Hope for your financial life and beyond

The Hidden Costs of College: How to Manage the Incidentals

costs of collegeMy alma mater, Cedarville University in Ohio, has a favorite destination that attracts students each and every day while school is in session – Young’s Dairy in Yellow Springs. It’s definitely one of the hidden costs of college because I had no idea how much time I would spend there. It seemed like once a week someone in my dorm would yell, “Hey, we are making a Young’s run. Who’s coming?”

Boy, that was always tempting. Seemed like it always came at the right time too. You know…at 9 o’clock at night when your punching out that term paper and your stomach is rumbling. So what college student could resist a grilled cheese, fries and milkshake in that moment?

Defining Hidden Costs of College

Those late night snack runs are one example of the hidden costs of college. They are hidden because we miss factoring them into the overall expense of college. Students and parents focus on the big college numbers that are causing so much trouble: tuition, fees, room and board and forget there are a bunch of little incidentals that, when taken cumulatively, add up to big dollars.

To combat the temptation to go on a Young’s run, I bought cheap food at the grocery store and kept it in my room. My go-to late night snack/meals were, of course Ramen noodles and Kraft macaroni and cheese. I used an electric hot pot similar to this one to heat the water as we were not allowed microwaves in our room at the time.

Did having food around always work? Of course not. Many nights I did give in and go to Young’s. However, there were many nights I stayed in the dorm and snacked on a cheaper alternative.

Parents can help their college student with the late night cravings by sending care packages stuffed with goodies. How my roommates and I loved getting those! This not only saved money but also time, in that we didn’t have to go shopping for our own snacks.

Other Hidden Costs of College

You see how I tackled the food issue. But there were other hidden costs of college that I wasn’t initially prepared for.

Books and Supplies

It’s not that we forget textbooks are needed for college. We simply lose sight of the fact how much new ones cost. If you haven’t stepped foot in a college bookstore recently prepare to be amazed. According to the College Board, the yearly books-and-supplies estimate for the average student at a four-year public college is around $1,200.

That’s nearly $5,000 over four years.

To combat this issue:

1. Buy used if at all possible.

2. Rent textbooks online at places like CollegeBookRenter.com. Mrs. Luke1428 did this for grad school with great success.

3. Look into sharing textbooks or even if you will need it at all. (Many professors never crack the book and create tests only from their lectures.)

4. Sell your textbooks when you are done, especially those that don’t apply to your major. You think they will come in handy as reference material later in life but they never do. Mine were boxed up for years and I eventually threw them away.


This expenditure will vary depending on whether you are a commuter or living on campus. Campus living will reduce gas usage but even that can get out of hand if you are always leaving campus or driving your car to classes.

To combat this issue:

1. Drive only when you have to.

2. Walk or ride a bike to classes. I had a ten-minute walk from my dorm to classes each morning. Yet each day I saw my friends driving across campus instead of walking. There shouldn’t be any reason for that to happen – unless you overslept and are late for that presentation.

3. For commuters, schedule as many classes as you can handle on the same day. That will lessen the total number of days you have to appear on campus.

4. Consider an electric car, especially if your state gives tax incentives on the purchase/lease of such a vehicle.

Clothes Shopping

My school was within a 30-minute drive of gigantic mall. It turned out to be a favorite destination for many of us looking to get away from campus. However, it could be deadly when there with friends who were always purchasing new clothes.

All schools have some sort of dress code. However, many private schools might set the standard for dress a little higher. I was required to wear khakis and polo shirts to class at a minimum. So be aware of the standard for the school to which you apply.

To combat this issue:

1. First and foremost, buy used clothing.

2. Don’t get sucked into purchasing just because your friends are.

3. Anticipate your needs ahead of time. This will keep you from getting trapped purchasing a pricey pair of basketball shoes at the last minute for the intramural league you just decided to join.


girl studying at a laundromatExpect a minimum of two washer and dryer loads of laundry per week – one of whites and one of darks. Two loads should cost you anywhere from $3-$5 per week depending on the coin operated machines on campus or at the local laundromat.

To combat this issue:

1. You can’t because it’s a requirement to do laundry, unless…

2. You live at home or go home routinely. However, please do your own laundry if you take it home. Mom’s done enough already.

Getting Home

This can be a tricky one if college is far away. Everyone wants to see family at those special times of the year like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Just turns out those are some of the most expensive times on the calendar to travel.

To combat this issue:

1. Car pool. Mrs. Luke1428 did this on multiple occasions as she traveled back and forth from Ohio to New Jersey.

2. Take a bus. Definitely less enjoyable than a flight but miles cheaper in price.

3. The school calendar is published so there should be no surprises when it comes to the days you’ll have off. Look for deals at travel sites well in advance. The best deals are those found months out of your expected travel date.

Interest Payments on Your Student Loans

This one won’t become apparent until after graduation. Many loans are deferred, meaning a graduate does not have to pay them until at least six months after graduation. The theory is that a graduate will need that time to get a job and become established.

I didn’t give the interest on my loans a first thought until that first bill arrived. It was frustrating enough to pay for college after I had graduated, let alone to have interest charges heaped upon those payments. It was a scenario I wished could have been avoided.

To combat this issue:

1. There is only one way to ultimately avoid this – don’t take out student loans.

Finally remember, these hidden costs of college will add up over four years and in the case of student loans, well after school is over. Take them into consideration when planning on how to pay for college. Think through and be creative with how to save money on them.

