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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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The start of the school year is only a few weeks away, and parents of the 2.05 million new college freshman are worrying about packing all those boxes and teaching the kids how to do laundry. But one of the most important things you can do is to start your child on a responsible freshman-year budget.

That is easier said than done, particularly before your child gets to school, when you don't yet know what expenses might arise. Still, doing extensive guesswork beforehand can alleviate stress, and huge bills, once your kid arrives on campus.

Educational expenses: Tuition and health-care bills for college usually show up about a month before the school year starts. But you won't know additional costs, such as for textbooks, until the syllabuses arrive at the bookstore. If you are able to get your child's book list in advance, try to purchase as many used books as possible. If you can't find them, consider buying new ones from online retailers at a discount, rather than paying full price at the campus bookstore.

Living expenses: If your child will be living in a dorm, chances are good that the costs for electricity, gas and water, and in some cases cable and Internet access, have already been included in your residence charge. Almost all dorm rooms are furnished, though it's usually only to the bare minimum. Plan to pay for other room essentials such as under-the-bed storage boxes and bedding.

While every student fares much better, academically, having his or her own computer, your child and his or her roommates can definitely save some money by sharing communal items such as TVs and DVD players, rather than purchasing two of everything.

Food expenses: Most college freshmen live on or near campus and have access to a meal plan in a dining hall. These plans typically range from one meal a day to three, so discuss the alternatives and decide how often your kid will use the dining hall. Whatever the monthly cost of the plan, you should budget an extra sum for novelty food like extra snacks and, of course, pizza.

Ask your child to send home a summary of his or her total spending every two weeks or so. After a month or two of this, you should have an excellent idea of average monthly costs. This will also get your child in the habit of keeping track of expenses.

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