The first college course is finance

08/03/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 7:16 PM

Your soon-to-be departing college freshman might come unhinged if you mention the word “budget.” It’s the same feeling parents get when they hear the phrase “send more money.”

When it comes to the tab for tuition, room and board, textbooks and even travel expenses, there aren’t many surprises at this point. Most of those checks have been written.

But knowing how much of a bankroll your new college student will need to cover monthly personal expenses for food, deodorant, laundry and entertainment — yes, even a Netflix membership — requires a bit of math and trial and error.

You can check college websites to get ballpark data. Many suggest a minimum of $200 a month, or about $1,800 for nine months of school.

But the real number depends on a host of factors. Is your student tight with a buck or a free spender? Is your student attending an urban or a rural college? Will your student be running with a fast crowd where money is no object?

And is your student’s definition of personal expenses in sync with yours? In other words, is your student counting on you to pay for the season pass to the ski resort near the school, plus rental costs for boots and skis?

Map out a monthly budget. Something simple will work, with a few categories for toiletries, clothing, gasoline, supplies and off-campus meals. Then do the math for how much will need to be deposited — from your funds or the teen’s — into the student’s checking account each month.

It will force your teen to think about what toothpaste, a tank of gas or a sweatshirt from the campus bookstore costs.

For a more sophisticated approach, check out the money management tools at Mint.com and SayStudent.com.

Susan Beacham, a financial education expert and owner of Money Savvy Generation, sees value in working off a budget. She has done so with her two college daughters, and it has taken some of the guesswork out of the banking and made her children more accountable for their spending.

“Make the deposit to their account and let them know that when it is gone, it is gone,” Beacham said. “They will pay much closer attention to the budgeting. They will want to get the estimate right if they know that they will need to live within their number.”

That said, as soon as your freshman hits campus, the teen will find ways to go through his or her cash completely, especially the first semester.

Beacham suggests a mid-month phone call to talk about expenses and to see how the budget is holding up.

If your student is digging a deep hole, consider replenishing the youth’s bank account every two weeks rather than once a month.

And realize that in year two, the budgeting process should get easier.

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