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Cutting the cost of university and college incidentals

The bill for your child's first semester of college or university 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 would 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.

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But there are ways -- at least 17 of them -- to make sure you don't spend 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. Buy smart.
  11. Decorate creatively.
  12. Forget the phone.
  13. Eat at home.
  14. Buy used books.
  15. Look for cheap travel.
  16. Devise a money delivery system.
  17. Be sure the price is worth it.

1. Read the bill carefully.
Each time a statement from the school arrives, flag anything 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 school's fee office, don't settle for the first person who answers the phone. Try to get a bursar or some 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 a prescription drug or dental plan or other health care fee, make sure 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 school -- 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 cheque, the school may levy a heavy fine.

6. Know the financial-aid bottom line.
Find out what grade point average a student must maintain to keep financial aid, and make sure 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.

(continued on next page)
-- Posted: Oct. 3, 2005
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