You don’t have to be an economics major to understand how the recession is weighing on retailers and consumers. Just try sending a kid to college.
With about a month left until most colleges reopen for the fall 2009 semester, retailers are beefing up their sales and promotions for all of the tools, housewares and decorations that have become part of modern college life.
That leaves students and their families in the driver’s seat when it comes to snagging deals. They have never been short on motivation.
In addition to paying for tuition and room and board — which at public universities average $14,333 for in-state students and $25,200 for out-of-state students, or $34,132 at private universities, according to 2008-09 data from the College Board — students incur additional expenses once they enter campus for items including textbooks, laptops (or netbooks) and dorm room appliances.
According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2009 back-to-college survey, college students and their parents are expected to spend an average of $618.12 this year, up 3% over last year’s $599.38. Eighty-three percent of parents with students already in or planning to attend college say that the economy is impacting their back-to-college plans, and 48% of them say the economy will cause them to spend less, according to the survey.
The survey also found that families of freshmen will continue to spend the most on back-to-college purchases, on average $820.77, largely because of computer purchases and dorm furnishings.
Saving money on back-to-college purchases is top priority this year for most families, saysJeff Green, the president of a retail consultancy based in Mill Valley, Calif. One of the easiest ways to save, especially for freshmen who have the most expenses, is to compare prices in stores and online, he says.
In the interest of cutting back, we’ve pinpointed some of the biggest expenses (after tuition and room and board) that freshmen students incur once they move on campus. Our list incorporates data from the NRF survey and advice from retail analyst Green andMike Gatti, the executive director at the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a trade group that studies pricing and consumer behavior. (Students who live at home and commute won’t incur many of these expenses.)
Although the savings presented below are derived from local examples, they are indicative of common pricing patterns throughout the country. Crunching these numbers offers a rough estimate for how much a typical American family might save by shopping around.
By now, many college professors have posted their 2009 class syllabi on their respective university’s web sites, and many include the required reading for class.
Students can get a jump on tracking down books at prices significantly lower than those of their college book store. Buying these books used can help you save 70% to 90% off the retail price, Gatti says. Professors often use the same texts for every few consecutive years, and you can often find them on sites like CheapestTextbooks.com, Booksprice.com or Amazon.com. (These sites may also sell new books at discounted prices.) Many college bookstores sell used texts, as well.
Another option is downloading the book online, which is, on average, 50% cheaper than buying the book new, Gatti says. Sites like Coursesmart.com sell subscriptions to digital copies of more than 7,000 textbooks.
TextbookMedia.com permits students to download textbooks for free. You can also rent textbooks at sites like Chegg.com. But these texts can’t be returned for money, unlike the actual books that you can return to the college bookstore or resell online.
When a student returns a new book to the school store at the end of the semester, the store will return an average of 50% of the total cost of the book, assuming several factors – including that a professor has requested the same book for next semester’s curriculum, says Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores.
Here are a few examples based on fall 2009 syllabi of how much you can save by buying used textbooks:
At Texas State University, the fall 2009 core freshman English courses require the eighth edition of the “Scott Foresman Handbook” and the “Arlington Reader,” new versions of which cost $74.67 and $38.47, respectively. Used versions start at $37 and $16.70, respectively.
At Western Oregon University, a fall 2009 math course entitled Foundations of Elementary Mathematics requires several texts: the eighth edition of “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers: A Conceptual Approach,” which new costs $122.44. A used version starts at $4. In addition, the course requires the eighth edition text “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers: An Activity Approach,” which costs $111.15 new; the used version starts at $61.54.
At Rutgers University, a fall 2009 economics course titled Intermediate Microeconomics Analysis requires the third edition textbook, “Microeconomics,” by David Besanko and Ronald Braeutigam. Amazon.com lists a retail price of $145.03 for this new hardcover book; a used version starts at $85. (These prices don’t include shipping.)
Total savings: $57.87. This number represents the average savings at each of the three courses. Savings will vary depending on the number of textbooks a student needs to buy, their prices, and a student’s schedule. A typical freshman load will include two to three courses that will require textbooks like these, so a savvy student’s actual savings on textbooks may be closer to between $100 and $150.
Student spending on electronics or computer-related items should rise to $266.08 this year, from $211.89 last year, as laptops become a requirement from many colleges, according the NRF survey.
To find the best deal on a given laptop (or netbook), check out comparison shopping sites like PriceGrabber.com or discount stores like Wal-Mart or Target .
You should also make sure your computer doesn’t exceed (or shortchange) your needs. Choosing a netbook over a laptop can be an economical decision, but students should make sure that the device includes or can support the applications they’ll by using. Students who plan to major in the liberal arts or humanities, like English or History, don’t typically need to upload additional applications to their computers, so even the most basic netbook may suffice. Students planning on majoring in math or engineering should look at their upcoming courses’ syllabi to see what programs they’ll need before purchasing a computer.
Savings also can be found when shopping for a refurbished laptop or netbook. These devices were returned by their previous owners, often after displaying a problem like a faulty keyboard or a cooling fan that needed replacing, Gatti says. Manufacturers fix the laptops and resell them at a fraction of their original price.
On PriceGrabber.com, a Dell Inspiron 15 Notebook sells for as much as $600 and as little at $449. Dig a little further by looking at a refurbished version of the same laptop sold by Dell and you can find it as low as $389. Thinking about a netbook? On PriceGrabber.com, a Dell Inspiron Mini 10v Netbook sells for as low as $329 and a refurbished version sells for as little as $299.
