College students face life on a budget

Rob Barnes’ penchant for buying T-shirts and hoodies got the “clothing” category bumped from his parents’ side of the college spending ledger to his own.

It may not be the sort of thing most people would think to figure into a college budget plan, but Barnes’ T-shirt habit is representative of the spending choices that crop up as a student settles in to life on campus. From pizza runs to dorm-room decorations, Greek Week festivities to football games, the list of temptations for a student’s dollar is practically endless.

“I have been amazed with how fast the $10, $15 and $20 charges seem to add up,” said Barnes, who is about to enter his junior year as an English major at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.

Preparing college-bound students for the numerous financial decisions they’ll have to make is an important step in getting them ready for school. Skip over addressing the issue of making responsible spending choices, and parents might find themselves receiving a steady stream of “Send more money!!!” text messages.

A frank conversation about how much money is available and who will pay for what can be seen as “the equivalent of giving them the last financial inoculation before they go into the real world,” said Jason Alderman, director of financial education for Visa Inc. “Setting that expectation that there will be a budget is really important to do before your kid goes to college.”

One issue that makes such planning especially difficult is that young people are notoriously unprepared to deal with financial issues.

“These are skills that need to be taught. We don’t learn this by osmosis,” said Leslie E. Linfield, executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, Maine. “We don’t automatically know how to use a debit card, how to use a credit card, how to manage cash.”

A few weeks before they’re due to report to classes may not be enough time to fully prepare students for the realities of the hundreds of financial decisions they’re about to make. But Linfield said parents can give their kids a crash course in money management. “Mom and Dad should be sitting at the kitchen table with them and talking,” she said.

The conversation should include making a list of the types of spending that students will face and who is going to cover what costs. Beyond tuition, school fees, books and housing, decisions must be made about necessities like food and transportation. Does it make sense for your child to take part in a campus meal plan, or would cooking be a better choice? Should your son or daughter have a car on campus — and risk parking tickets and emergency repairs along with facing high gas prices? Or will public transportation suffice?

Students who are living off-campus need to also consider utilities and household supplies.