The Cost of College Life

College expenses can add up quick. Learn what to expect and how to plan.

College student backpack - understanding the cost of college is key to getting you prepared before you go.

One of the many mysteries of college, especially freshman year, is what it’s 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.

Starting Up

Typical start-up costs include these items:

  • Laptop computer
  • Tablet
  • Textbooks
  • Class, lab and studio fees
  • Bedding and towels
  • Small fridge and other appliances

Some things, like a laptop, you may already have, which can help reduce the cost of your pre-school shopping.

It’s smart 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 a student who has moved off campus.

Everyday Costs

You’ll probably be amazed at how fast cash can disappear if you’ve never lived on your own before.

Say you’re hungry when you finally finish a paper and the only thing in your fridge is soda. 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 expenses you’re likely to have:

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

Coordinating with Roommates

Colleges often help new roommates exchange 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 getting 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, it turns out you’re actually not allowed to have a microwave in your room. If you didn’t keep the receipt, there’s no way to return it and get your money back.

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 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. They can help 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.

Unavoidable Costs

Some costs—like your cell phone service and your rent if you’re living off campus—are typically fixed by contracts you sign. 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 can reduce your rent, though it might be a little crowded.

Other costs are variable—that is, they change from month to month. You’ve got a little more flexibility with these costs—food and clothing, for example—since you can always cut back if you’re running low on cash. One solid way to reduce costs is to get serious about sustainability. Refilling a water bottle is cheaper than buying bottled water and 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 charge to hear a band. Learn to say no when you need to for the sake of your budget, and make a habit of suggesting free or low-cost things to do for fun. These habits can help you in college and after you graduate.

Paying for College

Learn more about paying for college with:

Reading List

Gear up for college with these student resources:

Student-Friendly Tools

Explore our financial tools for students:

Related Articles

Parents with son looking online at Private Student Loan options available at UWCU.

Paying for College with Student Loans

When savings and scholarships aren’t enough to fund your education, student loans are an option to consider.

Read More
UW Credit Union member looking at refinancing options online

4 Reasons to Consider Refinancing

Refinancing is a tool you can use to get a better hold on your finances. Here are four ways you can deploy it.

Read More
Couple reviewing paperwork and planning how to consolidate their debt by refinancing.

Consolidating Debt through Refinancing

Sometimes it’s wise to trade your original loan for one with a better term or interest rate.

Read More