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Controlling College Expenses

Gene Grzywacz -- $25 here, $10 there -- over the span of a year, necessary but perhaps unanticipated college expenses outside of tuition can add up fast.

Your tuition money probably won't take care of such loose ends as lab fees for specific courses, late registration charges, drop-and-add fees, library fines, motor vehicle registration and parking fees, and various other course-related hits your budget will have to absorb. Individually, these fees may seem manageable -- $25 here, $10 there -- but over the span of a year, they can add up fast.

Your best bet here may be the preemptive strike: Find out about the existence of such fees, particularly in lab classes, before you register or during the first week of school, so, if need be, you can drop the class and take it later, when you've budgeted for it. (The fee might be mentioned in the schedule of classes, or you could find out from your professor or the department.)

And then, there's book money. Books are expensive, even though, in the grand scheme, they generally account for only a tiny fraction (probably less than 5 percent) of a student's total college expenses. One state school, the University of South Carolina, estimates that students will spend about $495 a year on textbooks.

Are you helpless? Is there no hope for saving money here? Don't be silly! Of course there's hope. First, you can shave a huge chunk off your total cost for books and supplies by buying the things you could get anywhere -- notebooks, pens -- at an off-campus discount or warehouse store.

Save even more by buying as many used books as you can and by being creative. For example, if you're assigned the Oxford edition of Pride and Prejudice, you could pick up a cheap used paperback at an off-campus bookstore and, assuming the basic text is the same in any edition, just read the Oxford edition's introduction (to note any important points of criticism your professor may discuss in class).

Borrowing. If you're lucky enough to find willing lenders, this is also a great way to save. Ask around -- befriend and/or plead with older students in your major (or in your dorm, club, fraternity, or sorority) and see if they'll lend you their textbooks. (We know you already know this, but if you borrow somebody's book, treat it with kid gloves. Treat it better than you'd treat your own book. Cherish it. Nurture it. Protect it. Don't write in it, don't dog-ear pages, don't read it in the bathtub, don't mark your place by leaving it open, face-down, and ruining the binding, and don't abuse the goodwill of the person who lent you the book. And don't forget to return the book when you've finished with it.)

Buy used books whenever possible. As you can imagine, used books are gobbled up fast, so buy early. (This means that you should sign up for advising and preregistration as soon as possible, so you'll know what courses you'll be taking. If you register late, you probably won't find a huge selection of cheap used books to choose from.)

At the end of the semester, you can recoup some money by selling your own books either back to the bookstore or to other students. You won't get the full price back, but you can recover at least some of your costs. (Note: If you think you might be selling the book one day, plan ahead. Take the steps mentioned above to care for the book; in particular, don't write in it -- you'll lower the resale value.)

Buy only what you really need. Finally, be sure to find out whether each book on your course list is required or recommended. If it's just recommended, you may be able to get by without buying it. (Bookstores are supposed to label these distinctions plainly, but they don't always do it. If you're not sure, ask a clerk to check the professor's ordering instructions.) Tip: Some professors put copies of the books on their list on reserve at the library. Which means that you may be able to avoid buying some books altogether. (But be aware that this could be risky if you count on getting access to the books in the reserve room just when you need them most -- like a few days before a big test.)

Gene Grzywacz has also written the College Student Survival Guide and about nursing school and other college tips.

© 2012 Gene Grzywacz

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