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Housing, Meals, and Books, Oh My!

Families generally search for painless ways to cut college costs.  Housing options, meal plans and books are all college expenses that can definitely come with a hefty price tag, so it is important to choose wisely. Below, we have provided a few thoughts and suggestions for you as you consider where to live, what meal plan to sign up for, and where to buy your books.

Housing Options:

One of the most costly expenses when talking about college is housing. There are three housing types: on campus, off campus, and off campus with parents—each with its own cost and financial aid formula. Some colleges will offer all three, others will require all freshmen to live on campus their first year (or all four years), and other colleges are non-residential. Make sure you know the policy of the school you plan to attend.  If you plan to live at home and commute, make sure that is an option before you make your final decision.  Assuming the college you plan to attend does offer the option to live off campus you will also need to see if doing so will change the financial aid award.  Parents may assume the award will remain the same and just deduct the room & board costs, but that could be a costly mistake.  Do your homework! Contact the financial aid office and see what changes, if any, occur if your student forgoes staying in on-campus housing.  The answer to this question could be a deal breaker for some students, so make sure to call the financial aid office before you make any assumptions.

 Meal Plans:  

If the student decides to live on campus they will most likely be required to sign up for a meal plan.  They will be offered anywhere from 5 to 21 meals per week and the meal plan may also include “credit” the student can use for additional food or snacks.  For obvious reasons, there are different fees associated with each meal plan and they will typically have rules concerning changes to the plan the student selects.  A college meal plan may allow a student to increase the number of meals but not decrease and the student may lose meals at the end of each week or semester.  You and your student need to READ THE ENTIRE CONTRACT.  When deciding on a meal plan, consider the following questions:

  • Does the student regularly eat breakfast or do they prefer a quick breakfast bar? 
  • Does the student plan to come home on weekends?  
  • Is the student planning on dining with relatives while on campus?  

We are not encouraging the student to skip meals, but if they purchase meals and end up not using them, that is an expense that could be avoided with some careful planning.


Almost everyone has heard the horror stories about the cost of text books.  College text books can be incredibly expensive.  Many colleges have worked at addressing the high cost of books and at the same time many students have become quite creative in reducing the costs associated with text books. In addition to an on-campus bookstore or college-preferred bookstore, here are a few other options:

  • If the student knows someone who has taken the same class, that person might be willing to sell their book(s) at a discounted rate.
  • Don’t forget to check out online book sellers, such as They sometimes have better deals than what bookstores have.
  • Check out locally-owned bookstores in the area. Sometimes students will sell or give their textbooks to these locally-owned stores, so don’t forget to see if they might have what you are looking for.
  • If a roommate is taking the same classes, they may be able to share their book(s). (Consider this option carefully, as sometimes relationships do not remain the same throughout the course of a semester and you might end up without a book when you really need it!)
  • You might see if an electronic version of your required text is offered. If so, that might be a cheaper option for those who have an e-reader or iPad.
  • If you decide to use the college’s bookstore, consider purchasing used books. Most college bookstores will stock used books, but the early bird gets the worm. Also, you will want to check the college bookstore and while you are there be sure to find out what the return policy is in case you need to make a return for any reason.  

 Important: Be sure when purchasing books from somewhere other than the campus bookstore that you are purchasing the correct edition. The professor will usually list the specific edition of each book on the syllabus or course outline. 

 These suggestions may not work for every student, but could add up to cost savings and a lower cost of attendance. The biggest point is that you need to think carefully about all your decisions. Some decisions can be approached creatively so that you can spend less time worrying about finances, and instead spend more time studying.

Publication Date: February 2018