So be prepared to find that part-time college job. In my next post, as I continue my college week theme, I’ll share 20 such part-time jobs on and off campus that just might be the perfect fit.

Questions: Besides tuition, fees, books, room and board, what did you spend the most on in college? What other hidden costs of college can you think of? Do/did your friends always pressure you to go out with them? Anyone calculated how much interest you paid on your student loans?

Laundromat image by M. Hurst at Flickr

Textbook image by TheMacGirl at Flickr

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally or believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Next Post: 20 Flexible Part Time Jobs For College Students

Prior Post: Emotions and Investing Don’t Mix

I hope you enjoyed that post. Want more?
Sign up to receive my blog posts via email and get your free gift...
99 Ways to Spend Less and Save More

Privacy Guarantee: I will not share your email with anyone.


  1. Hehe most of my money goes for “social” because my friends always wants me to be around, it was fun back then, but it was one thing I regret the most after graduation.

    • Haha…I can relate to that. As a young married couple fresh out of college we were always seeking social activities (or just plain going out). We could have been more disciplined for sure.

  2. And there’s many more ‘little things’ you haven’t mentioned. This calculator https://www.yourmoneypage.com/education/studentloan.php will show what you have to borrow for these.

  3. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says

    I enjoyed reading your list, Brian. I have been a saver since I entered college. Being in a dormitory, I really had to watch every penny I spend. Thus, I was one of those people who went to book fare and bring laundry every weekend at home. For one reason: to save..

  4. My sister is now a first year college and I’m helping with her tuition. Some of the hidden costs are additional T-shirts for different activities and also books that you really need to buy. I don’t want her to take a student loan, as long as I can I will help her financially.

  5. I could have done a better job with this stuff in college. Although it was nice to move out that last couple of years because the commute was just getting exhausting along with working so many hours. I should have toughed it out for another year and a 1/2 before my internship when I would of had to move anyways. But I have to say, the experience was nice. I probably could have been a better steward of my money back then, but that is in the past!

    • I think we all have a few of those regrets about how we spent our money in the past. Best thing is to learn from it and move forward. Like you said…nothing we can do about the past now.

  6. I was lucky to be able to stay at home while in school so I had free food all the time, but I also went out a lot with my friends and spent way too much money eating junk at 2am.

  7. Luckily I didn’t live too far away from my parents, so driving up there was pretty cheap. But I still kept it to a minimum because the costs would add up if I wasn’t careful.

    • I was only about an hour away so was able to make it home about once a month after my freshman year. That seemed to be a good balance for me.

  8. Great list, Brian. So many parents and college students don’t think about those hidden costs. And they can add up quickly and with the exception of your last point, too often those expenses get paid with student loan money, instead of out-of-pocket cash. I would say my biggest hidden cost was probably fun money. There is always so much to do and when you’re in college – you really hate missing out!

    • “…get paid with student loan money…” I knew kids in school who were definitely not using their student loan money for school specific expenses. Silly…

  9. Industry dependent: don’t forget about internships. Some industries are notorious for unpaid internships, so you’ll need to consider living expenses during that time. Also, consider whether or not you’ll have to move for your internship. You’ll need to factor in gas, utility set up, rent deposits, etc.

    I’m in aerospace engineering, so most of us did have to move several state away to take internships. At least they were paid. The folks studying to be pilots also had to move – for unpaid internships. I’m not sure their internships actually helped them land jobs, though, so do research about the effectiveness of your internships. Maybe it’s just as good to stay in school and save yourself the money, hassle, and time.

  10. Good points here. What helped me the most was meeting Mr. Frugalwoods during college–we’re both frugal by nature and we were able to reinforce those habits in each other. I think I would’ve had a much harder time keeping expenses low if we hadn’t been dating!

  11. I didn’t do a fully fleshed out budget in college, but the way I kept the incidentals in check was just by not overdrawing my checking account. My parents paid for tuition and room and board and after that my work-study and summer jobs had to cover everything. It really wasn’t much as I didn’t have a car and my friend-group basically never left campus.

    My parents’ home and my college were on opposite coasts, and after one attempt at traveling over a long weekend in my first semester we knew I’d only be coming home over winter and summer breaks. So the high cost of the flights was somewhat mitigated by infrequent travel.

    • I went to college only an hour from home so several times I had friends come with me for weekends or breaks. Always felt bad for those students who had to stay on campus when everyone else left.

  12. College was the start of all my bad habits- grabbing a granola bar before class, a hot chocolate after, a coke while studying- so many little things.

  13. I guess those late night Young’s runs add to the Freshman Fifteen as well, ay? My niece is starting college next month and they will be paying $550 for a basement room which seems like a lot given we rent our basement (nicer) for $460 and we live only 3 hours away. I know accommodations are not on your list but I just want to say that it might make sense to shop around.

    P.S. I have a daughter who brings her laundry home and she isn’t in university anymore. She doesn’t want to pay for laundry in her apartment building. Oh well, nice to see her when she does drop in!

    • Yes…they surely did. Although I played a lot of pickup basketball that first year of college so it wasn’t too bad. It was worse having an all you can eat buffet of food at the cafeteria every time you sat down for a meal. Too easy to consume 3k+ calories/day.


  1. The Cash Cow Roundup | Cash Cow Couple says:

    […] It’s that time of year again. College has started back up, and many unplanned costs are rearing their ugly head. Check out how to manage the hidden costs of college. […]

Speak Your Mind