Editor's note: Our annual roundup of campus money wasters has been updated for 2012.
The sticker shock when you first see the bill for tuition, room and board, and all those nebulous fees is bad enough. With the excitement and stress that accompanies the move to college, it's easy to let down your guard and pony up the plastic for a whole lot of other expenses. Sure, you want what’s best for your child, but you don't have to say yes to every item on his or her wish list.
Of course, not all students' needs are the same -- students in engineering and medical studies, for example, may require new textbooks they’ll keep or a more powerful computer. But, generally speaking, here are 12 expenses campus life doesn't really require:
New textbooks. More and more universities are offering textbook rental programs to help students avoid paying unfathomable new-book prices. Check to see whether your university offers a rental program, which is most often available for the school's core-curriculum and prerequisite classes.
Save even more by comparison-shopping online for new and used textbooks for sale and for rent. You can even save some trees by licensing e-textbooks that you can access from your computer or mobile devices. Learn more in How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half – or More.
A high-end laptop or desktop computer. An inexpensive laptop or desktop should do the trick. Netbooks are cheap, but their small keyboards and still-slow processing speed won't make the grade for a student's first year in college. The updated Dell Inspiron 15R Intel Core i3 laptop is still our favorite powerful, portable and affordable laptop. It has a 15.6-inch screen, weighs 6.1 pounds, and has 6.5 gigabytes of memory and a 750GB hard drive. The Dell is available at Best Buy for $520 (a more powerful version with 8 gigabytes of memory and a 1TB hard drive sells for $620).
A printer. If you skip this, you'll save about $50 for a printer, $30 a pop for replacement ink and $9 per pack of paper. For less than $10, your teen could buy a flash drive instead, save his 20-page term paper on it and print the paper in the campus computer lab, which you may already be paying for. (Some schools include a technology fee in room-and-board costs -- $100 per semester in some cases.) Students may also have the option of sending files directly from their dorm room to a computer-lab printer. But make sure you ask about page limits and any printing fees.
A pricey smart-phone plan. Students may think that a smart phone -- especially an iPhone or a Droid -- is de rigueur to deal with the rigors of campus life, but contracts with data plans can run higher than $200 a month.
Fortunately, there are less-expensive, no-contract alternatives. Consider WalMart’s Straight Talk plan, which offers unlimited voice, texting and data for $45 per month and a variety of smart phones. If your kid texts more than talks, you might want to try Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk plans, which use Sprint's Nationwide Network. These plans come with unlimited messaging and data; 300 voice minutes per month is $35, while 1,200 minutes per month is $45. Unlimited minutes will cost $55 per month. Boost Mobile, which also runs on Sprint’s network, starts with a $55-per-month plan for an Android phone with unlimited talking, texting and data (make on-time payments for 18 months and the monthly price drops to $40).
Of course, if you have a family plan, you should consider if it’s worth keeping your child on it versus getting him a prepaid plan. To learn more, read Smart Ways to Save on Smart-Phone Plans.
Cable TV. Cut this additional expense by accessing a wide variety of current entertainment and news online. You can stream programs from your computer or a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox 360 gaming console, a Playstation 3, a Wii or a TiVo:
--TV Shows. XfinityTV.com and Hulu.com, for example, let you stream TV shows free. You can also catch recent episodes of your favorite shows at the networks’ own sites. Hulu.com now offers Hulu Plus, which for $8 a month gives you access to seasons of more than 1,000 current and classic TV shows, thousands of movies (including films from the Criterion Collection) and limited commercial introduction in 720p high definition. College students can get a two-week free trial if they sign up with their .edu e-mail address.
--Movies. Netflix offers for $8 a month unlimited TV episodes and movies streaming online through a Web-enabled device.
--Sports. WatchESPN (formerly ESPN3.com) streams live broadcasts of professional sports, such as professional baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis, and of course college basketball and football. You can stream WatchESPN content to an Xbox 360, but you must have an Xbox Live Gold membership, which starts at $5 a month, or $60 a year (same goes for streaming Netflix content with the Xbox 360).