How to Budget and Plan After You're Accepted to College

iStock_000013609451Small.jpg

You’ve just received the letter you’ve been waiting months for – you’ve been accepted to college. Congratulations!

Underneath all that excitement, you might be a little nervous about what you should do next. After all, college is a huge milestone. It means leaving home and embarking on your own journey. You get to be completely independent for (likely) the first time in your life.

You'll also need to budget and plan your finances for the first time in your life.

You might get a credit card for the first time. You'll be paying more of your own bills. College life requires a new level of financial responsibility.

Being anxious is normal. However, planning your next move doesn’t involve any rocket science (even if you major in aerospace engineering). We’ve broken all the steps down for you, and included college budgeting tips for each step of the process.

Step 1: Revisit Colleges

Are you struggling to choose between colleges? Maybe one program is slightly better than the other? Maybe one location is more appealing?

Make it a point to revisit the campuses of the colleges in question. Explain to your parents it’s important for you to make the right decision, and you need to take another look to do that.

Budgeting tip: Talk to your parents about whether or not they'll help cover the cost of college visits. If they won't, and you need to pay for this visit out-of-pocket, start setting aside money now.

If you know other students considering the same college, coordinate a trip together to save money on gasoline, buy food at grocery stores instead of dining out, and look for motels or even camping options for accommodation.

Should you bother paying the expense of another college visit? I'd argue that the answer is yes.

This is where you’re going to be spending the next four (or more) years of your life. If something didn’t feel right the first time you went to visit, you need to go back and see if that feeling is gone. If not, your gut might be telling you something.

While you’re visiting campuses, schedule a time to meet with the department head of your major (if you’ve declared one). Above all else, you want ​to receive the best education possible so you’re successful upon graduation (and you can repay those student loans!)

Step 2: Review Financial Aid

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices of where you want to attend, review all the financial aid packages that were offered. Go through them with your parents, as they need to be involved in the process.

If either of you have questions or concerns, call up the Financial Aid office of the college in question and get clarification. Paying for college is probably going to be one of the most expensive “purchases” you make aside from buying a house. You don’t want to leave anything to chance.

Has your parents’ financial situation changed drastically since filling out the FAFSA? You need to call the Financial Aid office and let them know, as the amount of aid you’re eligible for may have changed.

Also be sure to look for scholarships and grants you’re eligible for, and apply if you still can.

You might also want to ask the Financial Aid office if they offer work-study programs. You can work on campus in one of the college’s departments, which is much more convenient than getting a job off-campus.

Work-study tends to be more flexible around your class schedule, too. Earning money while in college will make it easier to pay your loans off, should you graduate with any student loan debt. It’s also a great way to afford any miscellaneous costs that may arise.

Additionally, make note of the dorm situations each college offers. You can save money by living with roommates. If you’re an only child and haven’t had to share a living space before, you need to make sure you’re going to be comfortable with suitemates.

Living situations in college can be a bit tough to adapt to at first. It helps if you have some space to retreat to.

Step 3: Decide

Once you’ve decided which college you’re attending, send over your required deposit and confirmation.

Budgeting tip: Set aside the cost of this deposit now. Depending on the school, this could be as little as $100 or as much as $1,000. Know the deposit information for your top choice schools and start saving that money immediately.

Likewise, send a notification to the other colleges that you've been accepted to, letting these schools know you won't enroll. Not only is this courteous, it also allows other students on the waitlist a chance to enroll. Most colleges send a standard 'rejection letter' in the acceptance packet that you can send back.

Step 4: Note When Orientation Is

Orientation is a 'must' for any student, as it’s a great way to break the ice with peers. If one of your biggest concerns is making new friends, or fitting in, orientation will put your mind at ease. The goal of orientation is to give everyone a chance to get to know each other on a different level, without any judgment, while still having fun.

Budgeting tip: Most orientations are held around the same time classes start, so you might not need to make two separate trips to campus – which will save you hundreds, if you're going to school outside of your hometown. Note when orientation is being held, along with any other important dates. Refer to the calendar on the college’s website for when events are happening.

Summer and/or orientation is also typically when new students get to register for their classes. You'll save thousands in tuition by graduating on-time (or early), so make sure you register ASAP so you can get any prerequisites out of the way.

Additionally, if you’re participating in any sports, keep in touch with your coach throughout the summer. You may be required to get to school at an earlier date for practice.

Budgeting tip: Set aside extra money for sports uniforms, team dues, equipment, shoes and other expenses. Save more than you'll think you need – it never hurts to have a cushion!

Step 5: Figure Out the Transportation Situation

If you’re going away to college, you need to figure out how to get around campus and around town.

Depending on the college’s policy, freshmen might not be allowed to have a car on campus. Check your college’s policy regarding cars, and figure out if you need a car your first year away. If you’re in a populated college town, you might be able to reach most places on foot.

Budgeting tip: Alternatively, you can carpool with others or take public transportation, which saves money on transit costs.

Consider whether or not you’ll be making extra trips home during the semester for holidays. Make arrangements with your parents if you need help buying a plane ticket, or need to be picked up. If traveling is too expensive, remember that it's okay to stay on-campus for Thanksgiving and holidays. You'll bond with other students, like international students, who are doing the same thing.

Step 6: Stock Up on Necessities

Now for the fun part –shopping for necessities. You’re going to need the basics like sheets, pillows, rugs, toiletries, and decorations to make your dorm feel more like home. Adding your personality to the room (with your roommate’s approval) can be a fun process.

Budgeting tip: Before you buy anything, find out what furnishings the college, dorm or landlord provides. Ask current students what they recommend bringing, and be sure you’re set technology-wise so you can complete your work.

Step 7: Consider Summer Classes

Taking a summer class before college officially begins can be financially savvy. You can even take an online course for credit. Ask the Registrar’s office if they recommend getting an early start, or consult with your student advisor to see what classes they think you should take. 

Budgeting tip: If you can afford to pay out-of-pocket for a class at your local community college, it could be worth getting a required class out of the way for less money. Just make sure the credits will transfer to your college. You don’t want to waste your time and money taking a class when it’s not on your college’s list of approved courses.

Celebrate and Relax

While you’re busy planning and getting ready for the next big chapter in your life, don’t forget to celebrate the success you’ve had thus far and give yourself a little break. Taking so many finals and AP exams can be grueling. Get together with friends, especially if you’ll be attending different colleges. Savor the last summer you’ll have together, make memories, and look forward to all the new experiences you’ll have in college.