4 Financial Factors to Keep in Mind When Budgeting for College

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In the US, the amount of student debt has reached over $1.4 trillion. The bad news for students currently planning on attending college is that tuition isn’t getting any cheaper. Insofar as there’s good news, students are being more financially cautious when planning for college, researching their student loan options, opting to stay in state, or even taking time to earn residency for out-of-state public schools. But college costs aren’t just about paying the university itself. Here are some expected and some less obvious costs students need to budget for when heading to college.

1. Factor in Student Loan Interest

You already know to think about tuition (and perhaps how it compares to the amount of financial aid your top choices offer), but one thing many students don’t really think about until the first bill comes in is how much student loan interest can add to the overall cost.

For the average loan rate of $30,000 at 4% interest, the interest adds over $7,000 for the life of the loan. And that’s if you make all your payments on time—many students end up with loan amounts far higher than that. Some students learn the hard way that they’ll be paying about as much in interest as the amount they took out—or more. You don’t want to be taken by surprise when you get your first bill, so make sure you factor interest in early on.

2. Look into All of a School’s Required Expenses and Fees

Though tuition is the biggest expense, colleges routinely require a large number of other expenses. Textbooks and supplies can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Further, many schools expect students to live on campus and purchase a meal plan their first year, and these annual on-campus housing and meal plans can cost about $9,000.

According to the New York Times, mandatory fees are on the rise, and they cost students at four-year public colleges nearly $1,700 during the 2015–2016 school year. These fees range from understandable to seemingly arbitrary—schools charge for everything from dropping a class to “student success fees.” In fact, mandatory fees have risen 30% more than tuition since 1999, so make sure you look into what fees will tack on to your overall college expenses.

3. Consider Transportation

Wherever you go to college, you’ll need to get around. Some schools are located in areas with thriving public transportation or have compact enough campuses that you can bike or walk most of the time. In these cases, you should simply check how much public transportation costs (it could be free or heavily discounted for students), and consider bike maintenance expenses in your budgeting if relevant.

If your school is located somewhere where a car is necessary (or if you want the option of driving home on the weekends), then you have a number of additional expenses to consider—in addition to the car itself, of course:

  • Parking—Many colleges charge hefty parking fees (often to discourage crowding the campus with cars). However, some housing will include parking spaces or garages.
  • Insurance—If you’re staying in state for school, you can stay on a parent’s insurance policy (as long as your primary residence is still your home address). Make sure you consider coverage beyond the state-required liability coverage, and always make sure to compare quotes to find the best coverage at the best rate.
  • Gas—Pro tip: If your friends are bumming rides to the grocery store or elsewhere around campus, ask them to chip in for gas.
  • Maintenance—Take preventative care of your car, get regular check-ups, and keep supplies like jumper cables and an ice scraper in your trunk.

Don’t forget the wonders of modern transportation options. Consider ridesharing or check out car2go or Zipcar for on-demand driving alternatives.

Also, if you’re heading a longer distance from home to go to school, you’ll need to factor flights into your yearly expenses.

4. Don’t Forget the Fun Stuff

Yes, you’re there to learn, but college is full of new experiences, so don’t neglect budgeting for those as well.

Big sports fan? Season student tickets to football, basketball, hockey, etc. can cost a chunk of change. Into theater or music? College campuses draw great talent on small and big stages alike, and ticket prices can run a wide range.

Cold or hot beverage? Pitch in for a tailgate beer or two, and anticipate needing LOTS of caffeine. And ice cream can help get you through exams, so put a little change aside for these treats, too.

Spring break can also be expensive. Whether it’s a trip to the beach or the ski slopes, if a springtime trip is in your future, set some travel funds aside.

Bonus Build Good Financial Habits Now (and Thank Yourself Later)

In addition to budgeting, you can start building other good financial habits for long-term benefit.

Start earning. Think about work options—but don’t be overly ambitious. Working during your college years can help offset your expenses, but if you try to work too much, you risk letting your studies slip and not getting your money’s worth for tuition. Don’t assume you can pull off a full-time job and still finish in four years when you’re working out your budget. Consider a more realistic goal of 15–20 hours a week, and if you decide to do work-study, apply fast before the jobs get snatched up.

Start building credit.

College is the perfect time to seriously start building your credit so you can more easily navigate post-college life.

Consider getting a student credit card and responsibly using it so you build your credit during your four years. Start with a small credit line and choose a card that rewards you for making your payments on time. When you build your credit during college, you’ll be set up to smoothly maneuver the post-grad life experiences that require good credit, including finding housing, purchasing a car, saving on insurance, or starting your own business. Your credit score is partly affected by your track record of making credit payments over time, so you’ll be glad you started building your credit early.

College is expensive, and even if you do everything right, there’s still a good chance you’ll have loans hanging over your head for a while after graduation. It’s worth making cautious decisions based on financial considerations when choosing your college and budgeting for the next four years, but know that if you keep up with your studies, it will likely all pay off.

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How to Get The Most Out of a Meal Plan in College

College meal plans can be pricey but the right moves can help make it more affordable.

It’s no question that college tuition is expensive, but the other costs of school are often overlooked. One of the biggest ones? A meal plan. In most colleges, meal plans are a mandatory cost, but don’t fret — there are many ways to get the most bang for your buck from your college meal plan. It just takes a little bit of research and some wise decisions.

