by Shannon Vasconcelos, former financial aid officer at Tufts University
College is expensive. I’m confident that this is news to exactly zero parents reading this article. But what we sometimes fail to appreciate as parents is the control that we, along with our children—the college consumers—have over college costs, even after a college choice has been made. While it’s true that students and parents don’t get to vote on tuition prices (boy, would that be nice!), we do have significant power over the large and small choices that can end up increasing or decreasing our child’s educational costs significantly. Here are a handful of ways you can save money as your child prepares to head off to school, and throughout their college enrollment.
- Have you traditionally served as your child’s alarm clock and you can’t imagine them actually making it to the dining hall for breakfast? Reduce their meal plan from three to two meals per day. You’ll save a ton of money on board costs, some of which you can use to keep your child’s dorm room outfitted in a stash of granola bars, apples, and string cheese for breakfast on the run.
- Don’t buy new textbooks unless absolutely necessary. We old-timers always had the option of buying used books or checking books out of the library, but today’s budget-minded students have so many more options to save money on books. Electronic versions are often available, and textbooks can be rented online at sites like Chegg and Amazon.
- Encourage your child to resist the urge to keep up with the Joneses. College is sometimes the first experience kids have with people outside of their socio-economic group and, when they cultivate friendships with students whose parents provide money on demand, it can be difficult for budget-minded students to maintain their frugality. Give your child permission to say yes to the occasional splurge, but help them to stay strong against peer pressure to go out for dinner and drinks every night, or to buy the latest gadgets and fashion. Point them in the direction of free entertainment on campus, and urge them to find a few similarly economical friends who can appreciate the fun of a movie and microwave popcorn in the dorm. When gentle nudges toward frugality don’t sink in, tightening the purse strings can drive the message home out of necessity.
- Don’t send a car to campus with your child. Parking, gas, and insurance are all expensive, and many college towns have free or cheap public transportation that students can take advantage of. Also, let your auto insurance provider know that your child is going away to college. If the college is far enough away that your child won’t be driving your car on a regular basis, you may be eligible for a significant discount on your insurance.
- Did you purchase the college’s health insurance plan? Not sure? Check your billing statement, as most colleges bill you for insurance automatically. But the good news is, you probably don’t need the college’s plan! You can generally keep your child covered as a dependent under your employer-sponsored health plan, and that usually provides better coverage at lower cost than a college-sponsored plan. Just make sure your child can seek care at their college’s health service center with little extra cost under your existing plan. If so, fill out the paperwork to waive coverage by the college. Why pay for something you don’t need?
- Don’t borrow any more than you have to! Perhaps you need to borrow to cover tuition, but your child can cover living expenses through their summer earnings? Or maybe you can finance a portion of the college bill through a monthly payment plan? Your child’s college likely let you know the maximum amount your family is eligible to borrow in college loans, but you don’t have to accept the full amount offered. You can reduce or cancel any student loan, and can even ask the Financial Aid Office to return loan funds you’ve already received. Remember that anything you buy with student or parent loans costs you much more than the sticker price due to the interest you’re being charged on the loan, so don’t borrow any more than what you really need.
Paying for college is nearly always a challenge, but there are proactive steps that students and parents can take to make things a little (or a lot!) easier on themselves. Note the above tips—and discuss them with your child—to ensure that you don’t spend any more on college than you really have to.