One of my first posts for The Prospect dissected the basics of how to pay for college, looking into cost of attendance, scholarships, and payment options. Seven months later, the half-joke  “forever a-loan” doesn’t feel too far from the truth…

While the most intimidating parts of college finances have been taken care of – tuition paid, books bought, rooming covered – the bulk of your spending isn’t over. 2011 research finds that college students are spending over $60 billion in “personal expenses” – food, alcohol, clothes, electronics, and transportation.  On average, US college students spend the most in college compared to any other country in the world, and we’re not surprised.

15 degree weather plus fresh snowfall means my new favorite comfort food, delivery pasta.  Image from my archives.

15 degree weather plus fresh snowfall means my new favorite comfort food, delivery pasta.
Image from my archives.


Most freshmen are blindsided about how much they’ll spend on food, usually expecting their meal plans to cover all of it. TP writer, Clarissa Gallardo, shares this misconception: “’Oh, I have 19 meals a week plus a declining balance. I won’t spend a lot of money on food besides that.’ WRONG. I figured food wouldn’t be a big expense in college since I already had a meal plan and many on-campus restaurants to choose from. But you’re going to want snacks. LOTS OF SNACKS.”

How does this happen? Late nights out or studying, after the cafeterias are closed, and your stomach starts making those funny noises… or those mornings when you have 5 minutes to get up, get ready, and run to class… you’re going to be glad you bought protein bars in bulk. Or snow days, when nothing – and I mean nothing – will get my Californian butt out of bed, ordering food for delivery is a life saver. Someday, you might find yourself crying with your roommate over calculus and nothing to solve your feelings except for a large bowl of wonton soup and The Nightmare Before Christmas. True story.

Other than snacks, you’ll inevitably find yourself exploring your college’s town or travelling, dropping into off-campus eateries and restaurants!

Seriously, the MTA has my eternal loyalty.  Image from my archives.

Seriously, the MTA has my eternal loyalty.
Image from my archives.


Speaking of travelling, I have to admit, MTA has a special spot in my bank account. While I don’t own a car – which would come with paying insurance and parking fees – being in a metropolis means having a loyalty on public transportation.

Transportation, and the transportation estimate on a school’s “sticker price”, varies from long distance travel (can I get an amen from my fellow out-of-states?), to car, train, and metro costs within your college town.

How much students spend surely varies on various factors, but usually the following: location, campus size (and opportunities), and your personal involvement, such as interviews, jobs, volunteering, and socializing!


Yes, this includes partying and alcohol – US college students spend over $5.5 billion on alcohol each year – but also accounts for us non-partiers (library parties, all day, everyday). Again, it’s inevitable to find yourself adventuring your town, and a shame if you don’t! With college freedom comes so many independent choices and freedom of what you do in your spare time.

I’m found off-campus at least once a week – something I do to avoid the “college bubble“, and with this, took fellow writer Nathan’s advice, and started an “adventure jar” from his article, “9 Ways to Fund Your College Lifestyle.” Whether it’s time to yourself, hanging out with people from college, and visiting family and friends, count on it! It’s smart to begin budgeting, because so many of these things come as surprises to college freshmen. Liz Winters advises to “budget realistically. Optimistically underestimating costs are not going to make things any cheaper. Financial independence is kind of a big deal, and for many freshmen, it’s a totally new experience,” and things add up – including your daily latte!

Bottom Line

My financial aid letter from April estimated that a student at my college would spend around $882.50 in these “personal expenses” a semester… I can attest that this is more than true, if not an underestimation! If you’re reevaluating your budgeting as a current college student or a prospective student planning for their collegiate future, keep in mind the “real” student budget – not just the big investments of tuition and rooming, but also everyday spending.

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the author

Jo is in her first year of studying biology at Fordham University, with interests in the social sciences, business management, and world domination. Recently returned to New York from 12 years in California, you'll most likely find her adventuring around the city. Residences include the science and humanities departments, running trails, and every coffee shop from here to Narnia. Nobody’s quite sure if she has a heart, but she’s got some sort of pump that moves around the black sludge that is espresso through her veins.

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