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Budget for Unexpected Personal Expenses in College

Reyna Gobel

The cost of college beyond tuition and fees, textbooks and room and board can come as a shock to many parents and students.

University of Nebraska--Lincoln senior Sadid Carrillo says he's been able to budget for his college years because he "tried not to be wasteful."

He avoids eating out most of the time, and says dining off campus is the downfall for most students' budgets. "Especially in Lincoln you're a block away from where all the restaurants are at, so it's hard not to go out and eat everyday, which a lot of students do," he says.

[Learn how to create a student budget.]

"Families don't normally plan for these expenses, but they do occur," says Paul Goebel, director of the Student Money Management Center at the University of North Texas. His office offers budgeting help to parents, students and alumni.

"Whenever the price of gas goes up, so do the number of consultations students schedule with our office," says Goebel. "Transportation is often an underestimated cost," whether students come to campus for classes, drive to jobs or go home.

"An increase of any personal expense can easily throw a student's budget into the red," he says.

Parents and students should not only remember to save for these expenses, but to save more than they estimate.

"One reason for this is personal expenses are the great unknown," says Bob Burger, an Arizona-based financial planner. The rising costs of tuition and fees and room and board have been well-documented in studies - including those published by the College Board and the Department of Education - but the rising costs of transportation and personal expenses aren't as well known.

Experts suggest parents plan to save for these costs outside of 529 plan accounts, because withdrawals for nonqualified expenses like gas from these tax-advantaged college savings accounts can carry steep penalties. On a $2,000 withdrawal from a 529 account, the penalty would be $200 on investment earnings before any taxes.

Both Burger and David Blain, a certified financial planner from North Carolina, recommend parents incorporate saving for college as part of their overall financial planning.

Parents shouldn't neglect their own needs while planning for their children's. Financial goals such as retirement shouldn't be disregarded.

"Very few parents are going to say 'Nope, you have this amount in your 529 plan, I'm not helping with anything else,'" Burger says. He's told parents of current college students, "'You're going to run out of retirement if you pay for these college expenses,' and they still do it."

The best defense is planning ahead and setting limits. Blain tells parents to put money in their children's names that they will never need for themselves.

[Encourage children to save for college with these tips.]

Burger says any money left over after parents pay educational expenses can be used for a wedding, a down payment on a future home or another way to make an adult child's life easier.

To decide how much to save for a child's personal expenses, Blain and Burger recommend slightly different strategies. Burger says he takes an estimate of the current cost of these expenses and adds 3 percent per year for each year until the child is expected to use the funds to account for rising prices.

For parents of young children, Blain generally estimates these expenses will run about 20 percent of tuition and fees and room and board per year, and then he adds the cost of inflation. However, he also tells parents to decide just how much they want to spend. At a school that costs $14,000, he recommends parents expect $1,500 to $3,000 in extra expenses.

[Discover more ways to save on college costs.]

"The higher the cost of the school, the more students will likely need for personal expenses such as extracurricular activities," he says.

For parents of teens about to head to college, Blain asks specific questions: "Are they going to have a car? Is the parent's insurance rate going to go up? Does the college offer health care, or are they going to stay on the parent's plan?"

Whatever amount parents decide to set aside for a student's personal expenses, Goebel recommends they hold the student responsible for sticking to it.

"The college years are a time for all students to learn how to become more independent, both personally and financially," Goebel says.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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