Having just completed my first year of college, I have learned a lot about where money can go. I go to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, California. Most people I know cringe at the cost of attendance. I was lucky to have a large amount of scholarships, but I still ran across a few financial monsters that I probably could have avoided by reading a bit more.
Lesson 1: If it's not necessary, just don't get it.
For example, I decided to live on campus, to have the full "away from home" experience. My dorm: over $5,000 per semester. I honestly was not trying to spend that much on housing, but USC has a lottery for first year housing which means that you can indicate the dorm you want but that might not be the one you get. For me, that was an extra $2000. Of course, there is also the fact that, despite what admissions staff may say, you are not obligated to stay on campus for your first year at many schools. It is nice and a fun experience, but unnecessary if you cannot really afford it. So, in reality, I spent $10,000 that I could have held on to. To add on to that, I also had a mandatory dining plan and health plan because I lived on campus. Edging towards $15,000 at this point. A 45 min commute would have been a bit cheaper, and I would have known that if I read up on how the housing process works.
Lesson 2: Know where that money goes
Even after I decided that, I received my financial aid ESTIMATE. The fun word in that sentence is estimate, meaning that those cost are not exact, and the financial aid office cannot be responsible for whatever costs appear different. My favorite part that I wish I read into was the Additional Fees. On the website, there are generalized costs of different programs; by looking under additional fees there are things like health fees (not insurance, but for using facilities), program fees, tuition refund insurance, providing for scholarship funds, etc. Random things that can't be changed mostly, yet I would have liked to know about them before having to pay for them. Some of these fees are mandatory for everyone, some are just when you live on campus, and some are associated with the classes you take. Be aware of the program you are taking and the supplies you might need (like science majors- lab fees, goggles, lab coat).
Lesson 3: Looooooooaaannnnssss
There is so much reading. So much. But you will be grateful when you don't have weirdos calling from out-of-state wanting your billing information. Loans are the scariest part of education. I really wanted to avoid them, so of course I have three. I knew the nightmare they could be because I have close relatives that have experienced the horror first hand. My advice? Avoid them at all costs. I know, I clearly have taken loans so who am I to say "don't"? In my situation, I didn't really have a choice. But I tried to make it the smallest amount possible. How? By going to an in-state school and keeping moving costs low, by trying to find scholarships, by finding books online and by doing favors to earn a little side cash. Usually going to school near home is cheaper than going out-of-state; however, for me it would have been more effort and time to try to go UC Davis instead of USC as the moving costs were more expensive. Even after trying to avoid many extra costs, loans might still be necessary for you, too. So take the time to read miles of 11 pt font and figure out how you can pay them off later, what happens if you don't, what in the world does "APR" mean (seriously), and every piece of info that you can get your hands on. It will at least make you feel like you know what is going on four years down the road.
Finally, I just want to say that making mistakes is how we learn; and if I've learned anything besides how to put together a phylogeny, it's how to keep track of where my money goes and if I really need it to go there. Best of luck to all on their financial adventures. I hope I've been helpful.