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And You Thought Just Tuition Was Expensive

Room and board, books, transportation, and other expenses can add significantly to the cost of attending college.

Note: This article is part of Morningstar's October 2014 College Planning Report Card special report. An earlier version of this article appeared March 23, 2014.

When it comes to financial worries, paying for college is near the top of the list for many families, with rising tuition costs being the greatest area of concern. Last year tuition and fees at public four-year colleges averaged about $9,000 for in-state residents and more than $22,000 out-of-state, while private four-year colleges charged about $30,000 on average, according to figures from the College Board. 

Over the past five years, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges have risen 27% on an inflation-adjusted basis while those at private colleges have increased 14%. And even though the rate of tuition inflation appears to be slowing, costs continue to climb. It's enough to make parents whose kids haven't even entered high school wonder how much they'll need to have saved by the time they drop them off at the dorm for freshman year.

But even if all the attention paid to rising tuition rates is well-deserved, it's hardly the only major driver of college costs. Room and board, books, transportation, and incidental costs--such as money to buy clothes, get a haircut (hopefully), and maybe go out for a meal to get away from dorm food once in a while--all add to the overall cost of attending college for many students.

In fact, outside of tuition and fees, additional costs to attend college today run about $14,000 per year for the average college student, according to figures from the College Board. As the chart below shows, room and board make up a big part of this added cost but are by no means the only factors.

That's why families saving for college need to look holistically at college costs, beyond just tuition and fees. Factoring realistic estimates for nontuition costs into your college-savings plan now may help prevent you or your student from taking out loans to help cover those costs later. The other bit of good news is that there are ways to reduce or even eliminate some of these added costs. Let's take a closer look at some nontuition costs and ways to save on them.

Room and Board 
Sure, a tuition bill of around $9,000--again, the in-state average at public four-year colleges--may sound reasonably affordable, but add in room and board and the cost more than doubles, to $18,391, according to the College Board. What's more, last year's $9,498 average tab for on-campus room and board at such schools is about $2,000 more than it was a decade earlier even after adjusting for inflation. At private colleges, the cost of room and board tends to be even worse, averaging $10,823 last year. Chances are, as the costs of food and shelter continue to rise, the room and board portion of students' college bills will, as well. 

Ways to save: Living at home while in school may cramp the student's lifestyle but could be a huge cost-savings move. The same goes with eating meals at home. If neither is possible, think about looking at a less expensive dorm or off-campus housing if either is an option. The student also might want to look into being a residential advisor at a dorm as a way to reduce costs and perhaps land a better room.  

You might be surprised to learn that the average yearly cost of books and supplies at a four-year public college is about $1,200. Some parents may remember a time not so long ago when that would have been enough to cover a semester's tuition! But, like most everything else, the cost of college textbooks has been rising sharply. In fact, from 2002 to 2012 the cost of college textbooks increased 82%, according to a U.S. government report. That nearly matches the rate of inflation for tuition and fees during that time and is nearly triple the overall inflation rate of consumer prices. 

Ways to save: Buying used textbooks is a time-proven strategy to save money, and today's students may have the option of buying or renting electronic copies of books, which can cut costs by as much as two-thirds, according to the National Association of College Stores.

Attending college far from home brings with it added transportation expenses--especially if an airplane ticket is required. Furthermore, don't forget the added cost of travel for parents and siblings who may wish to visit the student, as well as any related hotel and meal costs. The average cost of domestic round-trip airfare in the United States is around $380, an increase in absolute terms of about 30% from 1995. If the student plans to study abroad at any point, expect to pay more. 

Ways to save: You've probably already figured out some ways to save on airfare for your own purposes--fly at off-peak times, be willing to take connecting fights, and so on. Students often have the scheduling flexibility to take advantage of these cheaper flights, provided they don't mind a short layover or the occasional red-eye. Another tip for families with students attending college far from home is to stockpile frequent flyer miles to help cover the cost of airfare. If you haven't already, you might even consider opening a credit card for the student or yourself that includes miles or points as a reward, so long as you and/or the student plan to pay off the balance at the end of each month. For students attending college closer to home, ride-sharing or taking the bus can help keep transportation costs down.

The good news is that the price of technology products tends to fall over time, so buying a computer for college doesn't have to set your student back nearly as much as it would have in years past. At the same time, having a laptop and/or tablet is more indispensable than ever for today's college students and may add hundreds of dollars to the cost of attendance. Add to that a smart phone and the monthly bill that comes with it, a sound system for the dorm room, and so forth, and technology could quickly become a rather pricey line item in your college budget. 

Ways to save: Avoiding the latest and greatest is a good way to cut down on technology costs and can still provide your student with a perfectly adequate machine. Buying a laptop that's a year old--or even a refurbished model--as opposed to one that's brand new can save hundreds of dollars. Just be sure it can handle whatever your student's computing needs may be and comes with a warranty, just in case.

Your student may have a meal plan at his or her dorm, but chances are there will be times when he or she wants to go out for a bite to eat, see a movie, or hit a local watering hole with friends. And the money to pay for season tickets to the schools' sports teams has to come from somewhere. If the student plans to join a fraternity or sorority this can add hundreds or thousands of dollars in additional costs to cover dues and other expenses related to membership, though these membership expenses may include housing or meals. 

Ways to save: One of the best ways to help your student prepare for these added costs is simply to teach him or her good budgeting skills during the high school years. Have the student track his or her spending for a month or two and identify priorities and areas that could be cut back. Encourage the student to work a part-time job while in college, even if only for a few hours a week, to generate income. Learning to make smart financial choices early on will serve him or her well beyond the college years.

Saving enough in advance to cover all or most of a student's tuition needs can be intimidating on its own without also factoring in the added costs of the aforementioned items. And some families may simply consider paying for these items to be the student's responsibility. Whatever your family's approach, the point is to have a realistic expectation of what it costs to attend college these days. It's not just about paying tuition any more than going to college is just about attending classes. Setting your college-planning goals with the full experience in mind is your best bet to help you pass the test.