The Hidden Costs of Education at Every Level

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It’s expensive to raise a kid — and you may not realize how much you’re paying in extra education expenses at every age, too. Whether you send your child to public or private school, there are a lot of additional costs that creep up and can quickly add hundreds of dollars to your budget — and even more as your kids get older. When your children reach college, be prepared for thousands of dollars in hidden costs beyond the already massive bills for tuition, room and board. Here’s how to prepare for these extra costs of education at every age.

Hidden Expenses of Elementary School

Elementary school is filled with a lot of little expenses that can add up, such as field trips, PTA dues, and that long list of school supplies — the National Retail Federation estimates that the average household will spend $849 on back-to-school shopping in 2021. You may need to provide snacks, tissues and wipes for the whole classroom a few times during the year, and there may be collections for bus drivers, teachers and crossing guards during holidays and appreciation weeks. Class pictures usually aren’t cheap, and there always seem to be fundraising contests for special activities. (How much wrapping paper can you possibly buy?) After-school programs and enrichment classes can add to the bill, too.

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Your clothing costs may not drop if your child has to wear a uniform. “Uniforms were always tricky because you would think they could help with budgets, but actually some places are so particular down to the style and material that families are forced to spend more than they should,” said Kristen Griffith, a counselor with the Advantage Credit Counseling Service, which provides free one-on-one financial counseling to people of all income levels.

Even if each of these expenses is small, you’d be surprised how much they total by the end of the year. Try to get an idea of these costs ahead of time so you’re prepared when they come up. “In those grades, there were a lot of smaller items,” said Pam Horack, a certified financial planner with Pathfinder Planning in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, who specializes in helping families and is known as “Your Financial Mom.” “You just need to incorporate that into your budget.”

You may be able to use tax-free money from a dependent-care flexible spending account, if offered by your employer, or the child care tax credit to cover some of these expenses — such as the cost of before-school or after-school programs and even summer day camp for children under 13 while you and your spouse work. See the child and dependent-care tax credit page at IRS.gov for more information.

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Growing Expenses in Middle School

“When they get to middle school, they seem to have fewer things but they’re higher dollars,” Horack said. Instead of field trips to the fire station, they have longer trips with bigger price tags. “My kids had out-of-town trips to Charleston and Washington, D.C.” she said. The extracurriculars get more expensive, too — you may feel the need to buy a flute or sports equipment or have to pay for uniforms and travel to games.  And you’ll still have that long list of school supplies, too.

“In these grades, you want to be a little more discriminating about what is a need and what is a want,” Horack said. For example, you may want to wait before buying that flute or expensive baseball glove until you have a better idea of whether your child is going to stick with that activity. “And make sure you save for them – know you’ll have larger expenses and start saving ahead of time for those,” she said.

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You can start to involve your kids in some of the financial decisions, too. “I remember from personal experience my parents being very frank with us about how much they had to spend on our back-to-school clothes and school supplies. They gave us a set amount and once it was gone it was gone,” Griffith said. “Encouraging kids to find ways to earn money from a young age (I started a dog walking business in middle school) or even talking about how money is earned can be helpful.”

Financial Trade-Offs in High School

The extracurriculars and field trips continue to get more expensive in high school — plus you may have fundraising for sports teams, theater or band, tutoring costs, parking passes, student activity fees, a larger yearbook and more class pictures. Students may also have senior dues to help pay for their cap and gown, graduation expenses and special events for the class.

“At this age, if the kids really want to do something, I feel like they can contribute to it as well,” Horack said. “Teenagers need to have a budget and work on their budget with their parents.” Find out at the beginning of each year about the expenses you can expect, and decide ahead of time who will pay for what, she said.

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Extra activities — such as travel sports, tutoring and test prep classes — can really boost the bill in some months. “It is not unusual for my clients to budget around $500 to $1,000 per month per child in activities fees,” said Jennifer Baick, Sr. Director of Financial Planning and Client Advisor with Mercer Advisors. That number can vary a lot by family, so it’s important to do some research and find out what to expect ahead of time. “I cannot stress enough the importance of just knowing what the costs are and preparing for them,” she said.

Preparing for college has its own set of extra fees — long before the tuition bills begin. The average college admissions application fee is $47.50 at four-year colleges, and the average number of applications is 5 1/2, said Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” Many selective colleges charge $75 or more to apply. And don’t forget to factor in the cost of travel for college visits.

It costs $55 each time to take the SAT, plus $12 to send a score report to each college beyond the first four. You’ll also have to pay for each AP exam (plus a fee to send the AP scores to the colleges) and may have extra costs for tutoring and test prep books. The College Board has some cost-reduction programs for low-income families. Also find out if your child’s high school or community organizations offer low-cost or free test prep and other programs to help with the expenses, and take advantage of free online programs, too. It can help for your child to talk with his or her guidance counselor before senior year about these costs and opportunities.

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College Costs Beyond Tuition, Room and Board

You’ve seen the intimidating numbers for college tuition, room and board — and expect to spend several thousand dollars more in extra costs. In 2020-21, the average estimated budgets for full-time undergraduate students were $26,820 for public four-year in-state students and $54,880 for private colleges, according to the College Board. That number includes tuition and fees, room and board, and allowances for books and supplies, transportation and other personal expenses. The colleges typically include about $1,200 to $1,460 per year in their estimated cost of books and supplies for financial aid purposes, said Kantrowitz, and about $3,000 per year for transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses. These numbers can vary a lot depending on the classes, major, distance and school.

The fees part of tuition and fees can include several thousand dollars of student activities fees, orientation fees and comprehensive fees — which could include money for the athletic department, shuttle busses and other expenses.

You may also have to pay for a new computer and software, lab fees and equipment. And don’t forget the cost to outfit a dorm room — including buying the extra-long twin sheets that only colleges seem to use. College students and their families plan to spend an average of $1,200 on back-to-school shopping for the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Retail Federation.

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Travel between home and campus during holidays and school breaks can add up. And the cost of clubs, extracurriculars and sorority or fraternity dues can be much higher than expected. “Sorority dues were a huge extra expense I didn’t anticipate,” Griffith said.

The strategy for covering these extra expenses is different for college students than it is for younger kids. “It goes more from budgeting to more thoughtful savings as the kids get older,” Horack said. Find out more about these extra expenses ahead of time, factor them into your savings goals, and figure out where you can cut some costs — whether by making trade-offs or learning about strategies to help you save.

“Having the conversation early opens up the opportunity to make even more choices, and choices are important in controlling their costs,” said Ashley Boucher, a former spokesperson for education lender Sallie Mae, which sponsors the annual How America Pays for College study. “A lot of these cost-saving techniques come from open discussions and starting to plan before you may think it’s necessary.”

For example, you may be able to find lower-cost options for textbooks if you plan ahead. Many schools have textbook lists available for their classes several months in advance, giving you extra time to shop around online for a better deal, look for used copies, or decide whether to rent or buy the textbooks. “There are ways to lower those costs,” Boucher said.

There are also more tax-advantaged ways to help pay for college-related expenses. You can withdraw money tax-free from a 529 plan not just for tuition, room and board, but also to pay for fees, books, supplies and equipment that are required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible postsecondary school, said Katie Flynn, editor-in-chief at Savingforcollege.com, which is a great resource for information about 529 plans. You can also withdraw money tax-free for a computer and internet access for the college student, and for the cost of an off-campus apartment, as long as the student is enrolled on at least a half-time basis, up to the allowance for room and board that is included in the college’s cost of attendance figures used for financial aid purposes, Flynn said.