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Planning for the Hidden Costs of College

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Whether you're a high school student preparing for college or a parent supporting your child's education, it's essential to understand the complete financial picture of attending college. While college application fees, tuition, room, and board are often the main expenses that come to mind, there are several other college expenses that can catch students off guard. 

In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore these hidden college expenses, why they matter, and how you can plan for them to ensure a smooth financial journey through college. We'll even share insights from current college students about what costs they found surprising. So let's get started. 

What Are Hidden College Expenses, and Why Do They Matter?

Hidden college expenses refer to the costs not typically included in the upfront tuition and fees advertised by colleges and universities. These expenses include textbooks, transportation, extracurricular activities, and other fees that may not be immediately obvious. 

While some of these costs may be optional, others are essential for a student's overall college experience. We'll dig into some of these expenses now. 

Textbooks and Course Materials

One of college's most significant hidden costs is textbooks and course materials. While tuition covers the cost of instruction, students are often responsible for purchasing their textbooks, workbooks, and other required class materials. These expenses can add up quickly, especially for majors requiring specialized or technical textbooks.

To save money on textbooks, you can consider renting them, buying used books, or exploring online resources. Additionally, some colleges and universities have textbook rental programs or libraries where students can borrow required materials for a semester.

Transportation and Parking

Transportation and parking costs can be unexpected for college students, especially those who bring a car to campus. Many colleges charge for parking permits, either on an annual or per-semester basis. In addition to parking fees, you may also need to budget for fuel, maintenance, and insurance expenses if you have a vehicle on campus.

If you plan to rely on public transportation, it's important to consider the cost of fares or passes. Some colleges may offer students discounted or free public transit options, so it's worth exploring these options to save on transportation expenses.

Greek Life and Extracurricular Activities

Participating in Greek life or other extracurricular activities can be a rewarding experience but can also come with additional costs. Joining a fraternity or sorority often requires paying membership dues, purchasing event tickets, and contributing to fundraising efforts. These expenses can vary depending on the specific organization and chapter.

Similarly, involvement in other extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports teams, or student organizations may also come with costs. You might need to pay for uniforms, equipment, travel expenses, or event fees. While these activities can enhance the college experience, it's essential to consider the financial implications before committing to them.

Above Average Course Loads and Extra Credit Hours

Colleges typically provide estimates for tuition based on a specific number of credit hours per semester. If you choose to take an above-average course load or enroll in extra credit hours, there may be additional costs you'll need to cover. 

Of course, taking more classes can help you graduate faster. But it's essential to consider the financial implications of doing so. 

Non-Course-Related Fees

In addition to tuition and fees directly related to coursework, you may encounter various non-course-related fees throughout your college journey. These fees include orientation fees, access fees for fitness centers or libraries, and charges for online courses or study abroad programs. 

You can look out for these fees and ask questions if they don't make sense to you. But it helps to plan for these costs so you're prepared if they arise. 

Taxes on Scholarships and Financial Aid

Scholarships and financial aid can be essential resources for funding your college education. However, it's important to note that specific scholarships and financial aid awards may be subject to taxes. 

You may have to report the scholarship or financial aid as taxable income depending on the specific award and individual circumstances. This becomes an issue if it impacts your tax return. 

Personal Expenses

Living away from home and being responsible for personal expenses is a significant transition for many college students. Clothing, laundry, and personal care items are often overlooked hidden costs of college. 

While these expenses may seem small individually, they can add up over time. Creating a monthly budget and tracking these costs can help you manage your personal expenses and avoid any financial surprises.

Healthcare and Insurance

Healthcare and insurance costs are another critical consideration when budgeting for college. Some colleges may require students to have health insurance coverage through their parents' plan or by purchasing a separate policy. Additionally, some colleges offer student health insurance plans that you can choose to enroll in.

For this reason, it's essential to understand the healthcare options available to you and their associated costs. 

Unexpected Emergencies and Contingency Funds

Preparing for unexpected emergencies is an essential part of financial planning for college. You should have a contingency fund or emergency savings account to cover unexpected expenses, such as medical bills, car repairs, or unforeseen travel costs. 

Having a financial safety net can provide peace of mind and help you navigate unexpected challenges without derailing your college experience.

Current College Student Advice: Managing the Hidden College Expenses

When entering college, I knew I would have to cover three main expenses: tuition, room and board, and other miscellaneous costs like books and small appliances. However, I hadn't anticipated additional expenses within these categories. 

