Dodging Debt

How to avoid the credit scams and debt traps that many students fall into.

Setting up a career. Learning to live independently. Getting away from your hometown. These are just three of the many goals for high school seniors who are heading to college. “Racking up debilitating debt” doesn’t make anyone’s list, but with the average four-year graduate owing around $22,500 for student loans plus $3,173 in credit card charges, ordering your finances should be a priority before you check into the dorms.

Like many of my international student brethren, I had a sparse wardrobe and an even thinner wallet when I came to study at a small Christian college in Kansas in 2001. Now as then, foreign students are allowed to work 20 hours a week during the school year. Each Friday I had the dubious pleasure of going to the bursar’s office to get my check, signing it and passing it back across the counter for tuition. My personal budget was a whopping 20 bucks a month.

During the summer and Christmas breaks my wages from double shifts at the local pub got poured back into my bank account in preparation for another visit to the bursar. At least I was lucky enough to go back to England during vacation—many of my classmates from Jamaica and Kenya stayed in the U.S. for the full four years’ study because they couldn’t afford the trip home. We were just grateful for the opportunity to study in the U.S. higher education system, which offers more diverse opportunities than our home countries. 

The challenges facing U.S. students are different, but no less significant. The price of college tuition has run laps around the inflation rate for the past two decades, with accommodation and textbook costs also soaring. So what’s a student to do? We don’t have all the answers, but here are a few tips:

Learn how to play the financial-aid game. Read The Scholarship & Financial Aid Solution and How to Go to College Almost for Free to find creative ways to secure aid. When you visit campuses, ask the staff about honorary and memorial scholarships, which many academic departments hand out annually. And check out schools such as College of the Ozarks (aka “Hard Work U”) that have work programs for full tuition reimbursement.

Don’t rely on your parents. The plummeting stock market obliterated many people’s 529 college savings plans. If your parents are still able to help, spend their contribution on must-haves like books and rent—don’t toss it away on Taco Tuesday and similar “living expenses.”

Create a budget. I suck at numbers (as the woeful math grades attest), but I was still able to plot my college finances with a simple spreadsheet. There are plenty of online help tools from sites like Mvelopes.com. And yes, tithing and charity should also be included, even if you’re not able to give all you’d like.

Get your Chris Gardner on. Holding down a job while studying isn’t ideal, but it’s essential if you want to graduate without massive debt. Almost every campus hires student workers and, while the pay usually isn’t great, you’ll be able to transition easily from class to work. UPS and FedEx are just two of the many companies that offer reasonable wages and tuition reimbursement. Working during semester breaks will also help you minimize the need for loans. If you need some inspiration for juggling responsibilities, watch Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness.

Cut back on consumables. I know you think you’ll die without your daily venti caramel latte and drive-thru breakfast burrito, but trust me—you won’t. Make a list of all non-essential expenses as part of your budget (see item 3), prioritize them and ditch those that do not fit into your newly organized plan. If the lattes don’t make the cut, get a coffee maker for your dorm room and silence your inner-caffeine snob for a while.

Forget the Kindle, embrace the used bookstore. Crafty textbook companies change the problems for math and science books each year to force you into buying the latest editions. For literature majors (and many others) trying to fill up their reading list, independent used book stores, chains such as Half Price Books and online vendors like Amazon Marketplace and eBay can be big time/cost savers. Professors receive multiple copies of textbooks, so ask if you can borrow one for the semester.

Beware easy money. Credit card companies encourage students to indulge their free-spending ways so they can get the interest. If you do get a credit card, follow this simple rule: don’t put anything on it that you can’t pay off from your checking account.

CLEP your hands if you know it. Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes for college credit, but not many students know about CLEP (College Level Examination Program) tests. Each test costs just $72 and can exempt you from certain required courses while earning 3-12 credit hours. Learn more by searching for “CLEP” at CollegeBoard.com.

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