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Saturday, August 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Extracurricular expenses can add up fast in college

Seattle Times staff reporter

Student-spending stats


In the past week

• 69 percent ate at an off-campus fast-food restaurant

• 64 percent used a debit card

• 47 percent shopped at a grocery store

• 40 percent used a credit card

• 38 percent saw a movie off campus

• 27 percent rented a DVD

• 23 percent ordered take-out

• 19 percent bought a CD

What they own

• Cellphone: 90 percent

• DVD player: 76 percent

• TV: 73 percent

• Digital camera: 56 percent

• Digital music player (iPod): 37 percent

Paying for it

• 66 percent receive funds from home each month

• $312: mean amount received from home monthly

• 49 percent work part-time

• 15.9: mean hours worked part-time

• $5,428: mean annual earnings

Source: Student Monitor spring 2006 survey of 1,200 students on 100 campuses nationwide

There's tuition, and then there's the other mandatory college expenses: pizza and coffee.

"The biggest surprise is how much money you spend on food and snacks," said M'Liss DeWald, a University of Washington senior who serves as a resident adviser. "If you study at coffee shops or eat out once in a while and just spend $5 here and there, you don't realize how fast that adds up."

Nationwide, undergraduate students average $208 a month for discretionary spending, according to a spring 2006 survey by Student Monitor, a New Jersey-based research company. That adds up to $15 billion in extra funds annually, Student Monitor estimates.

So what does that mean for parents, who help fork out the cash for everything from toiletries to take-out to iTunes?

"College has a lot more costs than tuition, room and board," said Laurie Prince, director of New Student and Family Programs at Seattle University. "It's a very common question, how much spending money students will need."

When Seattle U recently surveyed student leaders, their biggest discretionary chunk went to weekend spending — pizza, movies, restaurants, concerts — followed by hygiene products, laundry and groceries, said Scott Smith, director of Housing and Residence Life.

Officials say students boast more gadgets — cellphones, laptops, iPods and big-screen TVs — but they insist most aren't living the high life on Mom and Dad's dime.

"Students come with more things, but in terms of spending money, it's not extraordinarily different than past years," said Prince. "They still have to live creatively within a limited budget. Most are in poor-student mode."

With rising tuition costs, many families are strapped for extra cash beyond educational needs, she said.

"The average student doesn't have a lot of extra money to spend," said Grant Kollet, director of First Year Programs at the University of Washington. But, he admits, "The toys have gotten nicer, and there's strong demand among students to have those toys. Kids became consumers long before they became college students."

Rather than wait for the panicked plea for emergency cash in November, university staff recommends parents talk to students now about:

Packing: Families can start off frugally by resisting the marketing push to overaccessorize dorm rooms, opting for the simplicity of the college's recommended "to bring" list (which is much shorter than, say, Target's). Most upperclassmen admit they brought way too much stuff — clothes, knickknacks, pictures — they never used.

Last fall, freshmen planned to spend nearly $850 on back-to-college items, much of it electronics, according to the National Retail Federation.

Budget: "Half the battle is getting families to have a conversation ahead of time and talk about budgeting," Prince said. "Discuss what you're able to provide and what your expectations are. With debit cards, it's easy to spend, spend, spend." Some universities, such as the UW, also have school-only debit cards.

More than two-thirds of students report receiving funds from home each month, with a mean of $312 (up from $278 last year), Student Monitor found. Freshmen, who usually live in residence halls, only get $240, while seniors accept an average $364.

Credit cards: What are appropriate purchases on credit — and what qualifies as an "emergency"? (A bill for fixing a crashed computer might be OK; a great sale at Macy's, not so much.) Nearly half of students arrive with a credit card, and the remainder will be "inundated" by credit offers — including some that offer free pizza, said Kollet at the UW.

Cellphone: Where does the bill go, and who pays? "Ninety-eight percent of students I interact with never give me their room number; they give me their cellphone number," Prince said. "They don't put long-distance service on their residence-hall phone."

Part-time jobs: Prince and Kollet recommend an on-campus, part-time job of five to 15 hours a week. "We find that when students work a little, it helps with time management and focus," Prince noted. "The college day is so different than high school; a job helps give it some structure." Overall, half of undergraduate students work part-time, earning an average $5,428 a year. Nearly 60 percent of freshmen don't work, compared to 35 percent of seniors, noted Student Monitor.

Cars: On an urban campus, most universities recommend public transportation. "At orientation, administrators and current students give a resounding 'no' when parents ask, 'Should students bring a car?' " Prince said.

Money requests: It's not unusual for freshmen not to realize how fast they burn through funds. First-year students face what Prince dubs "start-off costs," such as going to more social events and activities to meet friends. If parents can't or won't provide extra money, warn students from the start.

Shopping: "Suddenly, students are responsible for all the little things that just appear at home," like shampoo and laundry soap, Prince said. "Now they have to remember to buy them." Or at least hold out until a visit: "It's pretty apparent when Mom and Dad have been around or students have gone home — they come back loaded up. They have a newfound appreciation that life is more expensive than they thought."

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or sdunnewind@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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