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Cutting the cost of college incidentals

The bill for your child's first college semester arrives in the mail and you nearly swallow your teeth.

You went through the financial aid process and you saw the cost estimates. You listened to the bursar explain what this particular school was going to cost. But nothing prepared you for that first walloping list of charges.

Don't have a heart attack yet; it just gets worse.

The semester-after-semester tuition bills are just a beginning. The costs that can really ruin you are the incidentals: transportation, books, coffee, pizza. These add up quickly. Piled on top of tuition, they can haunt you and your student for a long time, especially if you put them on credit cards.

But there are ways -- at least 18 of them -- to make sure that you aren't spending more than you have to:

  1. Read the bill carefully.
  2. Don't get caught in a feeing frenzy.
  3. Beware too much health care.
  4. Go on a dorm-dining diet.
  5. Pay on time.
  6. Know the financial aid bottom line.
  7. Vet the class schedule.
  8. Look for ways to get ahead.
  9. Consider cheaper alternatives.
  10. Transfer advance-placement credits.
  11. Buy smart.
  12. Decorate creatively.
  13. Forget the phone.
  14. Eat at home.
  15. Buy used books.
  16. Look for cheap travel.
  17. Devise a money delivery system.
  18. Be sure the price is worth it.

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1. Read the bill carefully.
Each time a statement from the school arrives, flag anything that you don't understand or that looks dubious. Sometimes there are items that are negotiable; other times charges are just plain wrong. When you call the bursar's office, don't settle for the first person who answers the phone. Try to get the bursar or some other higher-level financial person to explain the bill to you. Lower-level personnel are often students working part time who may not know what's possible.

2. Don't get caught in a feeing frenzy.
Ask about recreational or athletic fees. If your child isn't playing a sport or doesn't want tickets to all athletic events, you may be able to lose these charges.

3. Beware too much health care.
If you are being charged for insurance or some other health care fee, make sure that it doesn't duplicate your family coverage. If it does, find out what it takes to get the charge waived. Since this process usually requires dealing with two or three bureaucracies -- your employer, the insurer and the college -- start the ball rolling right away.

4. Go on dorm-dining diet.
Chances are you've been automatically billed for the full-meal plan. If you've raised a football player, he may need three squares a day, seven days a week, but lesser eaters probably don't. A one- or two-meal-a-day plan is all your child is likely to want. The money saved can be used for those inevitable late-night pizzas. And if you decide later that he needs the full enchilada, the school will be happy to take your money for an upgrade.

5. Pay on time.
If you are late with tuition payments or bounce the check, the school may levy a heavy fine.

6. Know the financial aid bottom line.
Find out what grade point a student must maintain to keep financial aid and make sure that your student earns it. If she's there on an athletic or some other kind of scholarship based on talent, find out what kind of impact quitting the sport or switching majors will have. If you're a single parent and you're contemplating marriage, understand what effect that change in status will have on your child's financial aid.

7. Vet the class schedule.
Work with the guidance counselor and your child to make sure that she is signing up for the right classes. Make sure that she's scheduled enough credits to be on track to graduate in four years. If she signs up for a lot of electives instead of the required courses, she could fall behind. Taking five years to finish could easily add another $10,000 to the bill.

8. Look for ways to get ahead.
If your child can fit in an extra class for the same tuition and you think he can handle the academic burden, go for it.

9. Consider cheaper alternatives.
Understand how many credits your child's school will allow her to transfer from some other institution such as a community college. Getting core requirements and physical education credits out of the way over the summer or via the Internet at a lower per-credit price also can help you save a substantial amount.

10. Transfer in advance-placement credits right away.
If your child earned AP credits through tests during high school, make sure they are on his college record at the start, so he doesn't take classes that he doesn't need.

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-- Posted: Aug. 9, 2004

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