We did it! My high school senior said yes to the right school for him. With this milestone behind us, we can now look forward to the post-acceptance stage of college financial planning. That’s the stage after you’ve received your financial-aid package but before your student begins classes. As it turns out, there are still many factors that determine if a student will come up short when the tuition bill is due.
Avoiding these common mistakes is key to getting your student off to school with less stress and fewer unexpected fees. Here’s what we’ve learned, and you need to know:
1. Plan for Cost Increases
Whether it’s fuel, medications, or even the family Netflix subscription, costs are rising on daily expenses and they can easily blow a well-planned budget.
Since I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t see what basics like gas will cost for a two-hour drive home for Spring Break, I need to plan ahead, adding a 15-20% buffer for the unknowns that can happen in the course of a school year. This is in addition to any year-over-year cost increases that the school charges for the sophomore year and beyond.
2. Learn About Program-Related Expenses
There’s no way to really know exactly what books and materials your student will need before they get their course syllabi. You can use the online bookstore search tools at most colleges to see what books are required for the current term. These can change, but they do give a framework for if books will likely be used at all or if you’ll need to buy three to four heavy textbooks that cost $100 or more.
You’ll also want to check out the supply lists for a course, which may be available online through a quick search. Reach out to past students (via school Facebook alumni groups) to see what basic tools will be needed. Estimate a basic cost for books and supplies, then round up. This will prevent any surprises when fall term rolls around.
3. Get a Jump-Start on Summer Employment
We live in a rural area where everyone is hiring. Not all summer jobs are a great fit, however, and the great jobs fill up quickly. If you’re counting on your student working full time the summer before school starts, help them reach out to employers now to see how their summer hiring works. Do they prefer returning students over new hires they have to train? Is there a way to have your child do a part-time job on nights or weekends to secure some of these better opportunities?
Get a feel for jobs that will help your student meet their summer savings goals. It might seem like a small amount, but a job with a $2-an-hour wage difference could add up to $800-1000 more in their bank account when school starts.
4. Figure Out the “How” of College Financial Planning
It seems pretty straightforward, right? The college tuition bill comes due, and you pay it. But this is one area where you want to get into the nitty-gritty of how payments work. We are conditioned to use tools like debit and credit cards to pay for things, even when we have cash – mainly because they are so convenient.
The truth is, if you pull out the plastic in your college financial aid office, you’ll get hit with a 2-5% fee for what the credit card processors charge the college (and that they kindly pass along to you). This could translate to extra costs of anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
If you choose a payment plan option, ask about how the plan works. For example:
- Do they charge a one-time fee? Or is there a fee every month they process a payment?
- Does the fee vary by payment method (ACH withdrawal vs. your student bringing them a check each month)?
Now is the time to ask these questions.
5. Expect Changes in Your Personal Lives
I’m one of those parents who try to view life from every angle, figure out every possible scenario, and plan accordingly. One mistake I see made by even the most prepared parents is thinking this first year sets the stage for every year. The fact is, we don’t know what’s ahead so we have to plan for the known unknowns. Call it insurance of sorts. Here are some “what ifs” to consider:
- What if my student changes his major?
- What if my student’s GPA changes?
- What if my family income drastically changes?
- What if that “renewable” scholarship is no longer offered at my school?
Any one of these future scenarios could mean we’d have to come up with a large amount of money really quickly. While I don’t love to think about it, my family has discussed ways we could fill in the gaps if one of our grants or scholarships changed. We’ve talked about working more, cutting costs in other areas, and what it would take to cause my son to have to leave school and consider another education path.
It’s not that I love to dwell on these things, but I know that we must have a line. I know it’s not sustainable to mortgage my house and take out all of our savings for my one child because I have four more waiting to go to college soon. By figuring out our boundaries, even in this situation with a school we love, we’ll be better prepared to tackle things without too much emotion and with the best interests of our entire family in mind.
The Worst College Financial Planning Mistake?
Procrastination is the biggest college financial planning mistake, and most families are guilty of it to some degree. Looking back, I’ve made my share of mistakes when it comes to preparing to pay for college. We could have started standardized testing early or put more money in our state’s 529 college savings plan instead of a high-interest-rate savings account. I could have thought more about how tax planning and our family’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) affected federal student aid and other government funds.
That said, since I can’t undo the past, I can plan better for the future. These post-acceptance college financial planning mistakes don’t have to be mine. They certainly don’t have to be yours, either.
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