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.
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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. In other cases, some students may think it’s necessary and cost-effective to buy a printer for their dorm or apartment and share the costs of ink and paper with their roommates. Still others may find it necessary to take their car to class, especially if they live off campus and drive back home for the holidays or extended weekends. 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. And with the average price of a textbook rising more than 20% in the past five years, it’s not a moment too soon. 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 or rent.
Bigwords.com, CampusBooks.com and DealOz.com help you comparison-shop for new and used books, e-books and rentals. You can even save some trees by renting or buying e-textbooks from such retailers as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, which 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. You don’t need the top-of-the-line Apple MacBook Pro, with all the bells and whistles, to get you through a semester of English lit, geography or even statistics. But you shouldn’t feel obligated to buy the basic model laptop or desktop, either. Look for a computer that fits both your academic and extracurricular needs and lasts a long time. Cloud computers are cheap and gaining popularity, but their Web-centric focus of storing data virtually, limitations if you have a bad Internet connection, and inability to physically connect to a printer won't make the grade for a student's first year in college.
The Samsung ATIV Book 4 is a favorite of ours. Powerful, portable and affordable, this laptop is ideal for streaming movies, playing video games or cranking out that 20-page paper on comparative politics at 2 a.m. It has a 15.6-inch screen, weighs 4.6 pounds (ideal for carrying to class or the library) and has 8 gigabytes of memory and a 750GB hard drive. The Samsung is available at Best Buy for $700. For Mac users, consider the new, sleek MacBook Air. Its 4GB memory may be half that of the Samsung, but the Air is one of the nimblest and most durable computers on the market. Weighing only three pounds, it offers faster all-flash storage and up to 12 hours of battery life. The 13.3-inch version costs $1,050.
A printer. If you skip this, you'll save about $100 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 are likely already paying for. (Some schools include a technology fee -- $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. Sure, it’s tempting to stay ahead of the curve with the latest generation iPhone, but as the competition between Apple and Samsung continues to heat up, college students are benefiting from less-expensive models and plans.
One of our favorites is the Samsung Galaxy Victory (free after rebate with a two-year Sprint contract). It’s a 4G phone that runs Android 4.0, has a four-inch HD display with 233 pixels per inch, or PPI, and its 1.3-mexapixel front-facing camera is great for video chats (its 5-mexapixel rear camera is ideal for casual shots). What’s more, it features Samsung’s S Beam tool, which enables you to share photos, contacts, videos and links by tapping together two comparably equipped phones.
Another favorite is the Motorola Droid Razr M ($50 online with a two-year Verizon Wireless contract). For a lower-end phone, it is sleek and slim, with a vibrant 4.3-inch HD display with 256 PPI, an 8-megapixel rear camera and low-res front camera and 8GB of internal memory. The Razr M runs Android 4.1, supports 4G LTE and includes Android Beam for wireless sharing.
Still prefer an iPhone, but don’t want to pay $200 for the iPhone 5? Consider its predecessor iPhone 4, available from Verizon Wireless for $1 with a two-year contract. Although considered old hat by some, it’s a beautifully designed phone with a 326 PPI screen, and Apple’s App Store offers hundreds of thousands of helpful applications.
As for less-expensive, no-contract plans, check out WalMart’s Straight Talk plan, which offers unlimited voice, texting and data for $45 per month and a variety of smart phones. Or consider 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 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 TV set and/or Blu-ray player (newer models have built-in capabilities for Web access and apps), computer or a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox 360 gaming console, a PlayStation 3, a Wii or a Roku.
--TV Shows. Hulu.com lets you stream TV shows free from participating networks online. You can typically stream the five most recent episodes of a show’s current season free, and programs usually pop up on the site the day after they air on TV (Most Fox shows take eight days to access online after their air date, and current-season episodes of some CBS shows are available at CBS.com, but not on Hulu). Hulu also offers Hulu Plus, which for $8 a month gives you wider access to seasons of current and classic TV shows, thousands of movies (including films from the Criterion Collection) and limited advertising in 720p high definition. College students can get a two-week free trial if they sign up with their .edu e-mail address.
--Movies. For $8 a month, Netflix offers unlimited TV episodes and movies streaming online through a Web-enabled device. Redbox Instant by Verizon offers a smaller library of older films to steam (no TV programs), but for $8 a month you can get four DVD rentals from their ubiquitous kiosks, where you’ll find newer releases. Although many classic and older films are available for streaming, to see the newest releases you’ll have to rent or buy them individually. Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster On Demand, CinemaNow, iTunes and Vudu offer movies that you can rent (typically for 30 days) or purchase on demand.
--Sports. WatchESPN.com (streams live broadcasts of professional sports, such as professional baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis, and of course college basketball and football. You’ll need a paid-TV subscription to access much of the content, but those who use participating Internet service providers can view content through the site.