Cut the costs of college

Two kids, two college tuitions. Add it up: One very big college bill.

For families like John and Ellen Wong of Sacramento, Calif., paying for college is no trivial expense. With two teenagers heading to campus this fall, their total annual tab is about $66,000.

That’s roughly Ellen Wong’s entire annual salary as a public high school instructor.

“We’ve been saving since they were babies,” said Ellen Wong, who said the couple are determined to get their kids through college without relying on student loans.

That’s no easy feat at a time when college tuition is soaring and student debt loads are crushing.

Not surprisingly, the financial burden is hitting even affluent families. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the largest growth in student debt between 2007 and 2010 was in upper-middle-income families, those earning $94,500 to $205,000 a year.

How to ease the pain? Here are some Finance 101 notes:

Have the talk: Sit down and talk clearly as a family about who will pay for what. What you want to avoid is a tearful phone call home that your freshman has drained the bank account or overdrafted the debit card.

In some families, Mom and Dad pay for basics (tuition, food, monthly allowance) while students cover the rest (off-campus meals, clothes, entertainment).

Do a budget: Creating a college budget doesn’t have to be a tedious, laborious process, said Joseph Audette, 29, vice president of financial literacy for San Francisco-based NerdWallet.com.

It can be as simple as “writing it on the back of an envelope with pen and paper,” he notes, or more sophisticated, using budgeting sites like Mint.com, where you can visually track your spending.

Debit or credit? It’s one of the big debates, especially for freshmen new to money management. One side says a credit card — paid off monthly — is a great way for students to start building a healthy credit score.

Others say credit cards can lead to freestyle spending, missed payments and a pileup of penalties, late fees and rocketing interest rates. Not to mention a beat-up credit history.

Donna Bland, CEO of Golden 1 Credit Union in Sacramento, advises college students to set up mobile texts or email alerts that let them know when their account balance is running low, thus avoiding overdraft fees.

As for credit cards, recent federal law aimed at protecting college students does not allow anyone under 21 to be issued a card unless they can show proof of repayment (i.e., a job) or have a parent co-sign.

Advise students to use credit cards sparingly and always pay off the monthly balance.

Mistakes happen: There’ll be the lost laptop, the overdrawn bank account, the late tuition payment, perhaps an off-campus speeding ticket that busts a budget.

Don’t despair: “There are valuable lessons to be learned from mistakes, and this is the time to learn them,” Bland said.

Helpful websites

CashCourse.org: Free financial tips and budgeting help.

NerdWallet.com: Personal finance site has a new “Education” blog.

WhatsMyScore.org: Tips on college finances.

Source: Sacramento Bee research

11 to live without

New textbooks: Buy used, on campus or on Craigslist. Even digital texts on e-readers can be cheaper than a new hardback.

High-end computer: An inexpensive laptop or desktop computer should suffice.

Printer: Buy a $10 flash drive to save assignments, then print from the campus computer lab.

Smartphone plans: Plans such as Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk start about $35 a month for unlimited Web, data, messaging and email.

Cable TV: Access news and or favorite shows online.

Car: Gas, maintenance and parking permits add up.

Credit card: Start with a debit card until students have a track record of managing personal expenses.

High bank fees: Be aware so you don’t get hit by out-of-network ATM charges or fees for online transfers, overdrafts.

Big meal plan: Start low and replenish the plan midyear.

Campus health plans: If you have family health coverage, your child may be covered at college.

Private loans: Private loans typically carry variable rates and fewer repayment options.

Source: Kiplinger.com

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