For instance, I didn't realize that room and board were separate items; I thought they were bundled together. Room and board actually refers to paying for a living space and a meal plan. While some colleges require meal plans for freshmen, many don't, and it's an optional expense. 

Discovering this, I had initially planned to cook my meals, which was a great way to save money since meal plans are often expensive compared to cooking for oneself. Of course, various factors determine whether a meal plan or self-cooking is the right choice for you, but if you have the time and resources, I strongly recommend cooking on your own as it significantly reduces room and board costs.

During my college experience, I also learned the value of being frugal. I always had a thrifty mindset, preferring to keep money in my bank account rather than see it diminish without any return. Since I didn't have a weekly paying job, I had to be cautious with my spending, ensuring I didn't splurge excessively. 

This is where scholarships and external funding play a crucial role. If you receive substantial scholarship money that covers all your expenses, you may receive a refund check that can be used at your discretion. I saved a significant portion of that money but also allocated some for groceries and personal needs. 

Additionally, I took on a small side job to have some income. I strongly advocate having some form of income while in college, even if it's not substantial, as it can go a long way.

Having a frugal mindset is essential. Make sure to purchase only necessary items. It can be tempting to spend freely due to the newfound freedom, but practicing self-control in your spending will save you a great deal in the future. So, from my experiences with college expenses, I urge you to develop wise spending habits, manage your money responsibly, decide whether a meal plan or cooking is right for you, and apply for scholarships.

Chad J.
University of Central Florida


While the burden of explicit initial costs like tuition is focused on, I was surprised by how the more minute academic expenses add up significantly. For each class taken, there are required books that are often unexpectedly expensive and can be difficult to find online. This leaves you needing to purchase stacks of resources that are costly and ultimately useful for a short period. 

The University of Chicago


All my life, I've been an academically "stellar" student, and so I wanted to attend a stellar, prestigious university. I did get accepted into top schools like Duke and Brown, but my joy from receiving acceptance letters from these schools quickly dissipated upon seeing the financial aid packages. 

Though top private universities now boast about making attendance more feasible for different wealth classes, as an upper-middle-class individual, I fell into a gap - my parents made far too much for me to be considered "in need" of a lot of aid. Still, my parents didn't really make enough to afford $60,000 a year. 

Because of this, I ended up choosing to enroll at the University of Miami, where I received a full tuition scholarship. And they will also accept many of my college credits that I earned in high school, which will save me more time and money.

From my experience, I would say that before you spend time, money, and energy applying to any school, it is worth going out of your way to use their net price calculator based on your financial circumstances so you're not surprised later. And, if the school is out of your price range, only apply if they offer large merit scholarships - which is the only reason I can afford UMiami. 

Applying to scholarships, in general, is a good idea; I have a $15,000 scholarship that will cover me for the first year at UMiami, which gives me time to earn more money for my following years without stressing as much. Another way to keep costs down for colleges is by taking dual enrollment high school classes so you go into university with credits that will (hopefully) transfer. 

I think it is also worth considering the surrounding location of your school. For instance, UMiami is in Coral Gables, and everything is quite expensive. Whether or not the surrounding area of your school is expensive, good ways to make sure you don't splurge too much on your college allowance are 1) budgeting 2) limiting yourself on how much you go out to do certain things - e.g. only letting yourself eat out at restaurants twice a month, only letting yourself go off campus for a night of fun once a month, etc etc.

Yewande Shitta-Bey
University of Miami

Budgeting for Hidden Costs of College 

As Yewande mentioned above, college students must create and stick to a budget. Implementing a budget is akin to having a roadmap for a long journey. Just as you wouldn't set out on a cross-country trip without a clear route, navigating through college without a financial plan can lead you into the pitfalls of overspending, accumulating debt, and financial stress.

A well-set budget can assist you in distinguishing between wants and needs, prevent impulsive purchases, and foster the discipline to save while in school. Moreover, the skills you hone while budgeting during these years will prove invaluable as you step into the larger world, ready to tackle more significant financial challenges and milestones.

Using a budgeting app to track your expenses and ensure you stay on track with your spending is a wise decision. Here are a few of the most popular budgeting apps:





Compare Costs of Colleges to Plan & Save

College is an investment in your future and will pay off in terms of better opportunities and earning potential. But you must understand the total financial picture to make informed, confident decisions and set yourself up for success.

Going into the college search process, one way to do that is to use a tool like Appily to compare the costs of colleges on your list. Click the button to get started. You can compare costs, save colleges, and see other critical information like acceptance rates, test requirements, and application deadlines. 

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now