Top Money Wasters Back-to-School Edition: Going Off to College

back to college

Top Money Wasters Back-to-School Edition: Going Off to College

Even though retailers have been pushing it since before the previous school year ended, August marks the “official” start of the back-to-school season for many shoppers and savers alike. And while the stereotypical supplies and clothing needed by the K-12 crowd is fraught with waste, many astute parents learn over the years how to save a bit each season through experience alone.

All of this changes, however, when your child goes off to college. From the whimsy of a dorm room, a blank slate of sort when it comes to decoration, to the allure of ever-advancing technology that every student has to have for success, I dare say it’s possible to double your tuition costs on college “supplies” alone, especially freshman year. That is why avoiding waste and following smart shopping tips specific to college is a must before packing for the dorms.

Top Money Wasters for College Back-to-School Shopping

Like typical K-12 shopping, there is a lot of wasteful spending in the back-to-college niche that savvy shoppers can avoid without forcing their students to sacrifice. Here are four of the top college-specific money wasters to look out for as you hit to stores:

  • 1. Printers
    Buying a printer for your dorm may seem like a smart move. It allows students to easily print and return assignments regardless of the time of day. However, even though printers are relatively cheap during the back-to-school season, printer ink is not. Now, it’s been over a decade since I left college, but I didn’t need a dorm room printer then and I don’t think you need one now. There are two reasons for this. First, most colleges have large, extensive computer labs with late hours. Plus, if you just need to print, many monitors will allow you to jump the line in order to do it. Second, many professors these days take their submissions electronically, either via email or am in-house system like Blackboard. No printing necessary.
  • 2. Speakers
    The stereotypical image of the head banging loud music penetrating dorm room walls may still hold true at many campuses, but, more and more, students prefer the solitude of listening to music or watching TV through headphones. Not only do speakers need to compete for attention, the growing trend in tablet and computer-based viewing via streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime makes buying a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones a smarter investment for most students.
  • 3. Mini Refrigerators
    College dining plans run the gamut from all-hours and all-inclusive to pay-as-you-go options for a more discerning palate. However, the convenience of having your own food in your room is hard to deny. However, many college students go out and pay for mini refrigerators that they don’t need or really use. Before you spend any money on this, check to see if the college provides them. Alternately, many campuses have community fridges in a common room that you can use. Finally, for those with a roommate, consider splitting the cost.
  • 4. Textbooks
    Like school supplies for the K-12 set, textbooks are a must. They are also one of the most expensive line items on a college budget. That’s why it’s not too wise to purchase all your books before going to the first class or two of the semester. Many professors may change their textbook requirements, list books because the department requires them to, or offer students online or library-based alternatives that can save a lot of money. And if they don’t offer up that information, don’t be afraid to ask. Finally, if all else fails, online book buying and borrowing sites like BookRenter, Chegg, and, offer alternatives to the typical college bookstore.

More General Back-to-School Savings Tips

In addition to avoiding money-wasting college purchases, there are some specific shopping techniques parents of college-age students might want to consider for other typical college purchases that will save everyone money.

First, for items to-be-purchased such as books or back-to-school clothes, consider offering your student a gift cards which allows him or her to shop once at school and once the sales get better or to buy clothing more seasonally appropriate for their location. Gift card websites offer discounts of 5-10% that can save additional money off the bottom line as do gift card catalina deals, which you can roll over into savings on your monthly grocery budget.

It is also important to educate your student about rebates and to walk them through the process on their own purchases, as well as making sure you get everything you need (such as UPC codes) from their packages before they leave.

Finally, students with a new roommate or even an old one are smart to wait on purchasing dorm décor until they return to campus. This way, they can split shared items like window coverings or rugs as well as wait out for clearance sales later on in the season.

Gearing Up for Back-to-School

Sending a child away to college is always tough emotionally, so it makes sense to help yourself by easing the burden financially. Whether you need to save to actually afford that private school tuition or want the extra cash to treat yourself to an “empty nest” treat is of no consequence. Maximizing your money when it comes to college back-to-school shopping is all the same.

What tips and tricks can you add?

Back to school college supplies - Top Money Wasters

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  • Njdevilku13

    -some universities make you pay to print (as much as 10 cents per page).

