College Expenses You Haven’t Planned For

Soon (if not already) you’ll know if your child is one of the anointed ones. Early decisions from college applications have pretty much rolled in by now, and while the regular decisions are still sweating it out (or hoping for better), parents are busy filling out those college aid applications. It’s really crazy that you have to file aid applications without knowing whether your child is in or not, but I suppose the colleges could argue that you need an aid offer to know whether you’re going to accept their admissions offer. I’ve discussed aid qualifying in other posts on this site, but this time I’m going to mention a couple of surprise costs not usually included in most colleges’ costs of attendance statements, but you have to pay them anyway.

  1. Transportation. Dear daughter has had so many breaks that sometimes I wonder why I’m paying for room and board at all. Look carefully at the college calendar. Many schools have a 5 year calendar available, so you’ll be able to know the exact day little Jennifer will don that cap and gown, provided she makes it in 4 or 5 years. But if your child is going to a school far enough away that you can’t easily drive to pick her up, count how many times you’re going to need to fly her back and forth (or estimate the cost of gas and hotel for a long road trip). Also, be aware that you’re not going to get any deal from the airlines on these trips. They’ve figured out that every college student is flying out the moment classes recess, and the airfare that’s $286 every other day of the week suddenly morphs into $486 on the day your child wants to travel. Also, the school may or may not provide a shuttle to the airport—bingo, another $60 in charges each time. If your child makes the round trip 5 times (school beginning/end, fall break, Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, spring break) it can easily add $2,000 to your needed funds. Frequent flyer seats? Ha. Ha.
  2. Supplies. Sure, the school has told you to budget $500 for books. Maybe. But if your darling is taking a foreign language or science labs, those textbooks can be $150 or more, alone. The trend is to include online access and supplemental cds with those courses (which the kids never use, of course) making used textbooks or reselling the new ones not practicable. If the teacher decides to include supplemental books, like a French novel or two, cross your fingers that it’s available on Project Gutenberg. Many schools discourage students from purchasing individual printers by offering a certain amount of free printing from the college center or library. It’s easy to exceed this. If you do buy a cheap printer, don’t forget to add in ink and paper costs, which can easily amount to several hundred dollars per year.
  3. Room decoration. Not only are they dinky, but most rooms can be extremely bare. And the mattresses are often extra long, making a purchase of a complete suite of bedding necessary. Then there’s the closets and storage containers, lamps, sometimes a rug, etc. We budgeted $200, but spent $500. And we didn’t bring a refrigerator, air conditioner, coffee maker, or any of the other stuff I saw some kids haul in.
  4. Shipping. The closets are so small that we decided to ship winter clothes later. Then there were the books she couldn’t live without, the stuffed animals, the stuff she forgot on the first round, a supply of dark chocolate…Of course, you can’t just leave this stuff in the dorm room over the summer, because any college with an eye on raising money is renting out that dorm room to some summer program or camp. So you need to either ship it all back, or pay for storage, containers, and transportation to the storage facility over the summer. Believe it or not, this all can easily add up to $500-$1,000.
  5. “Special” opportunities. Students will be pitched extra “opportunities” for break time: field schools, intensive workshops, discounted “educational” tours and spring break drinkathons. I’ve nixed those but the tab can be solidly in the four figures. I guess enough people sign on that it’s worthwhile offering these. I hope you can withstand the pleading.

And you thought the tuition was high, right?

About the author

Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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