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Cutting the cost of college incidentals

11. Buy smart.
The stores are full of back-to-school merchandise. Save your money. Send your child to college with a basic wardrobe left over from high school and enough money to buy a few new things online after she decides what she wants." Styles or weather or both are almost certainly going to be different than they expected," says Louise Reilly Sacco, host of the Internet radio show Frugal Yankee.

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12. Decorate creatively.
Outfit the dorm room in early Salvation Army. Raid the basement for study lamps, old sheets and towels, faded quilts and worn rugs. "Whatever you send is going to be ruined anyway," Sacco says.

13. Forget the phone.
If possible, waive the dorm room's wired phone and its pricey long-distance plan. Opt instead for a cell phone with lots of minutes. Better to have too many minutes than to pay killer overage charges, even once.

14. Eat at home.
A dorm-room fridge filled with goodies purchased at the grocery store, a microwave and a coffee pot will save lots of money. Coordinating with roommates about who will bring each of these keeps the cost even lower.

15. Buy used books.
New books cost several hundred dollars a semester. Buying them used and reselling them promptly helps. Tell your student to get the lists of required books from professors as early as possible and head for the bookstore before the used copies are gone. Another possibility is buying through an online bookseller., an online comparison-shopping site, will help find the lowest price, both new and used.

16. Look for cheap travel.
Most colleges have ride-share boards. Amtrak and Greyhound offer student discounts. But if your child absolutely must fly home at the end of the semester, buy the ticket early, but carefully. The window of travel opportunity may be small. The dorm will close promptly at the end of the semester, but your student probably will have final exams near that deadline. Look now to snag a bargain flight at an acceptable time. Later in the year, you're likely to have to pay top dollar.

17. Devise a money delivery system.
Figure out how you're going to manage money for incidentals. Some parents give their children a lump sum to last the semester, but Diane Giarratano, director of Education for Novadebt, a nonprofit financial education organization, says most 18-year-olds aren't ready for that kind of responsibility.

She suggests figuring out a way to send spending money weekly or biweekly, just like a paycheck. Depositing money in a bank account and giving the student a debit card works, but only if the student never withdraws all the money that is there. If that happens, the bank is likely to close the account and charge a fee to reopen it.

Giarratano warns against credit cards because it's so easy for a student to let them spiral out of control. Many of the organization's clients are recent graduates who are overwhelmed with student loans and credit card debt. "Kids say, 'I'll pay the minimum monthly payment and I'll pay it off when I graduate and am making lots of money.' But it doesn't work that way," she says.

18. Be sure the price is worth it.
Before you have to worry about incidentals, make sure college is the best choice, both financially and for your student. Do some math before you sign any financial aid agreement.

Carl Buck, vice president for financial aid services at Thomson Peterson's, the publisher of college preparation guides, suggests that parents accompany their children to the financial aid office or at least join the discussion in a conference call. You want to get an answer to this question: Based on my child's current financial situation and the average annual tuition and fee increase at your school, how much is my child likely to owe in loans if she graduates in four years?

If the number is staggering -- more than a luxury-car loan -- think hard about signing that agreement. As Buck asks, "What's the likelihood that your child will be making $100,000 at age 23?"

And if your child drops out, he (or you) will still owe the money and won't have the skills. Most student loans can't be retired by declaring bankruptcy.

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan.

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-- Posted: Aug. 9, 2004

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