Keeping college expenses down

One of the key assessments that need to be made when deciding where you want to go to college, is determining how much money is available - from family, institutional grants, outside scholarships, and your own savings - to meet a school's fixed costs, such as tuition, fees, and accommodation.

Prices can vary greatly, especially between public and private institutions. But fixed costs are just that. They cannot be controlled, and they have to be paid. So the first decision that you need to make is to figure out which kind of school you can afford and what financial strategy needs to be established in order to meet your chosen college's fixed costs.

In addition, there are variable costs that will increase the total amount necessary to afford a modern college education, year after year. But these variable costs (books and supplies, clothing, entertainment, travel, etc) are all expenses that can be controlled with careful planning, intelligent budgeting and prudent spending.

Create a responsible budget

Controlling the variable costs is the key to keeping college expenses down. And for that, it is essential that you create a budget that balances the amount of money coming in from parents and relatives, financial aid, student loans and any income from your own employment, with estimated expenses, such as toiletries and sundries, bills, classroom supplies, entertainment, travel, etc. 

Once all the categories and numbers are balanced in a spreadsheet (with a little left over for emergencies), you will have to stick to the budget religiously. That can be accomplished by setting up a college-based financial structure, either through the school's internal system or by opening a checking or credit card account at a local bank or credit union near campus. 

By keeping careful records of all income and expenditures, and creating a routine that includes a regular review of your budget, you can create a very clear picture of your overall financial situation – a key to staying on track and not spending more than is budgeted in any one category, unless, of course, savings can be made in another.

Look for ways to spend less

  • Being a smart consumer is the next best way to keep college expenses down
  • You should look for any student discounts offered by the local businesses near campus and always check for student deals on travel, food, entertainment, etc
  • Take advantage of free college events, like movies and concerts that have been underwritten by your required activity fees
  • Don't blow pocket change on fast food. You've already paid into a meal plan, so use it
  • Never buy new when you can buy used. That includes books, dorm furniture and anything else that can be purchased at a reduced rate
  • Instead of paying for phone minutes when calling home, use Skype instead – it's free

There are many ways to enjoy a social life at college without being extravagant, and you should set limits on how much to spend on dates and nights out with friends. There's nothing wrong with having fun, but it's not the reason you are at college. Remember that extreme partying can lower both your grades and your bank account.

College may be your first real opportunity to take charge of your own life, as well as your own financial affairs. By keeping to a budget, spending wisely and being fiscally responsible, you can keep your expenses down and begin your adulthood with the kind of good money habits that even a college education can't buy.

Al Krulick is an award-winning journalist with dozens of years of writing experience. He writes and blogs for