Remember the Freshman 15: the proverbial extra weight that college students pack on their first year away from home?
It’s nothing compared with the hefty load of debt that weighs down many students when they leave college four or five years later. Student loan debt, as everyone knows, has reached jaw-dropping proportions: more than $1 trillion, by the government’s latest estimate.
As September marks the annual exodus back to college campuses, the topic of paying for college has been much in the news lately. On Aug. 22, President Barack Obama said he wants a national ratings system in place by 2015 that would rank colleges based on average tuition, loan debt, graduation rates and post-college earnings. And several days later, the federal consumer watchdog agency announced a “toolkit” designed to help public service employees — teachers, firefighters, police officers and others — understand their options and get started paying off their student loans.
As 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 receipts. After 30 days, pull it out to see what — and where — you’ve spent. If you’re buying too many pricey coffees or fast-food sodas, you’ll see it. Or track your spending in more tech-savvy ways, on sites like Mint.com. 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. Some will waive fees on your first-time overdraft. But be aware of any other fees, such as a surcharge for out-of-network ATM withdrawals. Sign up for mobile alerts on your phone, which can ping you if a bill is due or your account is running low.
—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. But there’s more risk if it gets lost or stolen. A credit card, while safer in cases of theft, can be riskier in racking up big bills and costly fees. In 2012, the average college undergraduate was carrying $3,173 in credit card debt, according to Federal Reserve System statistics.
—Meal deals: If you or your parents bought a campus meal plan, use it. Otherwise, it can be just throwing away money. Don’t buy a bigger plan than you need; adjust accordingly every quarter or semester. Keep snacks on hand: peanut butter, crackers, fresh fruit. It can help avoid last-minute trips to fast-food outlets. Sign up for your local grocery store’s rewards card so you’ll get discounts whenever you shop.
—Use your ID: Not the fake one, but your student card that can qualify for discounts at retailers, theaters, museums and other venues. Many businesses in college towns cater to students by offering discounted deals. It never hurts to ask.
—Cheap books: The cost of new textbooks can demolish any budget. Instead of that new $175 chemistry book, get used textbooks. There are dozens of options, from the campus bookstore or bulletin boards to online sites like Chegg.com, Textbooks.com or Amazon.com. Use a comparison site, like DirectTextbook.com. Be sure you’re looking up the exact edition and ISBN of the required book. Also be aware of shipping charges.
—Don’t forget “free”: When it comes to entertainment, check out free concerts, films, club sports, etc. offered on campus. Join campus groups or clubs; many have no-cost activities and events, often with food. Rather than eating out every weekend, do at-home dinner parties with friends.
—Use your summers: Take some community college classes — for cheap — that will transfer to your university for credit. Some students cobble together enough units to shave off a semester.
—Be a part-timer: You don’t want to neglect classes, but a part-time job can pay for incidentals, boost a resume, provide some time-management skills. Use your skills, whether it’s babysitting for faculty members, tutoring, teaching guitar or piano, designing websites or dog-walking in local neighborhoods.
—Stay on track: If you change majors or get squeezed out of required classes, graduating in four years can be challenging. But staying on top of graduation requirements can save you from extra semesters that can cost thousands of dollars in extra tuition, rent and other expenses. Check in regularly with your campus advisers to be sure you’re on schedule.
—Find scholarships: Even if your campus didn’t offer you a full ride, don’t give up on college scholarships. Sites like 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 to school. 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 carry higher interest rates and less flexible repayment plans than federal loans.
Source: MCT Information Services