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Budgeting

Financial Survival Tips for Freshmen

Eight things college students wish they had known about money before they started school.

My columns on giving college-bound kids a crash course in managing money (see Crash Financial Course for College Frosh and Surprise! More College Costs) continue to generate lots of lively -- and useful -- responses.

One parent suggests that you have your child fill out his or her own student-loan application. A great idea (wish I'd thought of it for my college freshman; I'll remember next year).

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Douglas Terwilliger of Frederick, Md., recommends that parents of college students require their kids to take a personal-finance course, like the class he teaches at the University of Maryland.

I'm also indebted to Jeff Mirabello, who works in media relations for ING Direct. The online bank polled its summer interns about financial lessons they wish they had learned before entering college, and Jeff sent me the results (my comments are in parentheses):

  • Start saving at a young age. Have your parents open up a savings account for you before you get to college. (Better still, open up your own account with gift money or earnings from a job.)

  • Create a budget for each semester. Books, clothes and supplies add up. (Planning in advance also gives you spending benchmarks so you don't go overboard.)

  • Learn to cook if you live off campus, and split the cost of food with your roommates. (If you're on a campus meal plan, learn to love dorm food. Eating out is the biggest drain on all student budgets.)

  • Carpool to class to save on gas. (Better still, ride a bike or hoof it to avoid putting on the "freshman 15.")

  • Buy used textbooks at Amazon.com or from another discount Web site. (Learn other ways to tackle extra expenses.) Not only will you save money, but you'll also save the hassle of waiting in line at the campus bookstore.

  • If you have a job at school, deposit money from each paycheck in a savings account so you're not tempted to spend it all.

  • Use a credit card only when it's absolutely necessary. Just because you have a credit line doesn't mean you have to max it out. (Good point, and one that many college students don't realize.)

  • Keep track of what you spend. Even though your bank may do this electronically, having a hard copy is always a good idea.

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To encourage kids to monitor their expenses, I recommended that you buy a matching notebook and Post-its, or a container in which to toss receipts. Reader Nancy Curran took me to task for spending extra money when you could easily use a container you already have around the house ("How about all those extra canvas bags from your husband's trade shows?")

Nancy has a point. But I don't mind spending a few extra bucks to get my child's attention if it means we'll both save hundreds of dollars down the road.

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