Student Expenses

By: Gary Foreman

I have been desperately searching for information regarding budgets for college student spending. Our daughter needs some reigning in and I am trying to find some guidelines as to what is reasonable in this day and age.

Becky faces a common problem. Most students entering college have limited financial education. And, moving out of the house for the first time can create problems.

The actual costs of college, like tuition and fees, are generally known. Usually it's the 'living expenses' and other incidental costs that throw budgets out of whack.

Becky's daughter's college probably has some 'cost of attendance' guidelines that are meant to provide an idea of how much students will spend while attending school. For instance, the University of Florida figures that a student living on campus will spend $5,800 on housing and meals and a total of $12,140 during fall and spring semesters. Rutgers estimates $1,700 for clothing, toiletries and spending money.

Becky and her daughter have already probably made some decisions that will affect her budget. For instance, the University of Arizona estimates that the difference between living at home and living on campus is $4,580.

Unfortunately, many school estimates are too low. Whether the schools purposely keep the costs low to look attractive or they just underestimate what students spend, Becky shouldn't use the estimate as final word on what her daughter should spend.

The cost of books is often underestimated. Some suggest that a student can expect to spend twice the estimate on textbooks. In figuring transportation costs, most schools assume two trips home per year. In practice, many students come home much more frequently. Fortunately, both of these categories are easy to track.

So what about everything else? There are a number of different things that could help. The first thing is to remember that what Becky teaches her daughter now will affect the rest of her life.

In the old days students didn't spend money that they didn't have. So the expenses of a college student were limited by how much money they had.

Clearly student loans and credit cards have changed the equation. The average student runs up nearly $19,000 in debt during college. By the time they're seniors nearly one third are carrying credit card balances of $3,000 or more.

Many graduates are finding their options limited by their debts. They're forced to delay new cars, expected weddings, new homes and starting a family. Grad schools and employers look at a graduate's credit score. So ignoring the debt isn't an option.

Ideally, Becky's daughter would get a credit card during college and use it wisely. By the time she graduated she would have created a good credit history.

Becky should monitor her daughter's use of credit. Depending on their relationship, Becky might want to have a duplicate copy of the monthly statement sent directly to her.

If her daughter overuses a credit card, Becky might want to consider a prepaid credit card. That limits spending to what Becky prepays.

And, don't forget, if a student is 18, a parent's permission isn't required to get a credit card. So they could have a card that you don't even know about.

Becky's tone suggests that her daughter would rather continue her current spending patterns. That's understandable, but whatever patterns she sets up now will probably last a lifetime.

Usually the problem areas are food and entertainment. But Becky won't find a black and white answer as to how much her daughter should spend. Just as each family needs to create their own budget, each student's needs are different.

It's easy to see why food is a problem. Compared to cooking for one or visiting the student cafeteria, going out to a nearby restaurant or calling in for pizza will always look better to a student. But that can add $5 to the cost of every meal. Becky's daughter can quickly blow an extra $100. To avoid problems they'll need to decide how many 'premium' meals our student can afford.

Becky's daughter will also have plenty of opportunities to spend money on entertainment. There's always someone who wants to take a break and go to a movie or find some other fun. And even your cheapo university theatre can swallow a $10 bill if popcorn is involved!

Chances are that Becky and her daughter have already handled major items like living on or off campus and how often the daughter should come home. Ideally they'll agree on how much should be allocated for things like food, entertainment and clothing. Then our favorite student can use her budget to keep control of expenses. And, in the process, develop habits that will serve her well for years.

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edit's The Dollar Stretcher website where you'll find thousands of articles to help you stretch your day and your dollar.

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