Plan for the indirect costs of college

You have grants and loans for tuition and books, a scholarship for housing, and a pre-paid meal plan. You’re all set for college, right?

Not so fast. While tuition, books, food and housing make up the lion’s share of college expenses, it’s not everything. Indirect costs can add up quickly if you’re unprepared for them. These expenses range from big (a car) to small (a shower curtain), but they all have one thing in common: they’re unexpected. Anticipating indirect expenses, calculating the probable cost and including these in your budget are the best way to ensure you aren’t caught short when the bill comes due.

School-based expenses

When you’re picking classes, pay attention to whether there are additional fees for field trips, lab expenses or equipment rental. Some classes, especially technical and scientific courses with associated labs, may require you to buy special clothing or equipment.

  • Most universities charge students an incidental fee which is paid at the same time as tuition. But if you plan to play a sport, there may be additional fees as well as expenses for uniforms and equipment.
  • You'll want to decorate your dorm room. Fortunately, there are many ways to save money on dorm room decor. As soon as you get your room and roommate assignment, contact your roommate and agree to split the shared items like microwave and fridge. You’ll want to buy good bedding. A quality mattress topper can make even the most wretched dorm room mattress tolerable. Everything else you can get at rock bottom prices from thrift stores and dollar stores. Watch the sales to buy towels and sheets.


  • College isn’t all work, but watch your entertainment expenses because those can spiral out of control quickly. Instead of paying for entertainment, have fun with inexpensive or free, on-campus activities.
  • Be careful with spring break. Instead of a week spent in a pricey hotel spending money on food and drinks, grab some friends and go camping in a state or national park. Or spend a week making a difference by engaging in direct service and volunteerism. Many campuses have affordable alternative break programs.
  • Plan affordable dates. Rent sports equipment from the university recreation center, like bicycles or tennis rackets. Go to art galleries, or go biking or hiking. Check your school’s online activities calendar for a list of free upcoming concerts, plays, comedy shows, lectures and other events.

Eat smart

  • If you or your parents purchased a meal plan, use it to the fullest. If you can’t eat every meal, maybe you can use it to stock up on snacks. Most campus dining rooms offer fruit or other portable food that make nutritious snacks.
  • Skip the fancy coffee. If you need caffeine to power through the day, get it from the dining hall or buy a coffee maker at a thrift store and become a dorm room barista.
  • Anticipate your snacking needs. Late night snack runs may fuel your study sessions, but it can be unnecessarily expensive. A trip to the discount grocery store during the day costs a lot less than a midnight trip to the drive-thru fast-food.

Balance the scales

  • Get a part-time job. Most college students have at least some free time. You can spend that time spending money, or you can spend it making money.
  • Buy your textbooks used, and sell them at the end of the semester. Keep any textbooks you may need in your professional life, but sell the rest. You’ll earn some cash, and you’ll be helping the next student control costs.

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