08/31/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

8 College Budget Busters and How to Avoid Them

This year, as millions of students begin college or their college search, their parents will go along for the ride literally, figuratively and financially. For most, this will be one of the biggest investments of their lives. And while the entire college-bound journey is an expensive one, there are some high ticket items you probably shouldn't buy.

Pre-College Budget Busters

1. Standardized Test Prep That Doesn't Address The Problem
Not all test prep packages or options are created equal. IF your teen needs to improve his/her test scores, examine your child's study habits and test weaknesses and chose a prep option that addresses these. Expensive courses, books and tutors can only help if they are used and strengthen the weakness. Course options come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges (Yes, some are free!). No scientific research has demonstrated that more expensive prep options lead to better scores.

2. Excessive College Touring
College tours are wonderful but can be expensive, especially given gas prices and the logo sweatshirts teens love to collect. When possible, narrow down college searches by visiting locally first (large vs. small school, city vs. rural) so your teen can get a feel for preferences. Even if going local isn't a consideration, it's a great opportunity to comparison shop on a budget. Take the virtual tours on college websites, then head over to and that offer free virtual tours (from a student perspective) of thousands campuses. Then plan your real life visits armed with information and questions.

3. Scholarship Scams
Ask any college expert and they will tell you, "you shouldn't have to pay money to get free money." Do not pay for your child to access a scholarship database.

College Budget Busters

4. Credit Card Pushes
Many universities have cracked down on the "you're in college, now-sign up for a free credit card" opportunities, because they realize it's can be a recipe for disaster for students and their families. Keep your eyes open and help your teen set up a financial plan that won't tempt him/her to sign up for immediate gratification that they can't afford.

5. Book Buying
Professors seem a little more financially sensitive about their reading lists these days. Book prices can burn through a college budget in record breaking time. When possible, students should wait until the professor confirms the reading list (find out what is mandatory vs. suggested). Examine the possibility of used books, previous editions or ebooks, which can be significantly cheaper than the new standard texts.

6. Meal Plan Mistakes
Be realistic when selecting meal plans. If your student's first class is at noon and she/he rarely eats breakfast, will he/she even use the 3-meal a day plan? Sometimes a package of energy bars and a smaller meal plan is an economical and realistic choice.

7. Product Mark-ups
Some university towns have a knack for marking up essential products. Do some price checking with your teen to help them identify what is better to purchase from home or online.

8. Guilt Buys
Yes, parents miss their kids and there are plenty of people who want them to feel better about that. Before you pull out the credit card, take a closer look at care package advertisements that pull on your heartstrings and deliver overpriced, disappointing products. Some students might love them, but others would prefer a Starbuck's gift card over a $25 mug with a cocoa packet.