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6 Ways to Save Money on College Supplies
Back-to-school shopping takes on a whole new meaning when a family member heads off to college. Besides basic supplies (paper, pencils, pens, highlighters and more), there are textbooks, electronics and dorm-room essentials to purchase. All of these costs can add up to a hefty chunk of change for a parent or student who may already be footing the bill for tuition and room & board.
University students spend as much as $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group – an increase of 82% in the past decade. That amount doesn’t cover items like special-size sheets for a dorm-room bed, a computer, laundry detergent or an upgrade from a high-school backpack.
Of course, an entering freshman can live a spartan existence, but textbooks, study supplies and items such as towels and blankets are necessities when you’re living away from home.
Here are six ways to stretch those college funds to cover more of what any student needs (and wants). If you’re a parent, share this information with your college-bound child, as some savings – say, on textbooks – are more likely to be realized once he or she starts school.
1. Start With a List
In the flurry of paying tuition, room and board, it can be easy to forget about the extra costs of college. When you are figuring out a budget for the first year, it helps to draw up a list of all the things you need: textbooks, supplies, dorm-room items and so on. The College Board has created a helpful online checklist for students. (Be forewarned: It's long.) Once you have a list, figure out where you need to spend and where you can save. Take the dorm room, for example. Go “shopping” in your own house first, before you hit the stores for extra linens and towels. If your daughter is sharing a room, have her contact her roommate and see if she is amenable to splitting the cost of a mini-fridge, for example. Perhaps one student can bring a coffeemaker, the other, a couple of desk lamps.
Most students bemoan the cost of course books, and for good reason: They can be astronomically expensive. Don’t start at the campus bookstore where books will typically cost the most. A good way to begin is with an online search after you get the reading list for a course. Start with the handy search tool at MyNextCollege.com. Don’t want to buy? Course books can be rented. Try Amazon or Chegg.com, which both claim you can save up to 80% on renting textbooks. Barnes & Noble and Amazon also rent eTextbooks. If buying a book that is a bit worn is OK, Half.com sells discounted used textbooks – just remember to check the listed condition of the book before making a purchase and be sure it's the correct edition (you don't want an out-of-date volume different from what the rest of the class is using). Some other ideas: Your daughter or son might share course books with a fellow student. Professors and administrators might have suggestions on how to save, too, if the required text is particularly pricey. Sometimes there are also reserve copies that can be read at the college library.
For academic classes an entering freshman will need more or less the same items that were necessities in high school: No.2 pencils, notebooks, yellow sticky notes, highlighters, pens, index cards and so forth.Check the course lists for any specialty supplies, such as a specific calculator (i.e. not the one on a smartphone) or special rulers. When it comes to buying supplies, stay away from the campus bookstore unless it’s an emergency, as all prices – not just those for textbooks – tend to be higher there. It’s smart to buy in bulk from places like Costco, BJ’s and other big box stores; basic supplies (assuming you have somewhere to store them) can be used for multiple semesters. Check out the back-to-school sales at stores like Target or Staples.
4. Dorm Room Essentials
An informal straw poll by the author found that Ikea is very popular with college students. Visit the store’s “back to college” blog for ideas. Most dorm rooms come sparsely furnished – it’s never a bad idea to bring a mattress pad – and Ikea sells almost everything a college student could need, even coffee. Target also markets to the college crowd with a range of “back to college” products. Before you go, visit All Things Target for a schedule of the store’s markdowns. And, again, make sure to check in with roommates (see “Start With a List,” above). To save even more, check out the college town’s Craigslist.org, and Freecycle.org sites.
5. A Computer
A student’s computer needs will vary, but overall, a basic one for activities like writing papers, taking notes and Skyping back home will do. A computer, after textbooks, might be the second-most costly outlay, and you will save by cutting back on the bells and whistles and shopping back-to-school sales. Groupon and Newegg are both great resources for bargains. You may even find something in the $200 range, if last year is any indicator of this year’s prices. Dealnews.com reported that its editors found “43 laptops and netbooks for even less than $200 throughout July and August of last year. Newegg and Groupon were home to most of these builds.” Consider your (or your kid’s) real computer needs vs. what you simply want. A history or education major probably doesn’t need a high-end laptop, but an engineering or computer science major may need a machine with more kick.
6. What’s Likely Not Needed
In no particular order, these include: a printer, an ironing board and iron, a car (no, not a necessity, but possibly high on the wish list), a calculator (most smartphones have them), the most recent iPhone (especially if you have a tight budget) and extra dorm room furniture. According to some financial experts, you really don’t need a credit card either.
The Bottom Line
Higher education comes with a hefty price tag. For the 2014-2015 academic year, a moderate college budget for an in-state public college amounted to nearly $23,500, according to the College Board. The budget for a private college was almost twice as much – over $46,272, on average. Finding ways to save will help stretch your dollars, especially since you’ve got up to four years (of shopping) before you or your grown-up child collects that degree.
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