Total savings: $301. Assumes the student goes from buying a new Dell laptop to a refurbished netbook.
3) Refrigerator & Microwave
The cost of college meal plans varies according to the type of plan a student chooses, but many of these plans can cost as much as several thousand dollars a year. For example, at Rhode Island College some meal plans range from $1,825 to $1,925 per semester; at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., meal plans range from $1,525 to $2,100 a semester.
Many universities require that students living on campus (typically, most freshmen) sign up for a meal plan, and they often provide several options, including a fixed number of meals per week or a prepaid account used to purchase meals.
There are many ways to scale back your meal plan without missing out on meals. Most universities permit small refrigerators in dorms, and some allow microwaves. Students can use these appliances to whip up lunch or weekend meals. You can save around 75% when shopping for such appliances by going second hand, Gatti says. Search for lightly-used second-hand appliances on web sites like Craigslist or eBay or in local yard sales or flea markets.
P.C. Richard & Son sells an Avanti 3.1-cubic-foot mini refrigerator for $197.97, while a similar Sanyo 3.6-cubic-foot model had an original listing price of $40 on eBay. Wal-Mart sells a Sharp black microwave oven for $58, while a Craigslist’s poster in New York sells it for $29. Make sure to check the sellers’ ratings when you can.
Total savings: $494. This savings represents the difference between buying the above appliances used, rather than new, added to the average difference between the cheapest and most expensive meal plans offered by the schools above for one semester, minus the cost of a box of 36 Ramen noodle packs for $5.88, a box of eight Progresso soups for $10.63 and two boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese 12-packs for $6.76 each at Sam’s Club – all staples of the college diet.
4) Coffee maker
Depending on your location, a 12-ounce coffee will cost around $1.60 each. At that rate, one cup of coffee five days a week (excluding three weeks of vacation break) will set a student back around $264 for the academic year.
Buying a coffee maker can help you save. You can find a deal on coffee makers on web sites that sell second-hand appliances.
Bed Bath & Beyond sells a Cuisinart four-cup coffee maker for $30. But using Craigslist, you can get a new and unused similar-sized coffee maker by Mr. Coffee for $10.
Then, consider buying a one-pound bag of Starbucks coffee at Sam’s Club for $16.77. Depending on the size of your cup, a bag that size can yield about 40 cups of coffee. Assuming you’ll need around five of these bags to keep you caffeinated for the year, you’ll end up paying around $84.
Total savings: $170. This includes the savings of $180 on the coffee minus the cost of a $10 coffee maker.
Rather than purchasing separate linens and towels, consider shopping for a “bed in a bag,” which includes several pieces you’ll need for your bed and shower for one flat price.
At Bed Bath & Beyond, you can buy an 11-piece dorm room set that includes a comforter, a standard sham, one standard pillowcase, fitted and flat sheets (twin or twin extra long), one standard bed pillow, two towels, a fleece throw, a dry-erase board with marker and a hamper for $80. Buy each of these items separately, and you’ll end up paying more than double. A comforter set by Berkshire (which includes a standard sham) costs $80, a twin sheet set with a standard pillow case costs $50, a bed pillow costs $8, two bath towels cost $20, a fleece throw costs $20, a dry erase board costs $15 and a hamper costs $10, for a total of $208.
Total savings: $123. This is the difference between purchasing the dorm room set listed above and buying each pieces separately.
Dorm room walls rarely come decorated with much more than a coat of white or beige paint. Students shopping for artwork but who aren’t picky about artists or designs should consider Target and Pier 1 both of which sell hanging artwork for as low as $4 and $10, respectively.
Students with more selective taste should check out comparison shopping sites, like NexTag.com and BizRate.com; search for art you like, and find pieces for 15% off or more. Macy’s sells a framed art print of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” for $140, while a similar-sized print (without a frame) sells for $89 on MyWhiteWalls.com. Comparing prices online also helps. On NexTag.com, you’ll find wall art made of abstract metal rectangles with silver leaf imprints for as much as $90 but as little as $50.10.
Total savings: $90.90. The combined difference between buying both of these pieces at their highest prices and their lowest prices listed at the sites above.
7) Phone Plans
Today, most students are attached to their cellphones, whether they’re making calls, texting or browsing the Internet, Gatti says.
Prepaid phone plans offer attractive prices, but if students run over their minutes, those plans can get expensive quickly. Pay-as-you-go plans charge a set amount for each day you use your phone. For students who only chat on the phone a few days a month, pay-as-you-go might make sense, but otherwise, the charges can add up.
At T-Mobile, an Individual Plus Promotional plan that offers 1,000 minutes that can be used at any time and unlimited weekend and night minutes costs $40; its pay-as-you-go plan costs $100 for 1,000 minutes. Assuming a student uses up to 1,000 minutes, they could see savings of $60 by going with the individual plan.
At AT&T an individual plan with 900 minutes and unlimited weekends and nights costs $50. Their pay-as-you-go Unlimited Calling Plan costs $3 for each day of phone use. At Verizon (VZ
), a basic individual plan costs $40 a month and includes 450 minutes that can be used at any time. The company’s prepaid unlimited plan costs $3 for each day you use the phone. Assuming you use the phone every day, students can save around $40 or $50, with AT&T and Verizon, respectively, by sticking with the individual plan.
Average total savings: $50. The average savings among the three carriers for not using a prepaid plan.