Budgeting for the hidden costs of college

When the time comes to plan for your child’s college education, there are a number of expenses that are more or less predictable, such as tuition and fees, room and board, even books. But there are many more hidden costs that are harder to plan for—and a few that you may not have even considered. 


Perhaps the biggest unexpected cost depends on how long it takes your child to graduate. Most parents budget for four years; however, only about 40% of students complete their bachelor’s degree in that timeframe.1 For many students, college is now a six-year endeavor, due to factors such as switching majors, changing schools, and juggling a job. That’s why investing in a 529 education savings plan is so important. It lets you pay for qualified education expenses, such as tuition, federal tax free.2


But there are other hidden costs. Here are a number of other frequently overlooked expenses—many of which aren’t considered qualified education costs—to help you determine how much spending money your child may need.  


Getting from point A to point B can be expensive, regardless of whether your child is living at home or on campus.

  • Will your child have a car on campus? If so, be sure to budget for gas, insurance, parking, and general upkeep.
  • Does your child need to take a bus or subway to get to class? How much is a monthly pass? Are there student discounts?
  • Will your child be flying home for the holidays or taking a bus/train? How often? 


Social life

Most universities offer a wealth of cultural, sporting, academic, and other types of events, clubs, or communities that have great social and recreational benefits.

  • How socially active do you think your child will be? Does he or she like going to the movies, concerts, theater, or sporting events?
  • Does your child plan on joining a fraternity or sorority? There are costs associated with initiation, pledging, and social events, plus annual membership fees.
  • If your child plans to join an intramural or club sport, there may be expenses for travel, meals, uniforms, and equipment.



It’s hard to imagine a young person today without their cell phone, tablet, WiFi, streaming services, and other devices. The problem? Things break or quickly become outdated.

  • What types of tech gear does your child need? Does the university offer discounts on necessary software/hardware? Note that some of these costs are considered qualified education expenses.
  • Does the school have free WiFi access throughout campus?
  • Does it have an IT staff on call 24 hours a day?



  • Does your child plan to spend a semester abroad? It often can be more expensive to live in a foreign country.
  • Does your child plan on taking part in a work-study program or an internship? Does he or she have the proper clothing to wear on a job?
  • How will you handle moving your child—and all the stuff he or she has accumulated—back home? Could you rent a storage unit?


This is just a short list of potential expenses. If your child is living in an apartment not rented through the school, the list can grow longer (e.g., utilities, food, renter’s insurance).

As always, be sure to meet with your financial professional to discuss the best ways of planning for your child’s future and to learn more about the benefits of using a 529 education savings plan.