Tips for Back-to-College Shopping After paying for tuition, housing, and textbooks, many college students and parents are tapped out. But the spending doesn't stop there. With just a couple of weeks left before students return to school, there are many things students need. Or is it really things they want?
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Tips for Back-to-College Shopping

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Tips for Back-to-College Shopping

Tips for Back-to-College Shopping

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Well, it's that time of year; many college students heading back to school, and that means stocking up on dorm room essentials. But what do they really need to buy? Where should students and their parents draw the line?

DAY TO DAY's personal finance contributor Michelle Singletary joins us. Hi, Michelle.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Hi.

HATTORI: So what's reasonable for a student to have, and what's the stuff they should save up for?

SINGLETARY: What you need to do is just sort of have a plan. You know, I always go back to that B-word - the budget. So one thing you want to do, especially if you're a freshman, actually any student returning, call your roommate to find out what they're bringing so that you don't have to show up with, you know, two things of everything - microwave, television, all the kinds of things that you want to put in your dorm room. So plan together so that that's one way to save money.

HATTORI: What about computers? Does every student need to have a computer?

SINGLETARY: Most colleges say that you need a laptop if you're a college student, and it really is. I mean there are of course computer labs. And if you absolutely can't afford a computer, there is a way to use one, and of course your roommate may have one. And then there are lots of ways to find discounted priced computers. You can get a used computer. The technology is updated constantly so used may not be up to speed, but if you're on a budget, it's better than nothing.

HATTORI: Is there a way for parents to find out about these extra costs for their college student? It's kind of easy to overlook these things.

SINGLETARY: Go back to the information packet that they sent to you, especially if you're a freshman. There's lots of good information. And you can go online to the Web site for the college. And also, actually, the College Board has a lot of information on the average cost for things. Because don't be snookered by your college students, because you know, they'll come home and say I need this and I need that.

And you want - again, have a game plan. You know, you show up on campus. Everybody is dressed in the latest whatever. They've got the iPods and the MP3 players and the Xbox and all that kind of stuff. You know, you don't need everything at once. And I know that most of them already have cell phones, but it's not a necessity. There are certainly going to be a way for them to reach you.

I mean, but if the dollars are tight, you really just need to step back and see what are the essentials. Pay for those first. And then if there's some extra dollars, you can do all the other extras that they want.

HATTORI: So if they're asking for that 42-inch plasma screen, parents should be a little - look askance to that, right?

SINGLETARY: Yes, that's right. They don't need a T.V. anyway. They got a lot studying to do.

HATTORI: What about credit cards? Should a college student get one to help pay for things they might need and start building a credit history, too, I guess.

SINGLETARY: That's going to be the pitch that parents are going to get from their college students, if they haven't already. And my advice is don't do it, don't do it, don't do it. The average college student is graduating not only with college student loans, but a lot of credit card debt, because their version of an emergency could be a pizza because they've got an overnight, you know, exam that they're studying for. The temptation is just too great.

Instead, what you should do is maybe do a debit card. And you know, listen, it only takes about six months to build a credit history. So while they're in college with all that temptation to buy things that they don't need, I would suggest that they don't get a credit card.

HATTORI: So the message is if you need an emergency pizza, pay cash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SINGLETARY: That's right. Or eat Oodles of Noodles, like I did.

HATTORI: Michelle Singletary is our regular expert on personal finance, and she writes the nationally syndicated column The Color of Money. Thanks, Michelle.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

HATTORI: To hear more from Michelle, check out her NPR podcast. Just go online to npr.org/colorofmoney. That's all one word.

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