We'll let you in on a little secret that "they" don't want you to know: College is expensive!
And it's not just tuition. Your child will have to buy books,
kegs of beer new clothes, and even some housewares to furnish a dorm room or apartment. With all this spending going on, the line between "need" and "want" can get a little blurred.
Ultimately, these expenditures may depend on the budget and soft-heartedness of parents. Here's a list of items you should not buy your matriculating student as they head back to school. Your kid might not thank you when you say no, but your wallet will!
While you're at it, check out all our back-to-school guides for further buying advice.
Potential Savings: $30 - $100 (plus ink, which ain't cheap!)
Parents: Since your time at college, most schools have entered what is now being referred to as "the digital age." That means that professors now accept (or even prefer) assignments delivered paperlessly via email. Modern students may find that they never have to print a single assignment, so why invest in a printer? In the rare instance that your kid will have to print something (a flyer for their dorm room party, perhaps), most schools offer printing facilities that are either free or cheap to use.
Potential Savings: $10 - $50 for drip; $70 - $100 for Keurig
Caffeine's a great way to stay awake in those early morning (10 am) classes, but coffee is also a fun excuse to go hang out with friends. Don't waste money on a coffee maker for them, when what they really want is for you to waste money paying for their expensive Starbucks coffees.
Potential Savings: $400 - $1,000
Unless their major is Pharmacology, your average kid should be able to get through college without ever touching a tablet. This is because there are currently two types of tablets: super cheap ones that can't replace a laptop in functionality, and ones that can handle more advanced tasks (like the Windows Surface Pro 4), but are super expensive. The days of affordable tablet-based computing for students are coming, but they're just not here yet. Until such time, a student's best bet is a relatively well-equipped laptop.
Potential Savings: $78.68
Yes, your kid will need school supplies at college (like notebooks, pencils, pens, maybe a protractor?); but, unless one of their professors has clearly stated what that stuff is, don't take a stab in the dark. Dark-stabbing can get expensive. Last year, according to the NRF, consumers spent an average of $78.68 on back-to-college supplies. Wouldn't you want to limit that spending by leaving out an extraneous eraser or two?
Potential Savings: $80 - $100
Even if your teen's college isn't one that stocks its dorm rooms with those weird, extra long mattresses (which are more annoyingly common than you think), you shouldn't invest in any particularly special bedding. Junior and his friends are probably going to destroy the whole setup by eating and drinking recklessly on them with great frequency. So grab something from the bargain bin bedding deals instead of the 1,000-thread count sheets.
Potential Savings: $20 - $50
Before you pull out that credit card to buy your kid a hammer and saw, ask yourself: What is your kid building?! Unless their major calls for it — and most majors that require tools will supply them — there's no reason for little Maxwell to bring a hammer with him to his dorm. Anyway, most dorms don't let you put nails in the walls! However, in a hammergency, most colleges have tools you can borrow from the student center ... or steal from the wood shops.
Potential Savings: $200 - $400
As old people, you might think that your kid will need a TV to watch NBC's Must See TV on Thursday night, just like you and your dorm-mates did. But the times, they are a-changin'! Heck, we're pretty sure that millennials don't even watch TV on TVs anymore. These internet-agers tend to consume their shows and movies via Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and the like, so a computer is all they'll need. But if you're just a big softie who can't say no, consider giving her a hand-me-down set, or at least wait until November to buy one.
Pots and Pans
Potential Savings: $20 - $100
We know that not all kids are lazy, but you should seriously examine your child's work ethic before buying pots and pans. Would your kid, when left to their own devices, cook a meal for themselves? Especially when a dining hall (that includes a meal plan you're paying for) is easily accessible? Would your child then clean those dishes after, or leave them to be a festering mess? Ultimately, however, you have to consider that the dorm they could be residing in might not even have a kitchen. Figure out these answers before investing in even the cheapest of cheap-o kitchen sets.
Iron and Ironing Board
Potential Savings: $30 - $40
You have a better chance of spotting Bigfoot using an ironing board to water-ski behind the Loch Ness monster than you do of catching a college student using one to de-wrinkle clothing. If you don't want your kid to look like a rumpled mess, it may be smarter to buy a wardrobe of wrinkle-free clothes.
Vacuum (or Any Cleaning Supplies, Really)
Potential Savings: $50 - $100
Much like the poor ironing board, a vacuum will be another one of those items that will be unpacked from the car, placed in the dorm room closet, and never touched again until it's time to pack it back into the car for summer break. The sad truth is that, for many kids, college will be the first time they are not forced to clean ... so they won't. If there's ever a "vacuum emergency" (Fruity Pebbles everywhere!), most colleges offer loaner or rental vacuums at the front desk of the dorm or from the student center.
