These surprise college costs could leave you at least $3,000 short this year

  • Room and board for students living off campus are approaching $10,000 a year.
  • A third of colleges and universities underestimate living costs by at least $3,000, according to researchers.
  • Living off campus? Prepare to consider transportation expenses, apartment rental deposits and more.
Alys Tomlinson | Getty Images

You may have scrimped and saved for your kid's college costs this fall, but you could still be thousands of dollars short.

Though universities give families a sense of how much they'll pay for their child's schooling, these estimates tend to understate the true cost. That's especially the case for students who live off campus.

Students living off-campus and not with family while attending a public college spent an average of $9,857 on room and board during the 2017-2018 college year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Those at private schools spent an average of $9,940 on room and board. On-campus students can expect a room and board price tag of about $10,000.

Take those estimates with a grain of salt.

As many as a third of colleges and universities understate the local cost of living by at least $3,000, according to researchers.

"If you're aligning your work and borrowing decisions based on aid from the university, there's a possibility you can go through a perfect financial planning exercise and still end up short in the fall." -David Helene, Edquity

Aside from room and board, transportation expenses and other costs can add to the price of attendance, throwing off the estimates your child's school provided.

"Colleges estimate the cost for those who live off campus, and that's what the student uses when they decide what to budget for," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

"For instance, juniors will think of getting a cheaper place that's further away from campus, but they don't think about the cost of commuting," she said.

Students will have to do their own research to arrive at the true cost of attendance and then calculate whether they have enough.

Here are some examples of what schools are getting wrong about costs.

Living costs

Stack Of Books On Table
Sirinarth Mekvorawuth / EyeEm | EyeEm | Getty Images

During the 2017-2018 academic year, private school students residing off campus spent $3,597 on "other expenses," including entertainment, transportation and laundry, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Public school students spent $3,804.

"Schools are generally coming up with a conservative estimate because they don't want students to be oversensitive to price shock," said David Helene, co-founder of Edquity, an app that helps guide college students through the financial planning process.

See below for a chart from Helene detailing the annual cost of these surprise expenses based on the largest city in each of the 50 states.

Those expenses include transportation, groceries, social activities and personal care.

"If you're aligning your work and borrowing decisions based on aid from the university, there's a possibility you can go through a perfect financial planning exercise and still end up short in the fall," said Helene.

"As you make those borrowing projections, make sure they're aligned to your true need and not just the need the school presents as the average for the student population," he said.

Finding the rent

Colleges can provide you with an estimate for room and board off campus, but they often fail to consider the real cost of renting.

"This is another reason why it's so important to have a part-time job while you're in college." -Sophia Bera, certified financial planner

"It's easy for colleges to estimate incorrectly," said Goldrick-Rab. "The school is just reading local ads for apartments and doing small surveys of students."

For example, colleges don't consider a student's need to have the first and last month of rent when seeking an apartment off campus, she said.

Budget now

It's never too early to establish some guardrails for your child's spending. Draw up a budget for the school year, and get to know the real cost of attending school.

"Do you want to live well at college at the expense of living well after college?" asked Goldrick-Rab.

Go beyond the school's estimates: Think about the cost of seeing an out-of-network doctor while away at college. Factor in the cost of maintaining your car if you have one. Every cent counts. "Even the estimated cost of books — you should double it to get a sense of what the books cost," said Goldrick-Rab.

Seek part-time employment where possible: "This is another reason why it's so important to have a part-time job while you're in college," said Sophia Bera, a certified financial planner and founder of Gen Y Planning. "If you want to take advantage of participating in extracurricular activities, there are fees that people don't think about."

Track your expenses: Life after college will require you to keep a close eye on every dollar that's coming in and going out. Maintain a book in which you detail every single thing you spend money on, said Bera.

"Many people say they can't save $25 or $50 a month, and then they realize they're already spending $25 a month on soda from the vending machine on campus," she said.

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