This Year, Some Students Clamp Down on Spending as They Gear Up for College

By Jonathan Starkey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Getting that college tuition and housing bill under control is only the first step. Then comes the comforter and refrigerator and textbooks and -- well, the College Board has a list of 118 to-buy items on its off-to-college checklist.

And don't forget the pizza money.

The bill to outfit a freshman can run to thousands of dollars if you're not careful, financial advisers say. As recession losses have whittled down college funds and as part-time jobs have become more elusive, families are finding creative ways to stretch each dollar.

In recent weeks, Sharon Okolicsanyi of Manassas has scoured the Web for deals on a laptop for her daughter, Helena, who will be a freshman at George Mason University. They finally found a bargain: It cost $499, marked down from $700. A security and software upgrade cost $100, and a printer cost $30, marked down from $70.

"I don't know much about computers," said Sharon Okolicsanyi, a teacher and single mother. "I had to keep looking and looking. I had to find the best deal."

In many ways, their summer has been defined by college-prep bargain-hunting.

On a recent trip, the Okolicsanyis picked up $68 worth of supplies, including spiral notebooks, pencils, dividers, pens and packs of paper. They also cut down the cost of an $80 "11-piece dorm-in-a-bag set" with a 20 percent coupon. Extra-long sheets, two towels and a hamper were included. More expensive pens were left behind.

On top of her loans, Sharon borrowed $500 to help cover expenses. As for pocket money, Helena, 18, plans to work part time through the federal work-study program and may rely on Mom for some extra money. She has already sought out a financial adviser on campus, and she is still awaiting word on a school scholarship.

"On the one hand, you want so much stuff," Helena said. "On the other, you don't want to pay for it."

Christine Parker, a financial planner and president of Parker Financial in La Plata, advises mindful preparation.

Parker used the checklist drawn up by the College Board -- best known for its SAT and other tests -- to estimate the cost of moving from home into the dorm. By her count, there's paper towels for $6.99, notebooks for $19.99, audio equipment for $64.64 and a computer-printer combo for $897. Toiletries, including tweezers and floss, add up to $245.77. Buying all 118 items on the list would cost $4,250.35, enough to "break the back of most American families," she wrote in an e-mail.

Parker suggests making a shopping list, so as to avoid emotional purchases. Rather than buying new, take as much as possible from home. Also "separate wants from needs," Parker said.

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