Expenses to be aware of on college move-in day – And which credit cards can help

Written by
Geoff Williams
Terms apply; see the online credit card application for full terms and conditions of offers and rewards.

At CardRatings.com we discuss the most up-to-date news and trends within the credit card space. Since we first pioneered the concept of online credit card reviews in 1998, our team of financial experts has provided comprehensive and unbiased credit card reviews for more than 175 cards, plus hundreds of additional resource articles to help educate everyday cardholders so they can feel more confident about their card choices. All our content is written and reviewed by industry experts. Though our content may occasionally contain references to products from our partners, we maintain strict editorial integrity and advertiser relationships and compensation never influences ratings, reviews or featured products. The difference between editorial content and advertising must always be clearly stated. Learn more.

Every parent knows that college is expensive. From the moment you whip out your credit card to pay for diapers, you’re thinking in the back of your mind that somehow, you also really need to save up for your kids’ college education.

But nobody seems to think about all of the unexpected, hidden costs of the actual day your kid moves into college – until, of course, it’s too late, and you’re doing it, and suddenly dollar signs are at every turn.

So if you’re moving your kids into a dorm soon, you really may want to think about the hidden costs of college move-in day. The costs are obviously nothing compared to college tuition. The average cost of college in the United States is currently $35,551 per student per year, according to EducationData.org. Still, your credit card is likely about to get a workout. Here are some things to keep in mind for move-in day, and some tips for how your credit card can help. 

Packing expenses

Your college kid has never been away before, and they may be planning on bringing just about everything that they own. That’s probably not a great idea, but even if they try to minimize what they take, there is a lot to pack, from bedding to towels to clothes and posters and knickknacks and school supplies. Be prepared to buy an extra suitcase or plastic containers to put things in, or cardboard boxes. Maybe you’ll get lucky and your kid will pack light, but packing expenses are not the sort of expense most parents really think about – until you’re in the midst of the move.

The type of credit card you may want to use: Just about any credit card will do, but obviously cards that offer cash back or points for your purchases can help reduce your costs some. For instance, you may want to try the CardName. It offers 1.5% cash back on everything, and so whatever you spend on college move-in day, at least you’ll know everything will eventually be 1.5% cheaper than it otherwise would have been. Just remember to pay your bill in full and on time or interest charges will outweigh any savings earned.

Travel expenses

If you’re flying or driving far out of state you likely don’t need anyone reminding you that you may end up spending big to get your kid to college. Even if you’re closer to home you will want to keep your gas bill in mind.

If the college is kind of a drive from home, you may also end up spending money on food stops and maybe even hotel rooms. These costs can easily add up. 

The type of credit card you may want to use: A travel card is ideal here. You could use something like the CardName which earns 2X miles on all purchases, so no matter what your expenses are, you’ll earn rewards. You can then use those rewards for a family vacation, or a vacation for yourself, if you feel like you need one after the intensity of college move-in day…

If you have a big road trip ahead of you, don’t overlook gas rewards credit cards. Something like the CardName discontinued can save you as much as 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on other eligible transit costs. In addition to this, cardholders can earn 6% cash back on the first $6,000 spent at U.S. supermarkets each year (then 1%) as well on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, which can help keep everyone entertained on the long drive. American Express is a CardRatings advertiser.

Parking fees

Congratulations, you made it to your kid’s college without crying too much or embarrassing yourself by the goofy grin on your face! Because while many parents are genuinely torn up by their kids leaving the nest, others may be seeing their kids going off to college as something of a vacation. We are not here to judge.

The best advice here is to do a little research beforehand and find out what the university charges for parking. If your kid is going to school in the middle of a city, you may wind up in a parking garage. Whatever the case, do your nerves a favor and figure this out before you get to campus. You don’t want to wind up parking in some lot and figuring that nobody would be cruel enough to tow your car on move-in day, only to discover that, yes, somebody would…

The type of credit card you may want to use:  Some credit cards – the CardName, for instance – include “parking lots and garages” as travel expenses. If you have a credit card that offers travel rewards for parking, you may get some rewards for any parking you pay for with your credit card in service of college move-in day, helping to offset your costs.

Dorm room stuff you forgot to buy

There will be something – a pillow, phone charger, lamp – that your kid forgets to pack, and suddenly you or your spouse, or all of you, are running out to Target or Walmart or wherever to grab what you missed. It’s hard to plan for expenses that you don’t know are coming, but you may want to work into your budget anywhere from an extra $10 to $100, or more, depending on how forgetful you think your kid is.

The type of credit card you may want to use: If you can afford to wait a day or two, perhaps save yourself some time and money by making purchases online with the CardNamediscontinued.

Books and class materials

You probably already have this covered, but maybe not. Plenty of students end up buying textbooks right around move-in day. If you haven’t been thinking about that yet, well, you probably should.

The type of credit card you may want to use: A good cash back credit card could really come in handy here. Consider something like the CardName which earns 1% cash back when you make a purchase, and an additional 1% cash back when you pay the minimum amount due on time. Citi is a CardRatings advertiser.


Dining options on campus are continuously improving, but your kid might really appreciate a stocked mini fridge and snack bin before you hit the road. At the very least, this is a good last opportunity to leave them with something healthy to nosh on…

The type of credit card you may want to use: A credit card that rewards grocery purchases is good for this. Something like the CardName can help you to save on grocery purchases, and it also earns rewards on dining purchases, so it’s good for a nice meal out before you hit the road. There’s also a student version of this card – the CardName – which can help your kid build their credit and earn on vital purchases like groceries.

Bottom line

You can only prepare yourself so much for college move-in day. You can tell yourself all day long that you’re ready and won’t cry or embarrass your kid when it’s time to say goodbye, and then fail miserably…

When it comes to your finances though, you really can be prepared. Sure, you might end up with some unexpected expenses, but with the right credit card, you may be able to benefit from those costs. Prepare yourself by adding the right credit cards to your packing list. Your kid, and your bank account, will thank you.

Geoff Williams
CardRatings Contributor

Geoff is a freelance journalist and has been since the 1990s. He specializes in personal finance and small business issues and has seen his work published with numerous news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, CNNMoney.com, Reuters, The Washington Post and Consumer Reports. He also...Read more

Featured Partner Cards:


The information in this article is believed to be accurate as of the date it was written. Please keep in mind that credit card offers change frequently. Therefore, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information in this article. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. See the online credit card application for full terms and conditions on offers and rewards. Please verify all terms and conditions of any credit card prior to applying.

This content is not provided by any company mentioned in this article. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such company. CardRatings.com does not review every company or every offer available on the market.