As I went to get the mail today, I saw an orange folder with an eagle on it. I instantly thought of American University, since their mascot is an eagle. Then, I read the title - Housing and Dining Programs. I became excited, wondering if my roommate information was inside the folder. Maybe it would reveal what dorm I'm assigned. Before reading anything else, I ripped open the packet. To my dismay, it was ALL advertisements and things I could buy from the school to "enhance my college experience." Computers, dormitory comfort products, safety options, DVD players, iHome lamp/speaker, vacuum cleaner, water pitchers, vaults, hand vacs, laundry detergent, mini-fridge, microwave, and of course, textbooks, and more. These are all things I can order from the school-- how overwhelming and EXPENSIVE!   

For a fee you can get a loft, pillow-top foam comfort, and even protection from bed bugs.  Not kidding! Should you pay more for this stuff than the entire bed is worth? I certainly think not. I wondered how much the school makes on this stuff? My questions were answered when I comparison-shopped at several places. For example, my coupon-happy mom can save big bucks at Bed Bath and Beyond with her 20% off discounts.  

And don't forget about the books! American University has a few options for books: new or used textbooks, e-books, or rental books. All options are very expensive since the books are ridiculously priced! While buying a used book is great, somehow I always end up not being able to sell them back. I always seem to need the book that just came out with a "new edition."  So for me, that eliminates Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores. After doing some research, I learned that if I buy my books electronically, I could save up to 50%.  But knowing myself, if I start out with an e-book on my laptop screen, the "e" will quickly change to "face" due to my inability to focus. Also, I can save a lot of money by renting my books. I can use a textbook in good condition, and at the end of the semester, I can return it to the school. No extra books, no extra fees, and I can do it through the school store, so that my books are sitting in my dorm room when I arrive on campus.  

I cannot stress how important it is to do your research before buying some of these things. It can save you so much money! Also, look for coupons and deals while shopping. These schools are businesses, and like any business, their goal is to make money. So beware, they are going to try to get you to buy lots of extra things-- some of which you need and some of which you don't need. As I like to say, they nickel and dime you. While you have to buy your books, shop around for the cheapest option. All and all, I learned that there are a lot more expenses and temptations than just tuition, room, and board.  I know I have to get a budget going or I'm going to go broke in the first semester!

Ariel Levin

Ariel Levin is a contributing writer for In College and Starting Out blog. She will be attending American University in Washington DC in the fall of 2010.  She knows being in a city like Washington will pose challenges and financial temptations. She will share her experiences as a college freshman who is just starting out and learning to manage her money on her own. Compensated CareOne Blogger.