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4 ways to avoid the hidden costs of college

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

When planning for college, it’s hard to look beyond the big, scary numbers of tuition and room and board. Not to sound an even bigger alarm, but parents and students also need to account for the relatively smaller expenses they’ll be paying for on campus.

“Indirect costs are the cost of being a person,” says David Helene, the founder and CEO of Edquity, a college financial planning service. “Beyond tuition and room and board, students need to be thinking about costs that are not associated with your education but are necessary for a student to succeed at college.”

Indirect costs are things like your car and gas expenses, your cell phone plan, travel expenses to get you to and from school during breaks, living costs like rent and furnishings if you’re not living in a dorm, books, electronics, groceries, toiletries, and money for things like shopping and dining out.

“If you’re talking about $400 to $500 a month it can be between $3,000 and $5,000 per school year,” Helene says. “If you’re not making working and borrowing decisions that account for those expenses, you could be left with a pretty significant shortfall.”

According of Edquity, of the nearly 50% of college students who dropout of school before graduation, over 70% do so for financial reasons. But smart financial planning ahead of time can help you get a leg up on what to expect once you’re on campus. Helene shares four tips.

1: Choose the right school for your budget

Before you even sign your admissions package, you need to dig deep to see if the college you want to attend is financially realistic for you.

“It’s not necessarily about academic fit or brand recognition,” Helene says. “It’s about what percentage of students are able to repay their debt after attending this school, what are the median earnings for students after going to this school.” Edquity provides this information to their clients to help them decide and then plan for their financial future at their chosen college.  

Students need to apply for school they can actually afford to attend, so they’re not forced to reassess once they’re there.

“This really granular financial planning needs to be part of that upfront choice and research so that students are applying only to the schools where they’re going to be set up for financial success,” he says.

2: Know your costs

Once you’ve chosen your school, begin planning for your expenses by consulting cost-of-living calculators for your area, along with comprehensive college checklists so you have an idea of what you’ll be buying and spending throughout the school year.

Edquity and sites like The College Board provide comprehensive college checklists to account for all expenses—big and small—you may encounter throughout the academic year, from dorm room needs to books and supplies, to extra costs and fees associated with your classes.

Knowing what to expect will help you determine what you can afford—before you get to school.

3: Make a savings plan

While it may be difficult to imagine saving money while you’re in college, it’s important to set some money aside each month to build your savings, start an emergency fund, and be prepared for unexpected costs.

“If you’re saving in order of priority, your needs would come first, your emergency fund would come second, and then everything else would come third,” Helene recommends.

While it may be easier said than done, getting into the habit of saving now—even small amounts—will set you up for financial success and keep financial surprises at bay.

4: Get a job

Getting a job is a surefire way to have extra money in the bank and start chipping away at your costs while in college. It’s also helpful for students to balance their time management skills, Helene says.

“Getting a job can actually be a really good way to engage in a time-management exercise because that’s going to add additional structure to your schedule,” he says.

However, students need to be aware of how job responsibilities can affect their academic performance.

“It’s really hard to be a full-time employee and a full-time student,” Helene says. “There’s a steep learning curve to transition from not being a college student to being a college student.”

Helene recommends working no more than 10 hours a week in year one and then transitioning to more work time in later years of college.

Money will determine many of the choices you make during college, so doing what you can to lessen the financial burden will set you up for success throughout college and beyond.


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