3 college expenses to plan for beyond tuition

Knowing how to save for college can help clear the path to a bright future.
Saving for college is an important financial goal for many. While individuals and families who are deciding what to save typically aim for the cost of tuition, it’s important to remember that a significant portion of college costs are made up of nontuition expenses. For example, in-state students attending a public four-year college and living on campus can expect over half of their college budget to go toward nontuition expenses.1
Here are three common costs to factor in as you set your college-savings goal:
1. Room and board expenses
While living on campus used to be a way to save money, it now costs only 7% less than living off campus, on average.More than one-third of college students are now saving money by living at home while attending college—but for many, this is not a practical option.3 In addition to paying for housing, a meal plan may also be a significant financial consideration, with many schools’ plans reaching thousands of dollars per semester.
If you’re able to find off-campus accommodations that are less expensive than the school’s listed room-and-board price, 529 funds can be used to help cover rent. Be sure to discuss college living expenses and arrangements far enough in advance to give your family time to prepare together. To help make sure you or your student can eat well while sticking to a budget, see if the school offers meal plan levels at different costs. The top-of-the-line plan may not be right for everyone.
2. Textbooks, a computer and more
It’s no secret that textbooks are big contributors to college expenses, but there are also lab fees, studio times and course-specific supplies to consider, which could tack on hundreds of dollars to a student’s budget during a school year.
On top of course requirements, most degree programs (and campus Wi-Fi networks) have minimum system requirements for personal computers. You may need to buy a new one, which could range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Check your campus bookstore for sales ahead of the semester, as they often partner with manufacturers to offer discounts.
If you have a 529 plan, some of these purchases can be qualified expenses. If your budget falls short, you may be able to close the gap by renting textbooks, buying used copies or adjusting the student’s course schedule.
3. Travel
Be sure to plan ahead for your college travel expenses. Those costs are often overlooked, but going home can be a major expense, potentially adding thousands of dollars to a student’s annual transportation costs, especially if they visit regularly and not just during holidays. Unlike some other costs, 529 funds can’t be used to pay for transportation, so remember to set aside money in another account, such as a CD or high-yield savings account. To help bring down costs, plan flights far in advance. Be flexible with dates and use online tools to hunt for student-airfare deals.
For students who want to see the world, participating in a study-abroad program can be an amazing experience, but it can also be more expensive than the average in-state college tuition. There may be foreign-study scholarships available that help cover travel expenses, and funds from 529 plans can be used for study-abroad tuition, fees and qualified room and board.
Although student loans can help cover all of these college expenses, every dollar you’re able to save for college is a dollar that you or your child won’t have to pay back to a lender with interest. Saving whatever you can, as early as you can, will make a difference. And if you plan to use a 529 college savings plan to help fund qualified school expenses, the tax-free earnings on your contributions will boost the amount you’ll be able to pay without taking on more debt.
Our college savings calculator can help you create your savings strategy and set goals confidently . To help you create an accurate college-savings strategy, be sure to include estimated nontuition expenses in your “annual college costs” calculations.
1 “Trends in College Pricing,” The College Board, 2018
2 “Study: Fast-Rising Room and Board Costs Worsen College Affordability Problem,” The Hechinger Report, 2017
3 “How America Values College,” Sallie Mae, 2018