Back-to-school budgeting for college students

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2010 - 9:19 PM

As kids head off to college, it's a good time to discuss the difference between "want" and "need."

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Mother Annie Broos, middle, works with son Ben, a freshman in St. John's,and daughter, Marie, a sophomore at Creighton University, budget for college.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Before Marie Broos arrived at her dorm room on the first day of her freshman year, she and her soon-to-be roommate had talked decor and colors.

"She was from Hawaii and we talked about trying to coordinate, but we couldn't find anything we both liked and decided to do something on our own," said Marie, now 20 and a junior at Creighton University in Omaha.

Her brother, Ben, 18, is taking a decidedly more low-key approach to decorating his dorm room when he leaves the family's Mendota Heights home this month to begin his freshman year at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

"I doubt my roommate and I will ever talk about matching anything," said Ben. "I have a mini-fridge and a microwave. He's got a futon and is looking for a TV."

This is the time of year when college students are stocking up on all kinds of dorm-room essentials and probably a few nonessentials, too. These shopping trips may also offer a glimpse for parents into how well their student is prepared to manage their personal finances once they arrive on campus.

"It's a good time to talk to kids about the difference between a need and a want," said Ruth Hayden, a nationally recognized financial consultant and founder of Ruth L. Hayden and Associates Inc. in St. Paul. "If you listen to some young people, they will tell you that two coffees a day from Caribou is a need."

Hayden advises parents to sit down with their kids and make a two-column list of which back-to-school items (dorm gear, clothing, books) they must purchase upfront: What will parents pay for and what will kids provide? She suggests a similar list for determining expenses once students are at school, drawing the line between money for emergencies and discretionary income.

Shop with care - and cash

When it's time for the dorm shopping excursion, Hayden recommends that both parents and kids bring the amount in cash that they have each budgeted to spend -- no back-up credit card -- so that choices will have t be made.

"I really believe that our job as parents is to teach. Setting a budget but then spending whatever you want is not teaching a skill," said Hayden. "It might take more time [to stick to the budget], but we have to be willing to take that time and set the right tone."

Marie and Ben are using money they earn through summer jobs to pay for some of their back-to-school items; their parents will help out if needed. Once on campus, both kids have work-study jobs and both are expected to contribute significantly toward their college tuition.

"That's the way we've organized the expenses from the beginning. We have always worked the budget out together," said Annie. "Never once have we gotten a call from Marie asking us for money when she's at school. She has really managed everything so well."

The same will probably be true of Ben, who said he's pretty confident he will spend less than Marie does at school.

Since she's moving into a house with four friends this year, Marie has already made some preparations for her new room: She's repainting a bedroom set from home, working on it in the family garage.

"It was pretty ugly, but it's sturdy," she said. "I decided it's better than spending money on something new."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at tellus@startribune.com with "Your Family" in the subject line.

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  • FOR MORE INFO For tips on teaching college students (and other youth) about financial matters, visit www.youngmoney.com.
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