Avoiding College Spending Traps

As millions of college students prepare to go to school this fall, the cost of financing the school year is on every parent's mind.

Although most parents think about the cost of tuition, room and board when saving for their child's college expenses, they often neglect to take into account many of the other expenses with a college education. According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer spent more than $665 on back-to-college expenses in 2003.

Back-to-school expenses aside, once you take into account items such as transportation to and from school, textbooks and course packets, a computer, phone calls, etc., the price tag of a college education rises significantly. In fact, according to the College Board, a year at a state university — including tuition, housing, board, books and other expenses — costs $13,833 on average this year and $29,541 at a private university. At Northwestern University, for example, parents are told total to estimate expenses (including books, room and board, and personal expenses but not transportation) at $42,297 for this coming school year. As such, here are a couple of areas where being a smart consumer can improve a students' financial grade.

Cell Phone or Land Line?

Standard long distance phone service packages from college dorms are infamously expensive. Fortunately, there are some excellent alternatives to the standard dial tone.

Internet phone: As unlimited, free Internet access is a staple of most college dormitories, computer savvy college students can benefit tremendously from using their computers to make phone calls.

For example, students can use services provided by Net2phone.com to either make calls directly from their computers or their phone via their high-speed Internet connection. The cost? Outbound calls can be made for as little $.02 a minute. Furthermore, for $35 a month students can make unlimited phone calls and keep their home area code — a benefit to parents who can save on outbound calls to their children.

Cell phone: If used responsibly and diligently, a cell phone instead of a landline can amount to student savings. Cell phone plans vary from carrier to carrier, but average around $66 a month. However, students need to be forewarned — if they exceed their allotted minute plan they could find themselves facing a hefty charge. Additionally, activation fees, contract requirements and roaming charges can make cell phones a greater expense than savings.

1-800 numbers: Parents should consider setting up a 1-800 number exclusively for their college-bound students. For example, SBC in Illinois charges a $2.95 monthly fee and a 7-cent-per-minute fee for calls made anytime of the day or night. An exclusive line home will not only encourage students to call more often, it will amount to considerable savings.

Computing Costs

The average retail price of a laptop computer — a college freshman's computer of choice, is between $800 and $2,600. Add on the cost of a printer and the total computing expense can be as high as $2,800. One way to save on computer costs is to purchase the system directly through the school as many colleges and universities offer student discounts that beat the price of retailers.

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