"More than half the cost of going to college isn't in tuition; it's in everyday living expenses," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, websites for insights on securing college scholarships and loans. "In addition to their room and board, that includes personal expenses — eating out, traveling back home and the rest. And all told, it can easily reach $3,000 to $4,000 a year."
Here are ways to get a leg up on campus life expenses. Warning: Some of them may provoke some resistance from that student of yours.
The average annual cost of college textbooks is $1,121, according to FinAid.org. But most students can save at least $500 a year on that expense, says Kantrowitz, simply by buying used at local stores and then reselling them back after the course is completed.
For possibly greater savings, your kid can buy new or used textbooks online. Websites such as bookfinder.com, addall.com, cheapesttextbooks.com and allbookstores.com can help lead you to the best deals.
Another option is to buy e-book versions of the textbooks, if they're available.
And students can save up to 85 percent over the cost of new books by renting books through websites such as bookrenter.com and campusbookrentals.com. Also ask about university-run textbook rental programs. For free downloads of select books — typically classics no longer under copyright — there's bartelby.com and gutenberg.org.
Your child can better avoid the Freshman 15 (the legendary weight gain of that first year) and you can avoid maybe $1,000 a year of costs by opting for a cheaper cafeteria meal plan than the full offering. Encourage your student to ask about little-publicized discounts offered by local eateries. "They may not advertise it, but there's somewhat of an underground network among local merchants in many college towns that offer discounts to students who show their IDs," says Doug Schantz, who runs cheapscholar.org and is director of student accounts at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.
Is your kid a snacker? Encourage low-cost bulk purchase of foods and drinks, rather than constant trips to vending machines, coffee shops and convenience stores. (The same goes for school supplies. Don't buy pens and notebooks in onesies and twosies.)
With the Affordable Care Act, college students and other adult children can remain covered by your policy until age 26. So up to that age, there's no need to buy a campus-offered health insurance policy. In most cases, you can avoid this "requirement" by signing a waiver or otherwise proving coverage. However, expect to still pay a "health fee" that will give your student access to clinics on campus.
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Does your kid absolutely have to have one? No doubt many members of today's younger generation feel they can't live without their own, but the fact remains that not all students have them; some use free machines in college computer labs.
Know that if your student does bring a laptop or desktop, the school may have minimum technical requirements for it. Most students don't need super-fast, high-resolution computers, which are really best suited for playing videos games and other diversions from studies.
Keep in mind, too, that many computer manufacturers and retailers offer discounts to college students. You may also save by buying through a college-run program.
If your student brings a computer, how about a printer? The old conventional wisdom was "no" — you're already being charged a "technology fee" for such things as access to campus printers, so why not use them? But in an effort to bring in more revenue, "more schools are now charging for printing pages beyond a certain quantity each semester," says Kantrowitz.
Ask about the policy. If it seems stingy, a low-cost printer for about $70 should suffice. Otherwise, have your student use a $10 flash drive or the campus data network to send documents to a school printing station.
Your kid may well already be on your family plans for a cellphone. If not, a $20 cellphone with prepaid minutes can keep you in touch, though the per minute rate may too high for long conversations. If you've got a computer, free calls can be made with services such as Skype and Google Voice.
Freshmen typically must live in a dorm room. Sharing it with a roommate can save up to $2,000 per year compared to a "super single," says Schantz.
And while joining a fraternity or sorority requires dues that are typically several hundred dollars, there can be a cost benefit of going Greek: "On average, their meals and housing at the frat or sorority house are well below what most universities charge," adds Schantz. Off-campus housing may also be cheaper, although many colleges restrict this.
These tips have focused on controlling how much money goes out. But there are also ways to bring money in. Investigate whether your college has work-study programs. Sophomores and upperclassmen can often get free housing — and perhaps free meals, too — if they become a resident adviser (R.A.), a student who oversee a dorm floor. And off campus there will be the same part-time opportunities that any community has.
This upcoming semester marks the first since September 2002 that long-time AARP.org writer Sid Kirchheimer did not have at least one child attending college.
Also of interest: Wondering how to pay for college? »