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Know the Costs of Living On or Off Campus

group of students moving into dorm

For the past 18 years you’ve clothed, fed and housed your child. Before they leave the nest, talk with them about the ins and outs of managing housing, food and other living expenses while away at college.

Dorm vs. Off-Campus Housing

On-campus and off-campus housing costs can vary quite a bit. Most schools require freshmen to live on campus. The upside: Your child’s core living expenses will be known in advance. The dorm room will be furnished, equipped with internet and cable hook-ups and located near dining halls.

If your child wants to live off campus, he or she should compare the cost of living on campus.

Off-campus means your child must pay for:

  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Furniture
  • Utilities

Renters insurance is a good idea — and an additional expense. Here are a few things to consider before you or your child sign a lease.


Advise your teen to do some research. It’s a good idea to contact his or her future roommate to discuss what each will bring. You want to avoid both of them arriving at college toting a mini-fridge.

For dorm living, your son or daughter should check with the school to see what’s in the room. Some colleges supply microwaves and mini-fridges, while others do not. Beyond that, your child should plan to bring clothing, desk materials, linens, toiletries, decorations and small personal items.

If your child opts to decorate or buy appliances or furniture, he or she should create a shopping list and a budget. Big-box retailers push back-to-school deals that can encourage binge spending. Thrift stores, flea markets and online sites such as Craigslist are a cheaper alternative. So are the items cluttering up your own house.

Co-signing a Lease

You’ll inherit a financial stake in your son or daughter’s apartment if the landlord requires you to co-sign the lease. Avoid signing if at all possible or you'll have to pick up the roommate’s tab if he or she fails to pay rent. This is an especially big risk if the school is in a high cost-of-living area.

Meal Plans and Swipe Cards

Many colleges allow students to choose a meal plan. Your child should choose carefully. An unlimited plan may tempt them to eat their money’s worth, even when it’s too much.

A limited plan may leave your child hungry and buying additional snacks and meals. A college-supplied magnetic swipe card is an easy way to pay for meals. The cards also can be used at other campus sites including bookstores, snack bars, or convenience stores. Check if your teen’s card is a debit card pre-loaded with a certain sum. That can prevent binge spending.

But be sure to find out what happens when there is no money left on the card and make certain your child will not need the card for something critical, such as medical care. Otherwise, you’ll want to monitor your child’s spending, perhaps by having bills sent to you.

Four Wheels…Two Wheels…or Two Feet

If your child wants to bring a car, ask if he or she really needs one. How much would your child use it for trips home or elsewhere? Most campuses are designed for students to walk, bike or ride the bus. If your son or daughter wants a car, you both need to consider the subsequent rise in their cost of living. There's:

  • Parking
  • Gas
  • Maintenance
  • Insurance
  • Possible parking and traffic tickets

Ultimately, you and your child know your situation best. Start by brainstorming needs and options and be honest about your financial limitations. The best way to learn financial lessons is often to work through them together.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]