First-year college costs: 10 expenses to prepare for beyond tuition

1
John M. Chase/Shutterstock
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for .

College freshmen have to think about more than tuition and housing when it comes to paying for college. A college budget needs to account for class supplies, transportation, medical care and more. Here are 10 expenses that college students can prepare for before move-in day:

  1. Books and supplies.
  2. Technology.
  3. Dorm furnishings and personal items.
  4. Study abroad programs.
  5. Groceries and dining out.
  6. Medical care.
  7. Clothing.
  8. Greek life.
  9. Transportation.
  10. A savings account and emergency fund.

10 costs to prepare for as a first-time college student

College freshmen may be taken by surprise when bills for their first semester roll in. To avoid sticker shock, create a budget in advance that accounts for all of the costs of college.

The estimated costs for each item below are taken from nationwide averages, but your own expenses will vary depending on the school you attend, your financial situation and more. The cost of supplies, for instance, is different for English majors than for engineering majors, and not everyone will choose to join Greek life or study abroad. To get the most accurate estimate of your costs, consult your school’s website and conduct a financial audit.

1. Books and supplies

The costs of necessary learning materials, such as textbooks, notebooks, calculators, backpacks and more, can easily reach hundreds of dollars per semester. However, college professors will typically release the class syllabus and book requirements in advance, so you have time to find less-expensive options beyond the campus bookstore.

To save money on textbooks each semester, consider renting your books or buying them used. There are some courses, however, that require one-time online access codes, and those can’t be rented or bought used.

Estimated cost: $1,200 to $1,400 per year

2. Technology

While most libraries have computers available for student use, it’s nearly impossible to go through college without a laptop or some sort of personal computer. Many professors have gone paperless now, with homework, essays and assignments being completed fully online. Some exams and classes are even hosted online now, so it’s important to have a personal device to complete your coursework on time.

Some schools offer laptop rentals, so check with student services or with the library before making a large purchase. To cut down on costs, you may also consider buying a refurbished or pre-owned device instead of a new one.

Estimated cost: $300 to $1,500 over four years

3. Dorm furnishings and personal items

Basic necessities like a desk, a chair, a twin bed, a closet, basic storage and utilities are included in the cost of room and board if you stay in on-campus dorms. However, other necessary furnishings aren’t included. Students are responsible for providing items like pillows, bed furnishings, personal decor and basic appliances, like coffee makers, water filters, minirefrigerators and microwaves.

While the basic appliances aren’t necessities for everyone, they’re convenient and useful for those late-night study sessions or for when the dining hall isn’t open. Some schools do have rentals for refrigerators and microwaves, so check with your housing and residence life department before budgeting for these items.

You’ll also need to cover the cost of personal items for your dorm, like toiletries and cleaning supplies. Look into how much you spend in a month on toiletries to get an idea of how much you’ll need to set aside, and coordinate with your roommate on what cleaning supplies you’ll both bring to help divvy up the cost.

Estimated cost: $50 to $300 per year

4. Study abroad programs

Studying abroad is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take college classes in a different country. Most programs last one semester.

While these international schools typically have a tuition agreement with your college, they come with additional costs on top of your usual tuition. You’ll need to factor in room and board, meals, airfare, health insurance coverage and sightseeing or excursion costs. While studying abroad can be expensive, there are ways to cut costs, and many study abroad programs offer need-based scholarships. Talk to the office of study abroad to see what it would cost you to study outside of the country and how you can save money.

Estimated cost: $6,000 to $20,000 per semester

5. Groceries and dining out

The campus dining hall is convenient, but most campuses don’t offer 24/7 services. If you do have a meal plan, set aside a little extra money for those all-nighters and late-night food runs. If you don’t have a meal plan, you’ll need to plan for a larger grocery budget.

When you shop for snacks, coffee or microwavable meals, keep your budget minimal by shopping at discount stores, and be on the lookout for sales, coupons or rewards cards. It’s also smart to create meal plans and bring a shopping list so you don’t risk buying more than you truly need.

Estimated cost: $200 to $400 per month

6. Medical care

Most colleges have health centers that offer basic medical services and over-the-counter medications for little to no cost, but you’ll often need to pay a mandatory “health service fee” each semester. If you need a prescription filled or have costs that aren’t covered by the medical center, you’ll also have to pay for these yourself. On top of that, some colleges require additional student health insurance.

Colleges list the health service fee, among other attendance fees, on their websites. Check the website or call your school’s health center if you have questions about what’s covered and what’s not. In some cases, you may be able to request a fee waiver.

Estimated cost: $1,500 to $5,000 per year

7. Clothing

Students attending school far from home and living on campus for the entirety of the academic year may want to budget for clothing, especially if they’re moving to a different climate. For instance, students living in California and attending school in the Midwest should factor in the cost of snow boots and heavy winter coats.

To save money, shop at thrift and consignment stores or host a “clothing swap” with some friends. During a swap, everyone brings clothing items that they no longer wear and trade items. It’s a great way to update your closet or get the seasonal clothing you need for free.

Estimated cost: $100 to $200 per year

8. Greek life

For some, joining a sorority or fraternity is an essential part of the college experience. With that said, application fees and yearly dues could leave you on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars per year.

Dues are charged either by semester or by year. There are also new member fees, which vary based on the organization you’re joining and the school you attend.

Before rushing, check to see if the dues are listed anywhere on your school’s website, or if you can find the national websites for the organizations on your campus. If you know the cost beforehand, you can be more selective about the organization that you join.

Estimated cost: $400 to $3,000 per semester

9. Transportation

Every college student needs to consider potential transportation costs, even those living on campus full time without a car. Those choosing to have their car on campus will have to account for a parking pass and gas costs. The parking and transportation services department at your school should have the parking pass cost listed on their website.

If you choose not to have a car on campus, iron out all transportation costs before the academic year begins — including the cost to visit home during the holidays. Depending on where you live, you could always catch a ride with a friend to save money, but if you’re traveling across the country, compare airfare costs with other forms of transportation, like a bus or train.

Estimated cost: $1,000 to $2,000 per year

10. A savings account and emergency fund

It’s never too early to start a savings account and an emergency fund, and the sooner you start saving, the better off you’ll be in the future. Many banks offer student checking and savings accounts that come with decent rates and no fees. If you have a part-time job while you’re in college, putting even a small portion of your paycheck into savings will put you in a better position should an emergency strike.

Estimated cost: Ideally 10 to 20 percent of your income

 Learn more:

Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor