Buying a Laptop for School

Published on Saturday, July 16, 2022

My second child starts her freshman year at college in a few weeks. As part of preparing her for college, we ordered her laptop this week. I’m picking up much of the tuition tab and a significant portion of their housing, but I expect my kids to purchase their own laptop. By owning the purchase, they have maximum skin in the game, both in buying one that’s appropriate for their needs and later, as they take care to avoid damage.

Which Laptop Should She Buy?

I coached her through the many decisions and tradeoffs. How much do processor speeds, memory and storage sizes matter? Should she buy an Apple or Microsoft laptop? Would a MacBook Air be good enough or should she buy a MacBook Pro? Is it worth it to buy the newly released MacBook Air M2, or a cheaper M1 from 2020? Should she buy an AppleCare subscription, pay up front for three years, or skip it altogether?

This is her most expensive purchase to-date and a lot of going back-and-forth about what to purchase. I honestly don’t know how non-technical parents do it. I suspect they rely heavily on the university’s guidelines. That probably works for the majority of students.

We settled on a newly released MacBook Air M2 (2022) laptop. Instead of following the university guideline for 8gb of ram (probably sufficient for most students), she instead bought one with 16gb, hoping that it will extend its useful life. STEM-related degrees sometimes require memory hungry applications, and having the extra memory would help. In my opinion 250gb of storage is sufficient for a student. If she needs more storage for photos and videos, she can easily extend her laptop’s storage capacity with an external drive.

To AppleCare or Not

I recommended AppleCare, mostly for potential damage. I likely would have skipped it for myself, but college students (and their roommates!) can be hard on laptops. I know she’ll be super careful, but having AppleCare gives some peace of mind. Of course, a damage instance comes with a $100/incident charge, so I do wonder how much that peace of mind is worth instead of just banking it for a new laptop.

Apple’s current education special gives students a $150 gift card. I’m not thrilled about the gift card, but she can use it for cables and peripherals.

A 529-Eligible Expense

Even though she’s buying her own laptop, the purchase is a 529-eligible expense for me. I’ll reimburse myself from my 529 sometime between now and the end of the year. By passing the expense through my 529, I’ll have saved $70 of state income tax because of the laptop, plus any income tax on the earnings portion of the withdrawal.

Only the laptop is eligible, not the AppleCare purchase. Otherwise it would be closer to $80 of state income tax savings.

Conclusion

Her laptop arrives this Tuesday. I'll be helping her get everything setup over the following weeks before she departs to school. With any luck, her laptop should last all four years of college and beyond.