Student Loans

College Expenses: How Much Money Do You Really Need?

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Deciding on a college loan amount sounds easy. You just take out the amount you need for tuition, multiply it by the four years you intend to graduate in, and start packing. Right?

Not quite.

The cost of tuition in the United States has outpaced inflation for decades, making student loans a common reality for college students. But when you’re taking out student loans, there are other costs to consider besides tuition.

So how do you figure out how much you need? Whether you take out too much or too little, you’ll be stuck with a loan you can’t alter. If you take out too much money for college, you’ll have to pay interest on money you didn’t need. If you take out too little, you could be eating beans and rice for the rest of the semester.

Read below for our tips on how to properly estimate the loan amount you need.

Do Your Research on College Expenses

When it comes to paying for college, most people only look at the cost of tuition. But there are so many other factors that can add thousands to your total bill. If you want to figure out how much you need for school, grab a paper, pen, and calculator, and start doing the math.

Room and Board

The cost for a year of room and board depends on a lot of factors, beginning with whether the student lives in campus housing or in the community. The cost of campus-based housing depends on the type of institution, while the price of living in town depends on the cost-of-living in the community. Off-campus students should also budget costs for utilities (water, electricity, wi-fi, cable TV). One way to cut down costs is to split a dorm or apartment with other students, particularly off-campus where utility costs can be shared.

Books and Supplies

The College Board reports that the average cost for books and supplies is $1,298. Some courses include required reading that is posted online. Another way to reduce costs is to buy used books from the college bookstore or, better yet, online through an online retailer. Be sure to order the correct edition required for the course. Early birds on campus can sometimes order required materials from the college library for the semester. Other school supplies can include printer cartridges, laptops, tablets, or software. To save on these, look for refurbished hardware or download free compatible software.

Groceries or Cafeteria Plan

NBC News found that many colleges require freshmen living on campus to buy a meal plan. Some offer only two meals to save costs, but NBC says buying a campus meal plan plus paying for the planned or unexpected restaurant meals off campus can cost a student well into the thousands a year. Again, the type of institution may influence the cost of the meal plan. A public state college may charge $2,200 per semester for a meal plan, while a select, private institution may charge upwards of $3,495 a semester. To save, some students buy one or two meals in the campus plan and stock a mini-fridge in the dorm for quick breakfasts and snacks. Off-campus students may save even more by foregoing the food plan, but if they don’t budget wisely ($200-$250 per month), they can break their budgets.


Students who live on campus may still have to pay fees to park their vehicles in dorm parking spaces. Students commuting to school will have to pay for gas and a parking sticker to park on campus — or find free off-campus parking near the school. They may have to pay to park where they live off-campus. Students commuting by public transportation may offset costs by purchasing a seasonal pass where available, rather than buying individual tickets.

School and Activity Fees

School and activity fees depend on the institution and the interests of each student. Time magazine found that only 38% of the total cost to attend college is chalked up for tuition where in-state students are concerned. Students may have to pay recreation center memberships, medical costs not covered on campus, course laboratory fees, and fraternity/sorority memberships. Charges can be levied as student union fees, building fees, performing arts fees, and more. Students worried about costs may be able to opt out of some fees but lose the benefits of them.


Many colleges have estimates on how much their students typically spend on the above-listed items. While these are only averages, they can give you a good range of how much you can expect to spend.

There are other things you’ll want to prepare for as well. Eating out, buying clothes, going to concerts – all those typical college memories cost money, especially if you expect to be active socially. If you have to pay for a cell phone bill, car insurance, etc. – those items should also be factored into your decision. Leave some room for emergencies as well. That could include flying home for a funeral, going to the doctor off campus, or any other unexpected expense you can think of. Try coming up with cash to cover these emergencies if you aren’t getting your loan check directly.

How to Budget Your Loan

Getting the right loan won’t make a difference if you can’t properly budget it. Even if you take out the exact amount that you need, you could blow it all on pizza and beer if you’re not careful.

Once you’ve figured out how much things cost and how big of a loan you’ll need, use those numbers as your starter budget. If you know that meals will cost you $3,000 this semester, divide that money by how long your semester is. That way, you’ll know how much you can spend on food per week, per day or even per meal.

Students can generally stick to simple budgets, and that’s often the only kind they’ll have the time to monitor. One method that works for many is the envelope system, where you take out cash for each category in your budget. Once that cash is gone, it’s gone. You can’t transfer it from another category or withdraw more money.

You can also use mobile banking to track your spending. Apps like Mint are great for seeing how much you’ve spent so far and how much you have left in your budget. Some people carry around a small notebook to track their spending, especially if they use cash. Others save their receipts and enter them into an Excel spreadsheet.

Whatever the method, using a budget can ensure that you don’t run out of funds halfway through the semester. If you have a credit card, avoid using it for college expenses unless you can stick to your budget. Credit cards are an easy way to lose track of your spending, as the cash flow is less direct and easier to forget about.

Many college students run up credit card debt along with student loans. It’s easy to spend money without knowing how much of a balance you’ve racked up. If you do use a credit card, make sure it has a low balance as a cautionary measure against overspending.

Calculate Your Earnings

A great way to decrease how much you have to take out is by getting a job while you’re a student. If you’ll be working while you’re in school or in between semesters, try to estimate how much you’ll earn from those jobs. Some students will be eligible for work-study, which can also greatly decrease college costs.

You can save the money you earn or put it towards your college expenses. Consider putting your paychecks toward your loans while you’re in school, for example. That way, you decrease your debt before it grows to less manageable levels.

Make sure not to overestimate or count on money that won’t be there. Too often people assume they’ll get a job only to find themselves unemployed. If you aren’t confident you’re going to find work, ignore those figures in your calculations.

Personalize Your Loan

Taking out a loan for college isn’t as simple as finding out tuition costs. As you’ve learned by now, there are plenty of factors that can dramatically increase how much college costs you. Each person will have different needs and expenses.

Those in a science major will have more lab fees, while those taking creative writing might be able to find cheaper copies of their books. Students living in a dorm may receive subsidies or other perks, whereas those living off campus will have to factor in bills and rent.

In other words, no loan size fits all. Take these and any other potential costs into account and then use LendingTree to find the lender that’s right for you.