So if you add up all the college costs that students and parents probably didn't plan for — the stuff that isn't tuition and room and board — how big is that number? The National Retail Federation estimates that, this year, it will total $43 billion. That's a hard number to grasp, so let's break it down to one family — mine.
With our daughter now beginning her fourth and hopefully final year in college, here's one thing I've learned: No matter how much you plan to spend, it won't cover everything. Not even close.
And just to make sure I'm not way off, I checked in with Jim Chilton, a family financial adviser who helps parents plan for these costs.
The obvious one, that's often jaw-dropping: textbooks. Depending on your child's major, they can be super expensive.
Like the meteorology book Chilton's own son once had to buy: "$325 used — $510 new," he says.
Chilton is the founder of a nonprofit called the Society for Financial Awareness, which promotes financial education. But the real source of his expertise? "I lived it."
He put five kids through college. So Chilton feels my pain.
"These costs show up like a bad relative," he says. "In your mind, you set aside money per semester and lock that number in. You scrape and borrow and do whatever you have to, if you're middle income like most people. I can remember many times telling my kids 'no.' Then, after that, 'hell no.' "
Still, how do you say no to something your child can't live without? Like a laptop. According to the National Retail Federation's annual back-to-school report, 60 percent of college students will buy a new laptop or tablet this fall.
Our daughter, Bianca, of course insisted that her perfectly good laptop from high school was too old and too slow. The one we bought her for her freshman year set us back about $800. Then there was her smartphone, which might as well be another appendage. Count on an initial cost of $200 plus an $80 monthly fee. Even the cheapest plans these days cost about $1,000 a year.
Something else we didn't think about: lab equipment and art supplies. Huge art pads, charcoal, certain types of pencils, special erasers, eye goggles, all "required" and expensive.
Next, housing. Living on campus versus off is a big decision. Not having your child live in a dorm could save you up to $20,000 over the four years. On the other hand, your daughter could end up sharing a dumpy apartment or group home with a bunch of people who skip out on the rent or utilities. You get the picture.
Dorm stuff is something your daughter will probably negotiate with her roommates. Like pitching in for a mini-fridge or mini-vacuum. But furniture? I mean, how many bean bags, tables or chairs can two or three people possibly fit in a 12-by-19-foot room (the average size these days)?
Then there's the bedding, lamps, towels, wastepaper baskets and maybe a microwave or juice blender, which are supposed to last four years but don't.
Kathy Allen, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, says more than half of the $43 billion students and parents will spend on non-academic items this fall will go toward room furnishings.
"And that is actually the highest amount we've seen in the survey's 13-year history," says Allen.
Another big item on the NRF survey: food. Your options? A meal plan versus the grocery store around the corner. Don't forget fast food and late-night snacks. And if your child is anywhere near a Starbucks, we're talking about $120 a month for venti skim lattes and caramel macchiatos.
And alcohol. Yes, your child will drink. And, yes, that money you put into your kid's debit card every other week is paying for it.
On a typical Friday or Saturday night, figure somewhere between $10 and $50. That may not seem like a lot of money, but here's something the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants you to think about: College students spend a whopping $5.5 billion on alcohol every school year.
Naturally you're going to want to see your child on Thanksgiving and certainly the winter holiday break. If it's too far to drive, round-trip airfare could run you between $500 and $1,000. That's if you book a flight way ahead of time.
The cheap alternative, or what I call "the next best thing to being there": Skype. As for clothing, at this point I have two words: thrift store.
Finally, health insurance. It's the last thing college students think about — "Me? Sick?" — not realizing that dorms are breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases.
If your child is covered by your health insurance, great. Otherwise, expect to pay about $1,100 per semester, depending on the school's health plan.
So, is that everything? Probably not.
Our total bill? Way, way more than we planned for.
Is it worth it?
Call me in a year or two when my daughter is out in the real world. Right now, I'm still a few hundred dollars short, and school is just days away.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
So, you are a parent of a kid who is off to college. You've spent months navigating the government's convoluted financial aid process and meticulously budgeted for all those out-of-pocket expenses, or so you thought. Just ask NPR's Claudio Sanchez, who's reaching for his wallet right now.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: With our daughter now hopefully beginning her fourth and final year in college, here's one thing I've learned. No matter how much you plan to spend, it won't cover everything - not even close. And just to make sure I'm not the only one going through this, I checked in with Jim Chilton, a family financial adviser who helps parents break down college costs, often hiding in plain sight. The obvious one that's truly jaw-dropping, textbooks, like the meteorology book Chilton's own son had to buy.
JIM CHILTON: Three-hundred-twenty-five dollars, and that's used. It's 510 new.
C. SANCHEZ: Chilton is the founder of a nonprofit group called Society for Financial Awareness. But the real source of his expertise...
