Have you ever rented a car for some really cheap rate, like $19.99 a day, and wondered why it didn’t feel like such a fantastic bargain when you paid the bill? Let’s see . . . the basic price is $19.99 . . . plus 20 cents a mile, plus the optional insurance—that’s $12.95 a day (that optional insurance isn’t really optional for you because you don’t have car insurance that will cover it).
We can’t tell you how much money you’re going to need for college; only you and your parents can figure this out. It would be foolish and unhelpful for us even to try for two reasons: (1) living costs differ throughout the country, and (2) everybody’s situation is different.
Maybe you’ve already got it all figured out down to the penny—your living expenses for every week, month, or semester. Or maybe you don’t have a clue but aren’t too worried; maybe you’re just going to wing it because you have a built-in safety net—the parental checkbook.
But maybe, like most college students, you’re somewhere in the middle—you have a budget, and you need to stick to it. So now it’s reckoning time. The goal is to try and anticipate every possible expense now so you can avoid unpleasant monetary surprises later. Figure out what your budget will need to cover and how far you can stretch it.
Learn how to manage your money. This is not as hard as it sounds. Just as with managing time and energy, good money management centers around planning—making the best use out of what you have.
Figure your true living expenses. If you’re living on campus, the big-ticket items—housing and tuition—are easy. You know how much they cost and what they cover. Depending on when you read this, you may even have paid for them already. Now, take some time to figure out what’s not covered.
At most schools, freshmen who live on campus are required to buy at least a basic meal package. On a weekly basis, this could pay for as few as ten meals (in which case you’ll have to buy, prepare, or skip at least a few other lunches or dinners in the week) or as many as 21 meals, with the difference in price being, probably, a couple hundred dollars. Actually, the 21-meal package, compared with the costs of eating off campus, is probably not a bad deal—if you’ll be eating three meals a day, seven days a week, on campus. If you won’t, frankly, this will be a waste of money, and you should consider a cheaper one.
Analyze your needs. Will you, for example, be needing an actual breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) every day? If breakfast to you means a bagel and juice, you could save money by stocking those items in your dorm room. (Just think—no more tiny shot glasses of orange juice! You can have as much as you want!)
Will you even be on campus every weekend? If you’re planning to spend at least a few weekends at home or out of town, you won’t be able to use those Saturday and Sunday meals you’ve paid for, and you probably won’t be able to get your money back. (Note: If your meat plan includes a cash card, it’s probably only good for one semester.)
Will you be eating out a lot? Be honest with yourself. If the thought of the fast food strip across the street is too tempting to resist and you know it now, just plan ahead. Otherwise, one day as you stand in the cafeteria line, you may crack—”I’ve got your balanced, nourishing, color-coordinated, tasteless meal right here, lady! Right here on the floor!”
With a backhand swipe, you send overcooked broccoli florets, a red Jello/fruit cocktail combo, and a rubber biscuit flying across the room. As people scuttle out of your way, you, transfixed by an epiphany, now feel in complete oneness with the fed-up Michael Douglas character in the movie Falling Down. Eyes agleam, you stumble out of the cafeteria, lured ever onward by the beckoning whiff of real French fries (as opposed to those institutional tater nuggets you just threw in the direction of the cashier) that tantalizes and torments you.
But we digress.
More questions. Will you be able to show up every day during designated meal hours? What if something comes up and you don’t make it to the cafeteria before it closes? (This is inevitable and shouldn’t pose much of a problem if you’re prepared with, for example, cans of soup you can heat up in your room or the cash to get some food elsewhere.)
Know yourself. Be realistic, and plan to eat out several times a month. Make a rough estimate: For example, you budget five meals, at a conservative six bucks apiece, per month. That’s thirty dollars a month. So, for one semester, allowing for a hectic schedule during finals week that might lead you to eat out more often, you may want to budget at least $100 in meals that won’t be covered by your cash card.
If your meal package doesn’t cover weekend meals: Again, plan ahead. This may be a great opportunity to save money. For example, you could go to a grocery store, buy a head of lettuce for 99 cents, two cucumbers, and a big tomato for another dollar. Make a huge salad, keep it in your refrigerator. Have part of it for lunch Saturday and Sunday, and you will have spent less than two dollars (plus the cost of salad dressing and maybe some canned tuna to go on top) for several healthy meals.
Or, conversely, this could be a big opportunity to blow money. It all adds up: ten bucks for a pizza Friday night, ten more for burgers and fries Saturday, $7.99 for the all-you-can-eat, gut-bomber brunch at Joe Bob’s Country Fixin’s Buffet on Sunday, and a dollar more for the rolls of antacids you stopped to buy at the gas station on the way back to campus. Again, how (and what) you choose to eat is up to you – just make sure you don’t spend more than you can afford.
Other essentials. You will need some cash to cover the cost of other basic items, such as toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and laundry expenses.