Financial tips for college freshmen parents

Mary Dell Harrington & Lisa Heffernan, co-founders of Grown and Flown, share important to-dos to help prepare for college.

As our teens go through the exciting process of applying and getting accepted to college, paying for tuition, room and board are uppermost on parents’ minds. Read more about how to pay for college from Capital One here. Yet, there are other very real costs that need to be considered.

According to a 2017 Deloitte back-to-school survey, college parents spend on average more than $1,300 on back-to-school purchases, and students themselves spend another $1,000 with the average freshman spending over $1,400 themselves! We examined some of expenses and the substantial money saving opportunities available for travel, textbooks, campus visits and dorm shopping and found plenty of places where you can save. For more about college and finances, check out this Capital One article on how to budget for unexpected college costs.

Dorm shopping

First, find out everything you can about your teen’s new dorm room. Ask them to visit their college’s website (this information is often in the Residential Life section and sometimes behind their student password) and learn the dimensions of their room, what items are supplied by the college (desk, chair, wastepaper basket, lamp, printer, fan) and what items are banned from their dorm. All of these factors vary widely from school to school and each will have a substantial impact on what you will need to buy.

After you and your teen have some sense of what you don’t need to buy (that’s provided by the university) or won’t buy (banned from the dorm) take a look at the dorm shopping list that their college or your preferred retailer offers. This list is nothing more than suggestions. You will see items like alarm clocks, cleaning supplies, 2-3 sets of sheets, bed skirts (!) and bed risers that your teen may never use. These lists are all-inclusive, but they are not your list, for your student, rather just a jumping off point of myriad things they might possibly want or need.

From a master list of suggestions, work with your student to create the list of things you are both fairly certain they will need. The emphasis here is on need. It is not 1988. Our own long-ago experience as college freshmen provides very little guidance. Every big box retailer and online store offers free or low-cost shipping and most will deliver to the campus mailroom in 48 hours.

Dorm rooms are short on space and every experienced parent will tell you that their student arrived back home in May with items they never or rarely touched. So focus on how to best use that space and send them to school with only the items they will use. Here are a few things to consider when making your teen’s own list: 

  • We wish they would clean their dorm room, they rarely do, so go easy on the cleaning supplies and equipment.
  • Coordinate purchases with the roommate(s) early, no dorm room needs 3 coffee makers.
  • Take seriously dorm prohibitions on items like extension cords, hot water kettles, and candles, as most schools will confiscate any items they do not allow.
  • Don’t buy your teen things they say they don’t need or want, when they realize you are right later, mail said item as part of a great care package.
  • Save money by waiting to buy traditional school supplies until after classes have begun. Many students find their laptops are adequate for many or all of their classroom needs.
  • Focus on the biggest ticket items first. Many college students will benefit from a new, or at least, updated, laptop. Colleges have deals with laptops manufacturers that allow students to buy at a substantial discount so explore this option first. Major electronics retailers also offer college discounts. Other expensive purchases such as a mattress topper or water-resistant backpack often go on sale during the summer.
  • Many major clothing, transportation and cell phone providers also offer discounts to students with a “.edu” email address from a university and some will even recognize college acceptance letters in applying discounts. Ask at the checkout, as discounts are not always posted.
  • A student’s phone or laptop can be used as an alarm clock, picture frame, calendar, flashlight, calculator and more so, with limited space, think twice before purchasing items that are redundant.
  • The space under the weirdly-elevated dorm beds is prime real estate and, if you can find a diagram of the specific dorm where your teen will soon be living, you can create an optimized space plan with the right-sized storage containers.

Once you have completed your teen’s list, it is time to go looking for dorm shopping bargains. This is a competitive marketplace and retailers and will all work hard to get your business. In some cases they offer large discounts on your entire dorm room purchase, even if it is done over many shopping trips, and will extend these savings well into the fall or later if you attend their local “college nights” or just sign up on their websites with your email. Seeking out these discounts on dorm items and shipping can result in great savings.


While the choice for textbooks used to be simply new or used, students can now also rent a hard copy, or buy or rent a digital download. Students have individual preferences about how they like to read – screen or print – but the decision is also a function of the type of class and density of the material.

Once your student knows their class schedule, take a look at the required books. Selection of cheaper used copies will diminish the closer to the start of school.

Large textbooks can easily cost hundreds of dollars so comparison-shopping online for these, rather than inexpensive paperbacks, can be time well spent. Pay close attention to the ISBN code on each book so that the edition of the book specified by the professor is the edition your student purchases. One caveat is that some digital downloads have a unique supplement that can only be used once. If your student buys a download and the supplement has already been used, they may have to purchase a second copy just to be able to access the supplement.

  • There are numerous online booksellers and many offer free shipping and returns, with conditions. Remind your student to play attention to the deadline for return with refund, to keep the receipt and hang onto one of the shipping boxes just in case they decide to drop the class.
  • Although the campus bookstore may be the most convenient place to shop, there are often used and new copies of textbooks that are less expensive online. Before swiping their student ID, they should make a quick comparison shop especially for the most expensive books.
  • Professors may have their required textbooks in the school library as reference copies to be available for all students.
  • Some colleges have a Facebook group where students post things they are selling. There could be some book bargains here.

Your student might be able to share a book with a roommate or hall mates in the same class. Also, friends who bought a textbook the previous semester might be willing to share or sell their textbooks.

At the end of the term, your student should gather their used textbooks and see if they are able to resell them back to one of the online bookstores or, if they purchased them at the campus bookstore, they might earn some money selling books there.

Move-in day

There is a big fork in the road to move in day that can be decided by the answer to these questions - will you drive or fly to college? Can you turn around and come home after you have said goodbye or will you need to book plane tickets, a few nights in a hotel, and a rental car?

Here are some of the ways to save money if you are flying or staying overnight:

  • Sign up yourself and your teen for the airline rewards program you are most likely to use to your student’s college destination. After four years of traveling back and forth to school for the holidays and summer, they may accumulate enough miles for a post-graduation trip. On top of that, using a travel rewards card like Capital One’s Venture card allows you to earn rewards on the purchases you make while on your college travels.
  • Retailers offer services that are tailored to college freshmen moving far from home. They often provide free shipping and the national stores have programs where you can select items in your hometown store and your purchases will be waiting for you, to give the final okay, in your teen’s college town store. Others will ship your selections to campus for pick up at the dorm on move in day.
  • Even if you are driving your student, booking a hotel for move in day and Family Weekend should be done as soon as your teen has chosen their college. In many college towns, hotel space can become scarce to nonexistent as these popular dates grow near. Check your college’s website Parent’s Page early as many list hotels offering their parents discounted rooms and group rates for Family Weekend while noting that the number of rooms is limited.
  • Do you have a favorite hotel group with a hotel in your new college town? If you are not already part of the loyalty program for the hotel, consider joining and watching the points accumulate in your account over the next four years.
  • Finally, consider applying for a credit card that will give you miles or cash back when you book travel on that card. It might also offer services such as car rental insurance, concierge services, lost luggage insurance, travel upgrades and more. Learn about Capital One credit card rewards & benefits here.

We hope you found this helpful. Our content is not intended to provide legal, investment or financial advice or to indicate that a particular Capital One product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.

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