CHILTON: I lived it, Claudio. I lived it.
C. SANCHEZ: He put five kids through college, so Chilton feels my pain.
CHILTON: These costs show up like a bad relative, and it's the same with college. And you scrape and borrow and do whatever you have to do if you're just middle income like a lot of people are, OK? I can remember many times telling my kids, no, and then after that, hell no.
C. SANCHEZ: Still, says Chilton, how do you say no to something your child absolutely needs these days, like a laptop?
CHILTON: Can you imagine going into a classroom today and you raise your hand and say, I don't have a computer?
C. SANCHEZ: This fall, according to the National Retail Federation, 60 percent of college students will buy a new laptop or tablet, insisting, of course, that their perfectly good computer from high school is too old and too slow.
BIANCA SANCHEZ: It was old technology, oh, yeah.
C. SANCHEZ: That's Bianca, my daughter, an environmental sciences major with an artistic flair. Her new computer her first year in college set us back about 800 bucks. Then there was her smartphone, which might as well be another appendage. Count on an initial cost of $200 plus $80 a month on average. Even the cheapest plans cost about $1,000 a year. What we definitely didn't think about - lab equipment and art supplies.
B. SANCHEZ: Huge art pads, charcoal, certain types of pencils, special erasers.
C. SANCHEZ: So where did you get the money to buy that?
B. SANCHEZ: From you (laughter).
C. SANCHEZ: Just checking, Bianca. Next, living off campus versus on campus - big decision. Not having your child live in a dorm can save you up to $20,000. On the other hand, your daughter could end up sharing a dumpy apartment or a group home with a bunch of people who skip out on the rent, utilities, you get the picture.
Now, dorm stuff is something your daughter needs to negotiate with her roommates, like pitching in for a minifridge or a minivacuum. But furniture - I mean, how many beanbags, tables or chairs can two or three people possibly fit in a room 12 by 19 feet? And by the way, if you were wondering how much money we as a nation spend on all this - brace yourself, $43 billion this fall. And according to the National Retail Federation's annual back to college survey, more than half of them will go towards, lamps, bedding, towels, wastebaskets, maybe a microwave or juice blender, $43 billion.
KATHY ALLEN: And that is actually the highest amount we've seen in the survey's 13-year history.
C. SANCHEZ: That's NRF spokesperson, Kathy Allen.
ALLEN: They want matching lamps, matching shades, matching bedding. All of that is now a part of traditional college expenses.
C. SANCHEZ: Another huge expense item on the National Retail Federation survey, food. Your options are a meal plan versus the 7-Eleven or grocery store down the street, not to mention late night snacks and, of course, caffeine, usually the expensive stuff.
B. SANCHEZ: Hi, can I get a grande skim iced chai?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: May I have your name for the cup, please? Bianca?
C. SANCHEZ: Just hope and pray that your child does not live anywhere near a Starbucks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: $4.57.
C. SANCHEZ: Because if she does, we're talking about a $120 a month for nonfat chais and caramel macchiatos. And let's not forget alcohol. Yes, your child will drink, and yes, that money you put into her debit card every other week is going to help pay for it - $10 to $50 on a typical Friday or Saturday night. It may not seem like a lot, but here's something the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants you to know. College students spend a whopping $5.5 billion on alcohol every year - billion with a B.
Naturally, you're going to want to see your child on Thanksgiving and during Christmas break, so you have to budget for transportation. If it's too far to drive, round-trip airfare will cost you $500 to $1,000 per semester, double if you don't book a flight ahead of time. The cheap alternative, or what I call the next best thing to being there, Skype. As for clothing, at this point, I have two words for you, thrift store.
Finally, health insurance - it's the last thing college students think about - me, get sick? - not realizing, of course, that dorms are breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases. If your child's covered by your health insurance, count yourself lucky. If not, you can expect to pay for the school's health plan up to, oh, about $1,100 per semester. So is that everything? Probably not. Our total bill, way, way more than we planned for. Is it worth it? Call me in a year or two when my daughter's out in the real world. Right now I'm still short a few hundred dollars, and school is just days away. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: We would like to hear about your college experience as a parent or a student, what hidden cost of college surprised you the most, possibly pricey college-branded sports gear or tickets for the sorority formal or the rental price of a cap and gown.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How about external hard drives or other computer accessories? Maybe it was a while ago you were in college. You had to buy a typewriter or a boom box or a minifridge or you moved to a college in the north and had to buy a lot of cold weather clothing or decided to fly south at spring break.
MONTAGNE: To tell us about the biggest hidden cost of college you've had to shell out for, you can show use your smartphone or your cassette deck, if you still have one, to record a voice memo. Keep it short - 30 seconds or less. Make sure to include your name and where you live. Send the voice memo or a, say, written email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.