As you prepare your college student for that first year away from home, one of the most important things you can do is teach him or her how to create and stick to a budget. Taking into account how much college costs, it's a lesson that may prove even more valuable in the long-term than anything learned in a freshman lecture hall.
Ideally, you should be talking to your student about budgeting and spending money long before he or she leaves for college. Discuss the difference between wants and needs and have them practice budgeting before leaving for school. Using a budgeting site or your bank's online tools, help them get a sense of how much money is coming in each month--from things like financial aid, a part-time job, or your deposits into their account--and which college costs that money will cover.
Your student's budget should include at a minimum the following 5 categories. The amount allocated to each will depend on the location and type of school attended, and their lifestyle.
Spending on textbooks, which has traditionally made up the bulk of college students' school supply spending, has decreased in recent years as students begin shopping around online for course materials and using cheaper alternatives such as e-books.
Your student can keep a lid on other college costs in this category by shopping for items on sale and off-season. Refurbished laptops and cell phones can be a good option for college students looking to save on electronics.
It's not realistic to think that students will eat all of their meals on campus, but work with your child to set a limit for off-campus dining to keep expenses down.
If your student has access to a kitchen, making a few meals a week at home can also help cut down bills. Students who attend school in an expensive city but live in a lower cost area may want to stock up on pantry basics at home before arriving at school.
Most of the expenses in this category fall into "wants" rather than needs, but for many students, participating in things like Greek life, spring break, and even paying for other events is an essential part of the college experience. It's reasonable for parents to set limits on spending in these areas or to ask that students get a job to cover some of these costs.
Whether your student commutes on a daily basis or travels long distances to come home for the holidays, getting to and from campus can add up. Help your child research student discounts and consider getting a rewards credit card to help offset the cost of gas or flying.
Every college student should have access to an emergency account to cover large, unplanned expenses like a broken down car or lost cell phone or laptop. This might also be a good time for your child to get a credit card to build up a credit history, and to have access to in case of an emergency. Just have a serious talk first about the importance of a strong credit score, the dangers of misusing a card, and who will be responsible for non-essential purchases.
You'll want to check in periodically to see how the budget is working out and to help your student make adjustments. There will inevitably be bumps in the road as your child adapts to life on a student's budget, but frequent communication can help eliminate surprises on both ends.