Cost of College Life

college student walking outside

posted July 13, 2020 in Blogs

One of the many mysteries of college, especially your freshman year, is the rude awakening of what it’s actually going to cost you to be there. Sure, you know about tuition. If you’re living in a residence hall or apartment, 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 the big unknown.

Starting Up

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

  • Laptop
  • Computer software
  • Textbooks and materials
  • Class, lab, and studio fees
  • Bedding and towels
  • Fridge and other appliances

When possible, it’s a great idea to avoid buying something you’ll only need for a year or two. For example, you may want to consider borrowing the traditional extra-long twin sheets you’ll need from a sibling or another friend who’s moved off-campus.

Everyday Cost

As a heads up: you’ll be amazed how fast cash will disappear if you’ve never lived on your own before.

Let’s say you’re starving and want to reward yourself when you finally finish that 12-page paper and the only thing in your fridge is butter and ketchup. You can’t pay for pizza delivery with your meal plan card, so it’s down to what you have left of your cash or another swipe on your debit card.

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

  • Toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, make-up, etc.
  • Laundry
  • Coffee and snacks
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Sporting events and tickets to activities

Coordinating with Roommates

Colleges often give new roommates each other’s contact information before school starts. If you have the opportunity, be in touch to figure out how you can share expenses—to avoid bringing duplicate "sharable" items. This will help your wallet and you’ll avoid the argument with your family when you realize your roommate already brought a mini-fridge and microwave after they hauled it up the residence hall stairs.

Messy Money Moments

Receipts may seem 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 purchases 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 or don’t need. While most stores will still allow returns without a receipt, they typically only offer store credit or the lowest price the item has sold for in the last ‘x’ amount of days, which can be drastically lower than what you paid. Keeping receipts and records of your purchases is always a good idea, as it allows you to prove what you paid for something in the case of a return or exchange, or if the item turns out to be faulty or defective in some way.

Unavoidable Costs

Some costs are fixed by contracts you sign—like your phone agreement and rent if you’re living off campus. It works in your favor that these costs are the same amount every month, because you can budget for them. But if you don’t pay in full, you’ll eventually find yourself without some of life’s necessities.

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. Or signing a lease with more roommates to split rent and utility costs with.

Other costs are variable, and change from month to month. With these types of costs, you have a little more flexibility—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 far better for the environment. Shopping at discount grocery and clothing stores can help reduce costs, or even buying staple items in bulk if you can afford the higher upfront cost.

It may be very difficult to walk the line between what you want and what you need, especially if some of your new friends never seem to think twice about going out to dinner or paying a $10 cover to hear a band.

Tips from GICU to you:

  • Take the bus wherever you can – you’ll save on gas money and pesky parking tickets. Plus, you can use the time on the bus to prepare for/decompress after your day of classes.
  • Shop smart – make a grocery list and stick to it. Have a busy week of classes/exams? Plan to purchase make-ahead meals at the grocery store. Even with the slightly higher prices, you’ll still save money when comparing to steep take-out/delivery prices!
  • Research before purchasing – in many cases, on campus retailers will be priced much higher than other box stores because of the convenience they provide. Shop around before committing.
  • Prioritize your purchases – Realize your dorm room or apartment don't need to look like they belong in a magazine. Hand-me-downs and second hand purchases can show your personal style just as much!
  • Plan ahead for snacks – there’s nothing worse than sitting in a lecture hall when your stomach starts to growl. Sure, there is probably a café in every building, but packing non-perishable snacks can save you a considerable amount of money!
  • Consider easy ways to make money – while we strongly suggest focusing on your studies your first semester, once you’ve learned the art of time-management, consider ways to make money to fund your ‘Fun Money Account’. Such as participating in campus research studies, tutoring students, becoming an event staff employee for events on campus, donating plasma, baby-sitting, refereeing for intramural sports, etc.
  • Don’t let pre-paid resources go to waste – if you choose to purchase a meal plan, be strategic about using every meal you have paid for. Try to also use on-campus resources to your advantage. There are typically study groups and/or tutors available to you for many classes at no-cost. Instead of paying for a ticket to a concert or comedian off campus, look up what performers are coming to campus that you can attend for free!
  • Stay true to yourself – Just because your roommates and friends are buying new clothes and ordering delivery every night, doesn’t mean you have to join in. Get comfortable with saying no to things you don’t see value in. Your bank account will thank you later!
  • Look for student discounts – many retailers in college towns offer student discounts to gain business.
  • Apply for all scholarships you’re eligible for – even after your first year, still research what scholarship opportunities may be available for you.
  • Don’t forget to have fun - last but not least, remember college is a time for you to try new things when you have very little at stake!
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