled in public four-year institutions. The number falls to 19% of the total cost for full-time community-college students not living with their parents.

(MORE: You’re Spoiling the Kids! When Parents Disagree on Spending)

Holiday breaks are a good time to sit down with your finances and re-evaluate the true costs of college. If you’re a parent providing most of your child’s college funding and spending money, have a conversation about his or her money management. Consider examining bank and credit-card statements to understand if your (or your child’s) finances are on track, or if you’re spending more than you thought on incidentals. Here are some less obvious but common — and pricey — expenses to watch for:

Books and media: According to the College Board, the average annual cost of books for a college student ranges from $850 to $1,000. This is one item you shouldn’t skimp on. To save money, buy used textbooks (even cheaper used books can be found online vs. in the bookstore) or use library resources. If books cost more than you expected, revise the textbook budget for future semesters accordingly.

Class and parking fees: Some classes — like art or chemistry — charge fees for materials and studio or lab use. Know in advance which classes come with additional fees and plan for them so you aren’t blindsided. Also, many schools or cities charge for parking on or near campus, so find out how much a parking pass costs.

Having fun: Campus life often includes socializing and entertainment. However, movies, concerts and sporting events come with a cost. If this is a priority, explore purchasing a discounted season sports or events package vs. paying per event. Also, set entertainment spending limits for yourself or your child.

Fraternities and sororities: The Greek system can be pricey. Dues may be required (from modest to expensive), and joining halfway through the year can require paying for months past, which can double the dues. Other required Greek spending, like clothing for special events and traveling, can also add up.

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Getting involved: Learning experiences outside the classroom are an important part of college, but clubs, intramural sports and memberships may cost money and require the purchase of T-shirts or member memorabilia. When considering activities, think about what’s most important and weigh the varying costs.

Furnishings: You have likely purchased items not included in the dorm plan, like bedding, towels, lamps, decorations, furniture, laundry and waste baskets, bulletin boards, hair dryers and even storage and appliances. Once settled, you may have a new list of things you discovered you’re missing, like a vacuum or other electronics. Think about what is necessary, as many of these items have a limited life postcollege and can often be rented or shared.

Electronics: According to the National Retail Federation’s 2012 Back to School report, electronics are popular expenditures with college students: 60% said they will buy a new computer, MP3 player, smart phone or other device and will spend an average $217.88. Tack on a new flat screen for the dorm room, and the cost of electronics seems daunting. Determine what non-necessary electronics you can afford to splurge on in advance, and avoid peer pressure around purchasing the hottest new item.

(MORE: The Other Awkward Talk You Need to Have with Your Kids)

Cable TV:  Most dorms have common areas with TVs that have cable access. However, many students opt for cable in their room or apartment on or off campus — at a fee! Evaluate how much time you spend at home or in your room and determine whether the cost is worth it, especially given the options now available in streaming media for both entertainment and news.

Wardrobe: While purchasing back-to-school clothing is an annual affair for most students, once on campus, unexpected clothing purchases may emerge. Internship interviews and extracurricular activities along with other special events may all require specific attire. Try to anticipate these expenses and think about delaying your shopping trip until after you get to campus. Consider which purchases are priorities and make budget trade-offs if you tend to spend more on clothes.

Mobile-phone service: Understanding the right mobile-phone plan is important. Your chatting, texting and data-downloading habits may change at school as you keep in touch with friends or use services throughout business hours. Staying on the family plan is usually a good option, but determine which provider has the best service on campus.

(MORE: Paying for Grades: What to Consider Before Promising Your Kids Cash for A’s)

Food and beverage: While you may have a food plan, the cost of eating out and buying snacks and beverages for the dorm may be more than you think. You also might overspend on these things as you navigate campus life.

Travel: Most students go home to visit several times a year, so budget for gas or plane tickets. Since these trips will likely happen at heavy travel times, plan ahead to get good prices. If you’re a parent planning to visit your child’s campus, don’t forget to plan for your trips, which can include many of the same costs as a vacation: travel, food, transportation and entertainment. Talk about how often is realistic for you to see your family based on travel costs and consider using technologies like Skype to eliminate some of these costs.

De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.


While I agree with these readers that these are common sense considerations, but like all things common sense, they’re often overlooked until someone points out the obvious. Either way, students (and parents) are bound to discover expenses like these on their own. Paying for them, on the other hand, takes preparation: through budgeting and diligence with financial aid resources. There are scholarships, or grants really, specifically for non-tuition expenses like textbooks. There are many scholarships that just about anyone can qualify for, not just straight-A students. I recently found this out researching for financial aid here:

Especially with grants, scholarships and fellowships, it’s amazing how much is really out there, if you’re persistent enough.


While others seem to be mocking the writer, I'm reminded of an old saying: Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

believe it or not, people usually only look at the tuition, and only sometimes at books and fees.  Book prices vary depending on the courses and unless you have all four years planned out, and know what the books will cost in the future (they change about every two years and prices do nothing but go up for new editions), you'll never be able to know how much you'll be paying.  People almost never look beyond those factors at the associated costs.  A more compelling article would have been to compare cost of living at three schools (from low to high) with the median showing various options such as living in a dorm versus renting an efficiency apartment.  The total costs for going to college are at least twice the expense of tuition, books and fees, and likely much higher in most places.

So while this article certainly addresses the fact that, yes, sadly, people are stupid enough to not look or think outside of the fiscal box, it could have done a much better job in presenting how important it is to consider the costs with dollar comparisons for various schools and various living/transportation arrangements.


did the writer just graduated from high school? if you are a parent and didn't know this, you should know you fail at life.


Uh - these are surprises???  No - I don't think so!!!!  Unless the potential student/parent expects college to be like high school.


more like the "the costs of living to the noob at life"


hm... aren't these "hidden" costs just the cost of life for adults everyday?