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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By McKenzie Richmond, Intern
| August 7, 2019
College sticker shock when you first see the bill for tuition, room and board (and all those nebulous activity fees) is bad enough. With the excitement and stress that accompany the move to college, it’s easy to let down your guard and pull out the plastic for a whole lot of … stuff. Sure, you want what’s best for your child, but a lot has changed since you trundled off to college. And, as ever, you don’t have to say yes to everything your kid wants.
More and more universities are switching to textbooks accessed digitally. Students need to purchase a subscription code to complete homework assignments and take quizzes. Those codes can’t be shared or exchanged between students, so there’s no sneaky savings to be gained by, say, pairing up with a classmate as might have been done in the days of print.
If your student is more hands-on and prefers having ten pounds of textbook by his or her side, rental programs help students avoid paying unfathomable new-book prices.
SlugBooks.com , CampusBooks.com and BookFinder.com help you comparison-shop for new and used books, e-books and rentals. Alternatively, look for students selling used books early in the semester; they will often charge lower prices than any online retailer.
While laptops are a must-have for students, pick carefully to avoid paying for unnecessary features.
Battery life, storage for assignments, and light weight are the most important attributes for most students. Premium features such as a 4K display are nice to have — and manufacturers would love you to buy a computer that has them — but they drive the cost up. And as beautiful as it looks, running a 4K display significantly reduces battery life.
Stick to the basics and you can find a laptop that will serve you well for between $500 and $1,000. Here are three great examples.
The ASUS Chromebook Flip C434 is affordable at just $569.99 (retail), but it looks anything but low-rent. The 14-inch FHD 4way NanoEdge touch 2-in-1 display has tiny bezels and the slim, all-aluminum, two-in-one body weighs just three pounds. Use it as a laptop powered by Google’s Chrome OS and G Suite apps, with ASUS’s innovative ErgoLift hinge making typing with the backlit keyboard more comfortable. Rotate the display 360 degrees and use it as a tablet, able to run Android apps from Google Play. Storage is just 64GB, but with G Suite your files are saved in the cloud. The Chromebook Flip C434 boasts up to 10 hours of battery life so you can leave the charger at your dorm.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6 is a refined, ultra-slim tablet with an amazing 12.3-inch PixelSense Display. Although this is a tablet, it runs Windows 10 and all your favorite Windows applications. It boasts eighth generation Intel Core CPUs, solid state storage and up to 13.5 hours of battery life. Add a Microsoft Type Cover and it transforms into an ultra-thin laptop that weighs less than two pounds. Microsoft is offering a back-to-school bundle, with a Surface Pro 6 (Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM and 128GB SSD) plus a Type Cover for $799 (retail $1,059).
Apple’s MacBook Air has always been popular with students, and the all-new version released last fall makes it more compelling than ever. Apple offers a discounted student price of $999 on the 2018 MacBook Air with eighth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, Force Touch trackpad, Touch ID, a pair of USB-C Thunderbolt ports, a 13-inch Retina display and 12 hours of battery life. In addition, Apple has a back-to-school promotion (valid until September 26) that nets you a free pair of Beats Studio³ wireless headphones (MSRP $349.95) with the purchase of a MacBook Air.
Parents may recall the satisfaction of handing in a nicely formatted and weighty paper, but that’s a bygone. Online assignment submissions programs, such as DropBox.com, are taking over. These programs make it easier for the professors to put each assignment through proofreading software to check instantly for plagiarism and grammar errors. If a class does requires a hard copy of a paper, most schools have computer labs where students can print for only pennies a page.
Still not convinced to forgo the printer? Consider the cost. Even the very cheapest printer is $40. It’s another $70 to replace all four ink cartridges, and $4 per pack of paper.
In a nine-month academic year, a new small sedan would rack up about $5,000 in expenses, including costs for gas, depreciation, standard maintenance and insurance, according to AAA (yes, a used car would be less). Parking permits and any tickets or breakdowns would add even more to the bill. For students living on campus, bringing a car to college is more of a hassle than it’s worth. Keeping the car parked at home could lower insurance premiums, too.
If you won’t be living on campus, then a car may be a necessity to get to classes, a job or other obligations. If you must bring your car, then get the most out of it by earning some extra cash. Have you ever considered becoming an rideshare driver? For Uber, drivers must own a four-door vehicle, have a valid U.S. driver’s license and have at least one year of licensed experience in the U.S. (three years if they’re under age 23). You must also pass the driver screening online, which includes a review of driving and criminal records.
