What does an actual college budget look like—and how can you be smart with yours? Here's a peek into one family's costs.
Lindsey is halfway through her sophomore year at the University of Kansas, so money spent during her freshman year has long been in the books. As parents, we spent exactly $17,435 on her first year expenses. Here's the breakdown:
• Room and board: $5,654
• Sorority: $3,258
• One-time expenses (computer, printer, dorm room furnishings): $2,322
• Fees (campus, technology, orientation, parking, sports pass, etc.): $1,976
• Books: $1,074
• Deposits (enrollment and housing): $500
What's not included in these numbers are college search costs (ACT prep and tests, application fees, and travel for college visits), travel expenses once she enrolled (KU is 30 minutes from our home), and spending money. (Lindsey will cover that below.)
[Can your family answer these five questions about college finances?]
And while I've broken our expenses down into logical categories—and the way you'll usually see costs laid out—I've come to learn that there's a different way to categorize college expenses:
• The cost of the education
• The cost of the college experience
In fact, only about $7,350 of our cost was for actual education—tuition, books, computer, and certain deposits and fees. The rest—more than $10,000—is the cost of the college experience: living on campus, belonging to a sorority, and attending sporting events. Our two most expensive categories, room and board and sorority costs, fell into the experience section.
[Consider this if you're thinking about Greek life.]
I don't regret those costs. I think the experience of college can be as important as the classroom education. But it is helpful to determine beforehand how much you're willing to spend on each and if it's worth going into debt for the college experience.
I am lucky in that my parents are covering nearly all of my college education—and out of pocket, too! That being said, I am still responsible for my "running money"—things like food, clothes, and gas money. Here is what the breakdown of my freshman year expenses looked like:
• Food: $651.79
• Clothing: $515.55
• Gas: $534.21
• Personal (cash withdrawals, travel, movie and concert tickets, books, haircuts, gifts, etc.): $1,063.34
• Miscellaneous (mostly Target runs): $779.71
A rough estimate of my total expenses for my freshman year is $3,544.60, including a few things I was later reimbursed for. As I was going through my bank statements to create this breakdown, I noticed that the bulk of my spending came in the first couple months of school. Some of this is to be expected because of those initial trips to places like the grocery store and Target, but I also learned as the year went on how to better control my spending.
One thing I've learned is to beware of the Target run—or trips to a similar store. I spent huge chunks of cash at Target last year on miscellaneous items that seemed important at the time, but now are things I can't seem to remember. If you're handling your spending for the first time when you go off to school, preserve your cash for things you want and need—and resist the temptation to throw things in your cart "just because."
Another unexpected cost for me was travel. Visiting my best friend in Tulsa, Okla., or going to Orlando with my aunt were great experiences, but I was unprepared for just how expensive they would be. It was cash I was willing to spend, but I wish I had budgeted better throughout the rest of the year to make those trips more affordable.
[Find out why everyone needs a budget.]
My goal for my sophomore year: Take better care of—and keep better track of—my money. Breaking down your expenses for even a month at a time can be a real eye opener, and it's something every college student should do regularly.