Potential Savings: $500 - $800
Our unscientific estimate shows that 99% of all college students use their laptop for little more than word processing, Wikipedia-ing, and watching YouTube. These kids don't need eight cores of processing power to put words onto the screen. In fact, most kids can get by with models that cost less than $500. Furthermore, would you rather they have a cheap-o or high-end laptop when you receive that inevitable phone call from your kid saying they spilled their
beer soda all over it at the bar soda shoppe last night?
Anything a Phone Can Do
Potential Savings: Lots
Maybe back in your day you needed an alarm clock to wake up, but you also needed a tube TV to watch TV (and drove a foot-powered car, probably). But these young kids can do so much on a smartphone, and that translates into savings for you! Trim all these items and more off the college shopping list: a camera to catch those fun college hijinx (that you hope to never see); a CD player for dance parties on the quad; a Fitbit to make sure your kid doesn't fall victim to the "Freshman 15" — a smartphone replaces almost anything!
Potential Savings: $300 - $700
Can your kid bring a desktop to class to take notes? Or do schoolwork from the cafe and/or quad? Watch movies on it in bed, or on the plane home? The answer to all of these questions is "yes" ... but with a lot of difficulty and very long extension cords. Don't mess with that bizz, just get a laptop for your off-to-college offspring (but remember to get a cheap one!)
External Hard Drive
Potential Savings: $75 - $200
Cloud storage is free and plentiful. Just by signing up for Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive alone, your student can have access to 20GB of free cloud storage! That's more than enough for the average student's need for papers, files, and projects. Plus, it's storage that can't be stolen, broken, or misplaced during the move back home. If you're worried about how your student will backup their laptop for crash recovery purposes, then consider this: College students likely backup their laptops as frequently as they iron their clothes.
Potential Savings: $200 over 4 years
Don't let your kid sign up for a regular Prime account, because Amazon offers "Prime Student." Members receive a 6-month free trial of the 2-day delivery service. After the trial is up, students get 50% off the price of Amazon Prime. Of course, if you want to save even more, you can just tell your college student to let you know what they need, then use your account to ship the stuff to them. This last option is also a perfect way to keep a Big Brother-like watchful eye on what they buy!
Potential Savings: Up to $749 (not including the cost of service)
Though not typically considered a back-to-school item, if your kid just happens to need a new iPhone right before school starts, we suggest you hold off. Not only do new iPhone models tend to be released shortly after school is in session, but our deal archives also show that whenever Apple announces a new product, the previous generation devices fall in price. It's well within your right, as a parent, to force your kid to use their (gasp!) old iPhone until that happens.
Potential Savings: $299 - $17,000
This probably doesn't need to be said out loud, but just in case: Your kid definitely won't need a starting-at-$299 wristband that is mostly useless without an accompanying iPhone. Sure, if they already have one (like if you got them one as a graduation gift, because you're the best parent on the planet), great! But an Apple Watch won't help at all academically.
Anything From the School Store
Potential Savings: 35%
Whether it's because they can't buy in bulk in the same way a Target or Walmart does, or simply because they just can (where else is a student without a car going to go?), campus stores are always overpriced. Last we looked, they were charging 35% more for common laptops! And if mom and dad are thinking, "While we're here, we might as well get a school logo sweatshirt to show our pride!", then hold off on that, too. Unless your kid's going to a super-niche school for gifted youngsters, clothes with university logos on them can be bought almost anywhere online for less.
Potential Savings: $31,252
Beyond the price of buying a whole new car just so some kid can cart themselves back-and-forth to their new school, there are other costs to consider. Firstly, many schools don't allow underclassmen to have cars at all, so check that before you spend a year's salary on a new whip for Bobbie Jean. Even if you have a spare, hand-me-down car sitting on the yard, campus parking fees can really add up after eight semesters. Not to mention the tickets that students accrue when illegally parked on campus to "just run in and pick something up real quick" from the student center.
Anything Not Already on Your Shopping List
Potential Savings: $25 - $100
Before doing any shopping, carefully build your list (using the above suggestions as a guide, of course). Then stick to that list. Otherwise, those little impulse purchases at Bed Bath & Beyond can really add up. Cedar chips for the closet, a funny toothbrush holder, or dryer balls might all seem like smart purchases while you're on line, but they won't seem so great once you get the credit card bill. A good rule of thumb is that any time you think "This could come in handy," put it back. It won't come in handy.
Passing on all the items above will definitely help keep the college spending down, but it's far from an exhaustive list. Parents, what back-to-school items have your kids been asking for that you plan to skip? Students, what items are you not having any luck convincing your parents to buy? Tell us in the comments below!