Keep in mind that colleges often discourage (or sometimes outright ban) vehicle ownership among residential students, because of the burden it puts on the municipality.
Some debit cards are used to disburse a student’s financial aid refund (the balance after bills for tuition, room and board, and fees are paid). But when financial institutions pay schools for permission to market directly to students, fees spike. Students at these schools paid an average of 2.3 times more in fees than students at schools without such agreements, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group.
So, maybe your debit card is one place you can skip displaying your college logo. We recommend opening an account for your child at a bank that is close to campus and has nationwide coverage. Or consider opening an online checking account with a bank that doesn’t charge ATM fees or that refunds ATM surcharges by other banks, such as Ally Bank or Discover Bank. Capital One 360 is another good option to consider for fee-free banking with kid-friendly options for overdraft protection.
Parents’ instinctual fear of under nourishing their child often means they load up their new student’s meal account with enough money to feed the football team, or at least guarantee the “freshman 15.” Often, money added to on a meal plan does not roll over from year to year – if you don’t use the money, you lose it. Best to start low and see how much your student eats. Many colleges give you the opportunity to replenish meal-plan funds midyear. You could also supplement your kid’s meal plan with gift cards to the local grocery (or restaurants). Or you can buy gift cards at GiftCertificates.com.
If you have family health coverage, your child may still be covered under that plan when he or she goes to college. Health insurers that provide dependent coverage must continue to cover adult children until they turn 26. If your plan does not cover out-of-network costs, a campus health-insurance plan may be a more cost-effective option. Compare the price of campus insurance with the cost of keeping the student on your policy and paying extra for any out-of-network care or clinic visits. "Be aware that many schools require kids to show proof of insurance before they start, and some will automatically enroll students in the campus insurance if they don't actively opt out by showing proof of alternative insurance, says Lisa Zamosky, senior director of consumer affairs for eHealth.inc.
Some college policies have low coverage maximums, which could leave you with thousands of dollars in uninsured expenses. Your child can also buy an individual policy through the local health insurance exchange (search by state at Healthcare.gov).
Most institutions will provide, at a minimum, a bed, mattress, desk and a chair for residential students – and might well not leave you much room for anything else. Before going off to buy furniture, be sure to check what the school dormitories and houses provide as well as room. If you feel obligated to bring something, consider a rug to make the floor a bit softer, or a bean bag or a foldable chair for when friends come over.
Laundry takes time, but outsourcing it costs money. Wash and fold services such as DormMom.com and UniversityLaundry.com can cost hundreds of dollars. Miss pickup day and you’re out of luck. Heavy, wet towels from your midnight fountain jump? You could get hit for overweight charges.
Alternatively, a $12 box of Tide Pods will clean 42 loads of laundry. Assuming you do two loads of laundry a week, that would last you 21 weeks –longer than a college semester. Add maybe $100 for the coin-operated machines at your college, and you’ll still be way ahead. Think you don’t have time to wash clothes? Take your homework to the laundry room – the white noise can create a great study environment.
Not only will doing laundry yourself save you some money, but it will likely save your clothes from getting lost, shrunk or turned pink from being washed with someone’s brand-new collegiate red sweater.
If you’re living in a dormitory or residence hall on campus, skip the toolbox for decorating. Even minor holes from hanging a painting or TV set can be subject to charge at the end of the school year – at the University of Central Arkansas, for example, residents will be charged $15 per nail hole. Hanging Command Strips from 3M will let you hang your wall décor (even fairly heavy stuff) and leave the walls clean to avoid charges.
When you move in, take any report you get on your room’s condition seriously, and if you spot damage from the year before, follow up immediately.
The hefty price tag on higher education makes it hard to avoid student loans, but if possible, steer clear of private student loans. They usually carry variable rates (as opposed to the fixed rates of federal loans), have fewer repayment options and allow students to rack up high balances.
Start with the free money (scholarships and grants). Then max out federal loans (subsidized first, then unsubsidized) before even considering private debt. If you’ve maxed out on Federal loans and are considering sizable private loans to fill the gap, there’s a decent chance you’re overborrowing.
For safety reasons, students living in campus housing are often prohibited from having a variety of household items. Seems obvious that you shouldn’t bring them, right? And yet, no matter how much schools publicize the list of prohibited items, students bring them.
Plenty of fancy coffee makers, toaster ovens, space heaters, candles, etc. end up being confiscated and are rarely collected back by forgetful students at the end of the year. (It’s a bounty for residential advisers!) Save your student potential shaming by checking what’s permissible in campus housing.