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Learn... Plan... Prepare for College

Steps to Build Plan
  Step 1 - Student Preparations
  Step 2 - Take exams
  Step 3 - Choose college and apply
  Step 4 - Get financial aid
  Step 5 - Prepare for departure
  Step 6 - Get help
  Find the annual costs of any four-year college or university
  Scholarship Search Wizard
Prepare for student's departure

Your child is heading off to college, and you've devised a plan to pay the big bill.

Now you need to address the inevitable discretionary costs that will occur during that nine-month period when your child is at college.

This page offers suggestions on how to handle those often overlooked but unavoidable expenses.

Health insurance
An estimated 75 - 90% of full-time students are covered under their parents' policies, and chances are that's the easiest and best solution for you as well.

One major exception: if you belong to a closed-network HMO that doesn't provide non-emergency coverage in the school's area. Most other policies will cover children who are full-time students until they reach the age of 23.

Many universities will automatically charge you for health insurance, so be sure to complete a waiver before classes begin if you're keeping your child on your policy.

If you need to make a change, look into the college's plan but make sure it provides the coverage your student needs. Unusually low premiums may signal inadequate coverage. Read the fine print, especially the exclusions. Surprisingly, some school plans don't cover injuries sustained in intramural sports. If you need an individual plan, comparison shop at or contact a large provider like Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Auto insurance
If your child will be attending a college at least 100 miles away from home and is not taking a car, you may get some relief from the high premiums you've been paying for insuring a young driver. In fact, some parents see rates go down by as much as 75 percent for the period the student is not at home.

If your child is taking a car to college, your premium could go way up, depending on where the school is. Make sure you know how much this will cost before you agree to this. Also, be sure to notify your insurance company if your child does take the car to college. Failure to do so may jeopardize renewal.

Property insurance
Most homeowner's policies fully cover personal possessions in dorm rooms, although some have a limit of 10% of the value of the policy. If your child lives off campus, you may well have to take out a renter's policy, typically between $100 and $300 a year.

Special note : Because laptops are such popular theft targets, not all homeowner's policies cover them. If your policy doesn't cover your child's computer, you have two choices: a rider to your policy for $25 to $50 a year, or a new policy for $75 to $100. The reason for choosing the new policy? Making a claim for a lost computer could trigger a higher premium on your homeowner's policy.

Books and supplies
With book costs for a semester running as much as $1,000, the Internet has become invaluable for students. Rather than paying full price through the college bookstore, either buy used books or compare prices from a bunch of websites at or try, an eBay site. For everyday supplies, such as notebooks, pens and paper, skip the student bookstore and head to Staples or Office Depot.

There are a few items that actually may be cheaper at the university's online store. Often you can find discounts on computers because they buy in bulk. Also check out the manufacturer's online website for special education deals. Apple has an education store that offers discounts on Apple computers and software.

For many students, balancing a checkbook can be a real juggling act, and a costly one, if they're hit with penalty charges for bounced checks. Have your student sign up for overdraft protection, or you can link his or her bank account to your credit card to cover overdrafts.

You might also consider a stored-value card, such as Visa Buxx, to dispense a monthly allowance. You can set up a regular deposit schedule or add money to the card as needed, either online or over the phone. Your student can use the card to get cash from an ATM or to charge purchases. You can track the transactions online and turn off any function you need to.

Credit cards
As soon as freshmen set foot on campus, representatives from banks will be handing them free T-shirts and key chains as incentives to sign up for credit cards. If your child is 18, you don't need to guarantee a card -- so you don't control which one or ones your child picks.

The best strategy is to help your child get a credit card while still at home. You can add your child to your account, which lets you monitor the spending.

You also can try a prepaid, reloadable card with limits of $500 or $1,000.

Phone service
If your student is among the 76% of college students who own a cell phone, a family cell-phone plan may be a better choice than the school's long-distance offering. As you are aware, cell phone plans allow you to share minutes and receive one bill. Examine your current plan and see if it will meet the needs of you and your student. If this is not an option, get a prepaid phone card for the student. If the long-distance calls should all be to your home, consider getting a 1-800 number.

Leaving the car at home could save a bundle. College campuses are notorious for issuing parking tickets, and there usually aren't enough open spots for all the students. Given the rush to get to class on time, students often have to park wherever they can, and the result is usually lots of parking tickets (average price about $20 each).

If your child is attending a school halfway across the country, and is traveling home for holidays or special occasions, there are websites that specialize in student travel arrangements with reduced fares:, which lists travel deals for students, and, which comes up with air, rail and other discount fares when you type in your destination, and lets you book online if your e-mail address ends in .edu. StudentUniverse also excels at last-minute and one-way air fares.

Additionally, you can check with Southwest Airlines and Midwest Airlines, both of which offer student fares but you need to ask when booking.

Laundry, toiletries, and pizza all add up, and can take a sizable chunk out of a student's budget. Make sure you allow enough for these types of items, and talk with your child about what's "essential" and what's not. For example, if you are paying for the college meal plan, explain to your child just how many outside meals you will pay for.

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