The College Expenses Financial Aid Officers Don’t Warn You About

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When you’re trying to compare college costs, it can be tough to figure out exactly how much four to five years of school will really cost you—especially since the cost-of-attendance estimates that colleges post to their websites are notoriously vague.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Higher Education, almost half of the cost-of-living estimates that colleges provided to prospective students for the 2013 to 2014 school year were off by at least 20 percent.

However, as traditional college costs continue to rise, it’s important to look beyond the estimates provided by your school and tally potential expenses as closely as possible. That way you aren’t caught by surprise when unforeseen expenses, such as off-campus housing or internship attire, cause your spending to rise well above a college’s estimated cost-of-attendance. 

Here are five potential expenses that could significantly increase the total amount you have to pay while you’re in school:

1. Off-Campus Housing

The cost-of-living estimate you receive from a college’s financial aid office may accurately describe how much you’d pay if you lived on campus and subsisted on the campus meal plan; but it may not accurately describe how much you’d pay if you lived off campus. That could be important information if you later find you can’t stay in a college dorm. Not all colleges have enough room to accommodate everyone who wants campus housing.

Before settling on a new school, research the area’s cost-of-living to make sure you’ll be able to afford housing near your school. If your college is located in an urban area, you could find yourself looking for housing in a region where one-bedroom apartments rent for as much as $1,000 to $2,000 or more a month.

If you’re forced to live farther away from school, you’ll then have to take into account higher gas or public transportation costs. You’ll also have to factor in how much you would spend on food if you shopped and cooked for yourself. To get a rough idea of how much you might pay, compare the average cost of living between various college towns using online tools, such as Numbeo or Sperling’s Best Places.

2. Moving Expenses

Unless you go to college in the same city as your high school and choose to live with your parents, you will likely spend a significant amount of money traveling to school and moving your belongings. If you live in a dorm, you will have to move at least twice a year since students are generally not allowed to stay in their old dormitories over the summer. If you’re far from home, you may also have to find a storage facility for your larger belongings, such as miniature refrigerators and other dorm furnishings. Use a comparison service, such as SpareFoot or Storage.com, to check the prices of nearby storage units. If you’re moving furniture or other bulky items, you can also compare the price of movers in the region using moving sites, such as Unpakt or Moving.com.

Travel: 

The amount of money you spend on travel could also vary wildly, depending on how far from home you’ll be, how often you plan to visit your family and whether or not you plan to live on campus. You could find yourself paying a significant amount out of pocket in order to get to work or to an internship off campus or for general entertainment. Some academic programs also require an unusual amount of travel. For example, a class you’re taking may require a large number of field trips you have to fund yourself. Or, you may be required to volunteer regularly at a location far from school. Add up the cost of flights or road trips to your parents’ house and think realistically about how often you’ll want to visit. If you plan to bring a car, research car insurance rates in your new town using an online quote service such as carinsurance.com, insurance.com or insure.com.

You can also use GasBuddy to get a sense of how much you may be paying for gas. If you plan to use public transportation, look up daily rates and monthly passes for bus and train services in the area and try to guess how often you’ll ride.

Internships and Other Extracurricular Activities:

How you spend your time outside of class can also have a significant impact on your budget. For example, if you choose to intern during the school year, you’ll not only have to spend more money commuting to your new gig; you may also have to spend money on professional work outfits, such as a suit or casual work attire. In addition, you could find yourself spending more on lunches out and Happy Hour, particularly if your coworkers like to socialize out of the office. The amount you spend on activity fees and other extracurricular expenses could also significantly exceed the estimate provided by your college. For example, you may have to spend extra money on sports equipment or athletic gear. Some extracurricular groups may also charge higher fees. Think about what clubs or sports you plan to join and, if possible, ask around to get a sense of average costs.

Healthcare:

If you’re on your parents’ health insurance policy rather than your university’s health insurance plan and go to school out of network, you could wind up paying significantly more if you have to visit a local hospital or an urgent care clinic. Your college may have its own healthcare clinic, but it could be closed on weekends, or it may not offer the kind of specialized care you need. Before you pick a college, also take a look at whether the region’s healthcare costs are likely to be affordable or more expensive than average. It’s generally difficult to compare healthcare costs, but you can get a rough idea of how a region compares by looking at data from healthcare sites such as Fair Health, Healthcare Bluebook or New Choice Health.