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A practical guide to controlling college expenses

The topic of paying for college has been much in the news lately. As the government searches for big-picture ways to slim down college debt, here are some closer-to-home tips for trimming the fat from college costs, especially for freshmen.

Make a file. Get a file folder and toss in all your receipts for one month. Whether it's a candy bar or a computer, keep your receipt. After 30 days, pull out the folder to see what — and where — you've spent. If you're buying too many pricey coffees or fast-food sodas, you'll see it. Being aware of your daily spending is a way to keep your yearlong costs under control.

Check it out. Look for banks or credit unions with student-friendly checking accounts, with such perks as no monthly fees, low (or zero) minimum balances or free ATM withdrawals.

Avoid the plastic. At the very least, treat your credit card as a last resort, used only for emergencies. A debit card can limit your spending; when the account runs low, you can't spend.

Meal deals. If you or your parents bought a campus meal plan, use it. Otherwise, you're just throwing away money. Don't buy a bigger plan than you need; adjust accordingly every quarter or semester.

Use your ID. Not the fake one, but your student card, which can get you discounts at retailers, theaters and other venues.

Cheap books. Instead of that new $175 chemistry book, get a used one. There are dozens of options, from bulletin boards to online sites such as Chegg.com or Textbooks.com. Be sure you're looking up the exact edition and ISBN of the required book. Also be aware of shipping charges.

Use your summers. Take some cheap community college classes that will transfer to your university for credit. Some students cobble together enough units to shave off a semester.

Find scholarships. Sites such as FastWeb.com, Scholarships.com and SallieMae.com let you search by college major, ethnicity, religion, sports or special interests. Don't laugh: The U.S. Bowling Congress, for instance, offers a $1,000 scholarship to a college student who is an amateur bowler with a GPA of at least 2.5.

And a final note: Too often, college-bound students buy and bring too much stuff. Here's what Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine says college students don't need: new textbooks, a high-end computer, a printer, a pricey smartphone plan, cable TV (watch streaming videos on a computer), a car (especially for freshmen), overdraft protection on bank accounts, campus health insurance (assuming coverage under the family's health plan) and private loans, which have higher interest rates and less flexibility than federal loans.

— Claudia Buck, The Sacramento Bee

A practical guide to controlling college expenses 09/20/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 22, 2013 5:07pm]

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