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With senior year spending behind you and the cost of freshman year just around the corner, it’s a great time to begin to identify and plan for often overlooked expenses that may lie ahead.

If you’re like many families, you spent a significant amount of money this past school year on college applications and senior year events. And when thinking about the upcoming cost of college, you’ve likely been primarily focused on the most publicized expenses – tuition plus room and board.

Six tips to make sure you’re well prepared for your next season of spending:

1. Refresh your memory on what 529 plans cover

 In a nutshell, your 529 plan account can be used to cover expenses that are required for enrollment or attendance at eligible educational institutions. Beyond tuition and room and board, approved expenses include books and supplies and even computers and peripherals, if required. The cost of transportation to and from college, however, is not an approved expense from a 529 plan perspective.

2. Make a list of likely expenses and review it with your child

While there’s a lull in spending right now, it’s a good time to begin to plan for likely additional expenses that will soon be faced. Once you’ve identified them and have determined which, if any, can be covered by your 529 plan or other dedicated savings, have a candid conversation with your child about who will be covering the remaining costs. Here’s a run-down of potential upcoming costs to include on your list:

  • College Necessities and Optional Décor: According to estimates from Deloitte, back-to-college spending amounted to approximately $1,600 per student in 2022. In addition to required items for dorm living and college attendance, some students choose to splurge on dorm room décor. You’ll want to keep this in mind based on available funds.
  • Books, Equipment, and Supplies: Textbooks can run over $1,000 per school year depending on classes taken and required texts. Suggest that your child explore e-books, book rentals, or used options to cut down on costs. If the institution or program enrolled in requires a laptop, certain software, or other equipment, look out for student-related discounts that may be available through the school or certain vendors.
  • Transportation to college: Whether you’ll need a plane or bus ticket for your child and/or yourself, require an overnight hotel stay, or plan to rent a car or van to transport your child and their belongings to their new home, you’ll want to budget for these expenses and look for discounts through travel clubs, your employer, or membership organizations to which you belong.
  • Extracurriculars: Whether your child decides to join a campus intramural team, pledge a fraternity or sorority, or travel to surrounding areas on weekends, there will be expenses involved. While you won’t know at this juncture exactly what they will be, budget for extracurriculars as they are a great way for your student to stay active and to develop friendships in a new environment.
  • School Breaks: Whether embracing the independence or feeling a bit homesick, your child is likely to be excited to return home on school breaks. You’ll want to factor in the estimated cost of transportation for each of these.

3. Estimate available resources and divvy up costs

In terms of divvying up anticipated costs, you may want to factor in your own financial health and bandwidth along with your child’s summer earnings, graduation money yet unspent, and anticipated freshman-year employment. With this in mind, if “work-study” is part of your student’s plans for the fall, make sure your child checks with the school about exactly when they can begin to explore employment opportunities and apply.

4. Spend smartly

You and your child will want to keep your eyes open for retailer sales, consider buying off-brands, keep a lookout for coupons for items your child will surely need, and always inquire about student discounts. And don’t overlook the possibility of purchasing gently-used items from thrift stores or from low-cost online marketplaces. These items can be particularly useful for room décor. Also, hold off on buying items like dorm-size refrigerators until you’ve determined if they are allowed and truly needed, whether affordable rentals are available on/near campus, and/or whether a roommate would want to share the cost.

5. Create a budget

This is the perfect time to help your soon-to-be college freshman create a budget for freshman year. While you may not know exactly how much will be earned in part-time work during the school year or exactly what additional expenses will need to be covered for extracurriculars and other variables, you can create a rough draft based on what you do know and establish an understanding of who will be covering what.

6. Reduce your at-home expenses

Before or just after your child heads to college, determine whether any of your discretionary or fixed expenses could be lowered. For instance, if your child will no longer be driving your car while away at college, contact your insurance company to see if a rate adjustment could be made for the months when your young driver is away. Also, take a hard look at television channels or subscriptions that could be eliminated if you or others remaining in your household are unlikely to utilize them. And keep in mind that the cost of food and utilities should decline with one less person at home.


Preparing for upcoming expenses and helping your child establish a budget for freshman year will be time well spent and will alleviate misunderstandings and financial stress throughout the academic year.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.