    -mini-fridges allow you to not have to go to the cafeteria just for a bowl of cereal (consider reducing the number of meals on the meal plan which is probably a cheaper route).

  • Jessa

    I would really say a printer is important especially if you go to a large university like I did. Lines would be around the corner to print and there was no line jumping! And like Njdevil mentioned we had a spending limit set on our ID cards and once you reached the limit you had to pay extra.

  • tim

    You can purchase some books from overseas and the cost is much lower.

    • MisterBill

      Yes, but you need to be careful that the book is identical. I used to look for International Editions for my son, and in one case the exercises in that version were different than the US edition. Also, you can’t sell the used book back to the book store or Amazon unless you find a listing for that edition.

  • Leslie

    Well it has been 32 years since I have been to college and I loved my personal dorm room refrigerator. It was less expensive to purchase beverages and cooling them in my own unit than putting coins in the vending machine but that was way back when and food services in the olden days were pretty much inflexible for us “old folk”. My 36 yr old model is still running! My parents have it in their garage where they keep cold beverages on hand for back yard entertaining, grabbing a quick water bottle before jumping into their car and for quenching thirst when gardening without having to run into the house (they do have an extra full size model in their basement not their garage). We still laugh how that refrigerator with the faux brown paneling keeps on going including rust and vibrations. Fast forward 30+ years and my son is now in college. Last year as a freshman, his roommate purchased a refrigerator and he asked my son to purchase a microwave. My son wanted to be accommodating and he did with a graduation gift card (plus I had to add money of course), however, there were two microwaves available on his dorm floor in the student lounges. In my son’s case I thought the microwave was a waste of money because of the two readily available to him. The only thing he needed to use it for was popping popcorn which I think he did only once or twice. I believe his roommate used it sparingly as well. Perhaps one day he can use the microwave in his own kitchen and that will be one less expense when setting up his own home.

  • jenn

    When my two children were in college, we discovered that we saved a ton of money on textbooks by buying them from Amazon. After the first year, when we were knocked over the head for textbooks and got almost nothing to sell them back, we looked elsewhere. So, when we knew which books their professors really wanted them to have, we got the ISBN numbers and we bought them from Amazon and saved a ton of money. Often, brand new books were cheaper than what the university sold used.

    • Selma

      I second this. I graduated college last year and my sister is entering her third year – purchasing from Amazon has been AMAZING. I am saving up my money on Ibotta and grabbing some gift cards to help pay for books as well. Never purchase from the bookstore, it is very unlikely you can get a decent deal there.

  • MariaL

    I too thought it would be a good idea to equip my daughter with her own printer — I quickly found out that she couldn’t refuse requests from others on her floor to ‘borrow’ it! She later discovered that her campus fee include printing facilities so she brought the printer home.

  • Selma

    Don’t ever go crazy with binders, 3 subject notebooks, etc. It is very unlikely you will need it. I say one thing that is a DEFINITE is a planner with calendar for each month, saved my life each semester juggling 6 classes, work, internship, assignments, and anything else I had going on. I’ve seen so many people struggle because they don’t write things down!

  • MisterBill

    #1 on your list should be “Buying books at the school bookstore”.

    My kids are not in college anymore so it’s been a couple of years since I did this, but I used to do a very thorough job finding cheap books for them (this will probably not come as a surprise to people here). I made them get me their book lists at least a month before classes started, preferably sooner. There are many book price search engines that you can use to find cheap prices and used copies – Google “textbook price search”. Try several, they don’t all search the same places. If you find a great price, buy the book. Worst case you can sell it, probably for more than you paid. My experience with rental places is that it was rarely worth it when you considered the resale value after the semester if you bought a copy. Of course, if they came out with a new edition you were screwed.

    As for waiting to purchase, my experience is that if you wait, you may not be able to find good deals on used copies online and/or have to pay for express shipping since your student will need it immediately. One option if you’re really concerned about book lists changing is to check prices at the off-campus bookstore (i.e. not B&N) and see if you can get a good price on used books from them. They will almost definitely take returns for a couple of weeks after class starts if the book list changes or your student drops the class.