College financial aid is usually doled out in huge lump sums at the beginning of each semester. This isn’t a great system, but it’s pretty much the only one we have. Students tend to act like small-scale lottery winners and go buy unnecessary things like TVs and nose jobs. I don’t think anyone would do well being handed a brick of amorphous cash, but especially not an 18-year-old who has mastered budgets of less than $50 per week prior to then. Here’s some strategies to keep the cash flowing throughout the year.
When budgeting for the academic year, bear in mind it’s an academic year. Especially if you have a child going to a new area for college and you’re signing a lease, that lease will probably be for 12 months. Your college, however, can only offer up funds for the time your child is in school, so that usually leaves you in a three-month lurch over the summer. Craigslist is pretty sweet for sublets, but people seem to forget that colleges have a housing department that can help a lot in that regard too. Urban schools tend to have the most robust off-campus resources since housing is tight.
The first thing you generally need when you get to school is your ID. Don’t forget that your ID is sort of like a magic coupon that you can use all over the place for tons of discounts. Use the crap out of it. Use it until it melts in a searing little puddle on the ground. Amazon (which is where my book is!) will throw a massively discounted Prime account at you if you sign up with an .edu email. Apple will knock around 10% off all its computers if you have an ID, and you can just walk right in the store and do it.
Beyond that, either you’re living in a dorm with a roommate or you’re living off-campus with roommates. Don’t forget that this counts as a household, so you can take advantage of memberships that allow multiple household members to share, like Costco and Sam’s Club. I bulk-bought just about everything in college, sleeping atop an ever-shrinking mattress of toilet paper.
But at the end of the day, this is all for naught if you don’t budget it out. The quick and dirty method I suggest is to take your projected financial aid refund (which is a fun misnomer, since it’s usually excess loan funds you’ve borrowed for school) and multiply by .75. Only spend that amount. Set the other amount aside and pretend like it doesn’t exist and never touch it unless it’s an emergency. This is also just a great budgeting trick for any amount of money ever.
In any case, teach your kid to use coupons and to budget. It will help alleviate pretty much 95% of all the arguments you’ll have while they’re in college. And good luck.