Credit & Debt
5 Ways to Cap Back-to-Campus Costs
Finding the Right Deals Can Make the Difference
The Avery family of Evanston, Ill., learned quickly that tuition was just one of the expenses involved in packing their daughter, Isabel, off to college last fall. There was a bike to get around campus, a new computer, textbooks, and fees to cover student services. Mom Alexa Bezjian-Avery admits that some of the items — the designer bedding set, mini TV, and microwave — were optional, "a way of coping with the separation anxiety of having our daughter far away for the first time."
Even without such splurges, school expenses add up. Each fall, American families sending a student off to college spend an average of $916 on back-to-school items, according to 2014 data from the National Retail Federation. And costs continue year-round. Combining good, old-fashioned budgeting with the latest technology may help keep those expenses under control.
1. Set a budget for the year.
The first step is to think broadly. Estimate the cost of items you need to buy for the entire year (not just September), as well as the school's various fees and other expenses, says Kathryn Sweedler, consumer economics educator at University of Illinois Extension. "If you spend more on a computer, you'll have to spend less on something else. And with a budget, you're less likely to get swept up into the emotion of sending your child to college." Tell your student in advance what you're willing to spend on expenses, and give them the option of adding their own funds if they want more upscale products, Sweedler suggests.
2. Use tax-advantaged dollars.
Many people know that 529 savings plans are a way to save for college tuition. But money in a 529 plan can also be used to pay for college classroom items—such as a computer, educational software, textbooks or school supplies—if the college requires the students to have such items for class.
3. Try price-comparison apps.
Once you start shopping, mobile apps such as PriceGrabber, TheFind, ShopSavvy, and Coupon Sherpa provide instant price comparisons, says consumer expert Andrea Woroch. And since large retailers often have price-match policies, deals you find online can help you get a better price while shopping at a store. Apps can also find the sales instantly. The Retale app aggregates store circulars in one place, while Coupon Sherpa uses GPS to pull local sales and store coupons onto your smartphone, says Woroch. "Price-tracking tools like TrackIf.com or the SnapUp app will alert you if something you were planning to purchase goes on sale."
4. Take advantage of student-only deals.
Your college student may qualify for a discount on computer products, such as a laptop, through the manufacturer or the campus bookstore. Some mobile phone companies offer up to 15 percent off monthly phone bills to students at certain universities, while others sweeten the purchase of new phones or tablets with $25 to $50 gift cards for students.
5. Rent textbooks.
Buying textbooks from the college bookstore is easy but can be costly. Students can sometimes save significant amounts by renting textbooks through sites such as Chegg, eCampus, and CampusBookRentals.com, according to Woroch.
The rising cost of education is just one of the pressures parents face. But with a little planning and saving here and there, you may find yourself pulling down an "A" in family finances.
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Anita Slomski is a freelance financial journalist living in the Chicago area.