The hidden costs of college

We are just a few short weeks away from our son and daughter returning for their junior year of college. Wow, did that go fast. During their first two years of college, we experienced your typical expenses like tuition, room, and board, and books. We quickly got a peek into some hidden costs of college we didn’t anticipate. It was a learning experience for everyone involved since it’s been 25 plus years since I was in college. Also, having my daughter live on campus, and my son live home and commuting gave us a look from two different perspectives.

Here are some of the hidden costs of college you should consider and be prepared for. At the very least create an extra budget category these expenses.


Most colleges have a standing rule about having a car on campus. You have to reach a certain academic standing before it’s allowed. It most cases it’s a junior status, 60 credit earned, or better. So you need to factor in traveling to drop off and pick up your student.

My daughter’s college is roughly 215 miles away from our home. (430 roundtrip) So gas, tolls, food, and wear and tear on the vehicle all need to be considered. We can make the round trip in a day, a long day, and have, but even when packing snacks and food, we still have to cover gas and tolls.

My son is commuting to his campus each day. He’s allowed to park his car on campus with a parking pass. His main cost is gas. Since he works part-time, he covers this cost. He has worked out his schedule each semester to minimize the amount of trip to campus each week.

The travel has been the most significant hidden cost of college we didn’t factor when our daughter committed to going away to school. As you will see in some of the other cost, there is a trickle-down effect living away from home, even with our daughter being in our home state.

Our daughter has only come home during scheduled time off, but we have heard stories from other friends who had unscheduled trips home during the first year of school for varies reasons.

Now keep in mind, our daughter’s college is a long round trip ride away, but we have plenty of friends whose son’s and daughters college’s are further away, and require trains or planes to get too. It’s not so easy to take a spur of the moment trip home when a reservation is needed.


We have tested mass transit for my daughter. She took a bus on a holiday weekend. The total cost was $120, cheaper than what the trip could be made by car, but not as comfortable or timely, but hey beggars can’t be choosers. We have used the bus one other time, and keep it as a great secondary option.

Another option is sharing a ride (carpooling) with classmates, roommates, etc. Our daughter has yet to do this, but we have shuttled other friends back and forth. They have offered us gas money to help defer the cost of our trip.

For our son, his campus is located in an area where mass transit is not an option, and the best way to reach his school is by car. We do the best to remind him to keep the vehicle maintained and to give himself enough travel time during severe weather.

We are hopeful we will find some opportunities for carpooling for our daughter in the fall.


Ever hear of an event called parents weekend? Well, I almost sure all colleges have them, and they last at least two days. So not only do you need to factor in travel costs, you’ll need a place to stay when your child’s campus in hundreds of miles away. Book early too, because as freshmen parents, upperclassmen parents often beat you to the punch. We learned our money and scheduling lesson this year.

For our son parent’s weekend, we could easily drive to campus each day and return home each night.


As much as you plan, packing snacks and food, after making several trips, and staying overnight, you are bound to eat out at some point when traveling hundreds of miles away from home. So you need to factor this in. Also, consider your student, might be tired of the same campus cafeteria food and may want to step out for a bite to eat too.

We also stocked her dorm room his plenty of bottled water and ramen noodles too.

When commuting to school, you can certainly brown bag lunch. My son does do this occasionally. But some days he’s on campus from 9 AM to 8 PM and will pick up food either on campus or off. Again another cost to consider.


During most Holidays and Spring Breaks, campuses shut down. That’s right, they shut down, and students need to leave by a specific time. So for those students like my daughter, we had to factor in transportation to get her off-campus. During her recent spring break, she spent the week at home catching up with some friends. Other friends when on trips or vacations, again another hidden cost to consider.

During our son’s spring break, he got a week off from commuting and was able to work and hang out with friends a bit more too.


Now one of the last things to consider is your time. All of this traveling back and forth takes time. In most cases, my wife or I had to take time off of work. Again, another item to consider. We took paid time off (PTO) so no loss of money, but depending on your policy at work, you need to factor in time off request, lost money, etc.

I do believe this time is so valuable as a parent. In most cases, my wife and I took the divide and conquered approach, which meant some quality alone time when traveling with our daughter. Even though she might not admit it, moving away from home, taking on college was scary for her. Having the opportunity just to show our support in being there was important.

It was a different experience for our son since he was commuting, but it looks like he’ll be transfer to a new college in the fall and living on campus too. Roughly about the same distance as our daughter school. Now let’s hoe the calendar/schedule gods align during the fall semester. I’d hate to have to make two separate trips.


This may be the biggest hidden cost because its unknown and sometimes the unexpected happens in life. We got a call from our daughter during last semester to let us know she wasn’t feeling well and was heading to the emergency room. A scary call to receive as a parent, and the fact that she’s a few hour drive away, multiples the fear.

I dropped everything to travel to be with her as soon as possible. There were many unexpected and hidden cost to consider one faced with this situation — a day off work, gas, tolls, food, lodging, etc. All the things mentioned above, but just came out of the blue.

My daughter was fine. I took the drive up to be with her and arrived at the ER, and she was soon released. I stayed overnight to be sure she was okay and lend some moral support.


As you can see, there are many hidden costs to consider when your kids head off to college, beyond just tuition. Having a plan in the form of additional savings in a separate college fund or beefing up your emergency fund while your kids are in college is a great way not to be blindsided by these hidden costs.

What other hidden costs of college would you include on the list? Do you have any tips to share for trimming any of these expenses?