To cut costs, buy textbooks online and leave the car at home.
Julie Davis is one college student who knows the value of a dollar. Davis is working three part-time jobs this summer to pay for her fall semester at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She estimates it will cost her almost $7,000 in tuition, apartment rent and miscellaneous expenses. To save money last year, Davis rarely ate meals on campus (too pricey) and sometimes borrowed textbooks from friends rather than shelling out $125 or more for new ones. "I buy stuff, but I make sure it's what I really want," says Davis, 19, a health-administration major who saved the money to buy her 1999 Pontiac Sunfire.
Not every student needs to be as thrifty as Davis, but every family can trim college expenses beyond tuition and housing. The College Board estimates that a moderate budget for miscellaneous expenses (excluding transportation) is $3,700 per school year. Mark Kantrowitz, of FinAid.org, says that families should budget $250 a month for incidentals other than books.
In a survey conducted by Zogby International, students and parents agreed that their biggest expense other than tuition, room and board, and books was car upkeep. You'll save a bundle if your kids hoof it or follow Bianca Glenn's example: She buys a monthly bus pass for $50 to attend Oakland Community College, which is 13 miles from her home in Detroit.
Buy the book
Cars may cost more, but the price of textbooks was the most shocking expense to the parents and students Zogby surveyed. A study last year by the State Public Interest Research Groups estimates students spend an average of $900 per year on books. To save money, students like Davis share texts. Others set up more formal systems for cutting out the middleman. At the University of Michigan, students auction books at TheDiag.com.
The Internet is fertile ground for textbook bargains. Before you start shopping, get the title, author and ISBN number of each book you need. Then head to sites such as Craigslist.org, eBay's Half.com and PIRG's CampusBookSwap.com. BigWords.com will search the Web for the best prices on textbooks.
Take a look at return policies before buying. Some sellers give a full refund if a book is returned within 30 days -- a boon if your child decides to drop the class. Keep in mind that textbook prices are highest online in August, September, January and February, according to Half.com. So if your kids know they will be taking a class the following semester, they should confirm the text with the professor and buy it online in mid semester.
Students can recoup some money by selling their used books informally or online. But if they plan to do so, they should use their books gently, says Marie O'Malley, of Nellie Mae, the student-loan-financing agency. "Bookstores and students don't want books that are heavily marked, or that have torn pages or broken bindings."
The Zogby study reports that 89% of college students have cell phones. One dad complained that the most shocking cost he encountered was "that darned cell-phone bill." To avoid surprises, compare cell-phone plans this summer at sites such as BillSaver.com and MyRatePlan.com. And check sites such as Cellreception.com to make sure that there's good service on campus; some carriers entice students with special discounts or enhanced service.
Above all, let your kids know that if they exceed their plan's allotted minutes, they'll pay the extra charges.