Know Your Meal Plan

Knowing your college’s meal plan system is the first step. Different meal plans require different money-saving strategies. Generally, colleges have two types of meal plans: pay-per-swipe plans or pay-per-item point plans.

Pay-per-swipe plans require you to purchase a certain number of meal swipes for the semester or year. Each swipe gets you into the dining hall and allows you to eat as much or as little as you’d like for a flat rate (whatever the cost of the swipe was). For example, if the meal swipe cost $12 and you only eat an apple, you’re paying just as much as the student who ate four slices of pizza, ice cream and two tacos.

You can calculate the cost for each swipe by dividing your meal plan cost by the number of swipes you get. Some college websites list the cost of a swipe. Costs can vary based on time of day — generally, breakfast swipes are cheaper than dinner ones. These are best for students with a big appetite or who love to indulge in a variety foods. They aren’t as beneficial to those who are picky eaters or have small appetites.

Pay per item plans are similar to the concept of a secured credit card. You choose the amount you’d like to convert to points for your personal campus dining account. You can’t spend more than the amount you have on your account. These points are used to pay per item. For example, if you buy a sandwich and a drink, you’re charged the price for the sandwich and the drink. It’s not unlimited food and drink for a flat rate. You can generally add points to your meal plan. You can only spend what you put on your account. This is great tool for learning budget control.

Generally, colleges don’t let you choose which plan you use. They likely already have a system in place — it’s smart to ask about it during college tours. Even though you can’t choose the plan, you can control how much you spend.

1. Reduce Your Plan

In most colleges, meal plans can be reduced by switching your dining plan amount. Keep track of what you’re spending to see if it’s more financially savvy to have fewer swipes or less cash in your meal plan. Stay realistic — not having enough on your account might lead to more nights spent ordering take out, which can be bad for your budget.

2. Keep Track

Keep track of the swipes or points you’ve used and how many you have left. It’s probably easiest to do so on your phone because it’s almost always with you. This helps you budget your meals and avoid having a lot of leftover swipes and points that might expire at the end of the semester or year. Plus, most colleges have websites or apps that allow you to check how many swipes or meal points you have left.

3. Check Expiration Policies

At most colleges, your points or swipes expire at the end of each semester or year. Check your college website to review their specific policy. As the expiration date approaches, make an extra effort to use up whatever will not carry over. Some colleges even allow you to use these points to order food and drinks in bulk.

4. Mix Food Stations

If one station isn’t working for you, don’t waste money on something you don’t want. Try combining stations. A piece of chicken from the grill is a great topping to add to a simple salad from the salad bar.

5. Take Food to Go

While some schools frown on this, sometimes you’re on-the-go or just want a snack for later. Bringing plastic bags or small containers to the dining hall can be a great way to have leftovers.

6. Bring a Travel Mug

Instead of buying coffee or other drinks, bring mugs or travel cups with you to the dining hall and fill them up.

7. Check the Menu in Advance

Most colleges put their weekly dining hall menus online. If there is nothing in the dining hall worth paying for, opt for a different eatery on campus or cooking something in your dorm.

8. Have an Affordable Back-up Meal

This is wise for when you’re in the dining hall and your budget is tight. Some of my cheapest go-to backup meals were a toasted bagel or a simple salad. Chances are there’s at least one or two things that, while not your top choice, can still be a decent, budget-friendly meal.

9. Choose the Right Time

Like in the real world, college dining halls have a breakfast, lunch and dinner rush. The more you visit the dining hall, the more you’ll learn when these times are. This is typically right after evening classes, right before morning classes and around noon. If possible, visit the dining hall before peak times so you have more options to choose from.

Also, avoid arriving at the tail end of popular meal times. For example, my campus dining hall served “light fare” after lunch and before dinner, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., which meant there were limited dining options and it wasn’t worth the cost of a meal swipe.

10. Ask About Your Dietary Needs

Many schools offer options for those who are gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian. Get the most out of your meal plan by ensuring you can eat safely and comfortably with alternative options.

11. Plan Ahead

If you have limited swipes, plan carefully. It might be better to use a swipe for a filling dinner than for a light breakfast where you only want coffee and cereal, things you can buy and make in your dorm.

12. Check Local Restaurants

In some towns, some local restaurants and cafes accept meal swipes and dining plan points as a form of payment. This is especially convenient when you’re nearing the end of the semester and are seeking ways to use up your points before they expire.

13. Get Rid of the Plan

While this isn’t recommended for most freshmen with limited access to kitchens, if you end up in a living situation with a kitchen you may want to nix the meal plan altogether. Just be careful — if you cut the meal plan and end up never cooking in favor of ordering pizza every night, it can be easy to blow your entire budget very quickly.

14. Keep Food in Your Dorm

It can be cheaper to make your own trips to the grocery store for some foods, especially when on the pay-per-item plan. For example, if your go-to morning breakfast is a bowl of cereal, buying a box of it and a half gallon of milk to keep in your dorm can be the cheaper, more convenient option.

Or, if you find you’re not that hungry it’s good to have some crackers and microwavable meals to avoid wasting a costly meal swipe.

15. Charge Your Meal Plan on a Cash Back Card

If you’re going to be paying for it anyway, see if you can charge your meal plan cost to a rewards credit card. By doing so, you can earn cash back for an essential cost. Most good rewards cards require a decent credit score, so it’s wise to check yours before applying. You can check two credit scores for free with Credit.com.

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