Illustration: Chelsea Miller
Budgeting 3 min read

The Cost of College Life

One of the many mysteries of college, especially freshman year, is what being there is actually going to cost you. Sure, you know there’s tuition. If you’re living in a dorm, there’s room and board. Those bills arrive before you ever set foot on campus.

But how much will you need to make it through the first semester, let alone the first year? That’s not so clear.

Here’s what to plan for first: the start-up costs of being a college student. Here’s what to plan for first: the start-up costs of being a college student.

Starting Up

Typical start-up costs include the items listed here. Some things, like a laptop, you may already have, which can help reduce the cost of your pre-school shopping.

  • Laptop
  • Tablet
  • Textbooks
  • Class, lab, and studio fees
  • Bedding and towels
  • Fridge and other appliances

It’s always great to avoid buying something that you’ll only need for a year or two. For example, you may want to consider borrowing those extra-long twin sheets you’ll need from a sibling or another student who’s moved off-campus.

Everyday Cost

Here’s a heads up: You’ll probably be amazed at how fast cash can disappear if you’ve never lived on your own before.

Say you’re starving when you finally finish a paper and the only thing in your fridge is a Diet Coke. You can’t pay for pizza delivery with your meal card, so it’s down to what’s left of your cash or another hit on your debit card.

Here are some other day-to-day things you’ll most likely end up spending money on:

  • Toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo
  • Other drugstore purchases
  • Laundry
  • Coffee and snacks
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Event tickets

Coordinating with Roommates

Colleges often give new roommates each other’s contact information before school starts. If you have the chance, be in touch and figure out how you can share expenses—and avoid duplicating efforts. That can help you avoid ending up with two mini-fridges and no coffee maker.

Messy Money Moments

You splurged and bought a new microwave for your dorm room. But when you show up with your stuff on the first day, turns out you’re actually not allowed to have a microwave in your room. And, you didn’t keep the receipt, so there’s no way to return it and get your money back.

Receipts may seems like a waste of time—another scrap of paper in your pocket or another email clogging up your inbox. But it’s important to keep all your receipts for new stuff until you’re fully moved in and know what you’ll really need. Otherwise, you’ve spent part of your budget on things you can’t use. In fact, keeping receipts and records of your purchases is always a good idea, so you can prove what you paid for something in case you want to return or exchange it, or if the item turns out to be faulty in some way.

Unavoidable Costs

Some costs are fixed by the contracts you sign—like your phone agreement and your rent if you’re living off campus. It works in your favor that these costs are the same amount every month, because you can plan for them. But if you don’t pay them in full, you’ll eventually find yourself without a phone, or much worse, with no place to stay.

There are often ways to reduce fixed costs. For example, staying on your family’s phone plan may be cheaper than having your own account, provided the service is good in both locations. Adding another roommate will reduce your rent (though it might be a little crowded).

Other costs are variable, and change from month to month. You’ve got a little more flexibility with these costs—like food and clothing—since you can always cut back if you’re running short of cash. One solid way to reduce costs is to get serious about sustainability. Refilling a water bottle is cheaper than buying bottled water and way better for the environment.

It may also be harder than ever to walk the line between what you want and what you need, especially if your new friends—or some of them at least—never seem to think twice about going out to dinner or paying a $10 cover to hear a band.

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