Personal Finance: College freshmen need to learn their money limits

08/19/2012 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:23 PM

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

For families like John and Ellen Wong of Sacramento, 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's entire annual salary as a public high school instructor.

"We've been saving since they were babies," said Ellen, 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.

At most UCs this year, the total annual cost is roughly $32,500. That includes tuition/fees, room/board, books, supplies, transportation, "personal" expenses and mandatory health insurance. (Health insurance, about $1,500 per campus, is waived if students show proof of independent coverage.)

Private school tuitions are considerably higher.

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? As thousands of college students nationwide head to campus this fall, 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).

"Each family needs to have those discussions, depending on their finances and what they can afford. You need to be clear," said Donna Bland, CEO of Golden 1 Credit Union in Sacramento.

This summer, Bland had her son, who will be a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago this fall, start buying his own essentials at the grocery store, just to get a feel for what things will cost once he's on his own.

"I want him to have a stake in it. There are so many basic things – toothpaste, Tylenol, laundry detergent – that a student will need to buy on their own."

For the Wongs, it's a little dose of financial tough love.

Beyond paying for two tuitions, housing and meal plans, "I have no intention of putting more money into their accounts. If they suck it dry, they're in trouble," said Wong, coordinator of the honors humanities program at C.K. McClatchy High School.

The Wong siblings – Nolan, 19, a UC Berkeley sophomore, and Delaney, 17, a UC Santa Cruz freshman – are expected to pay for their extracurricular expenses, whether it's joining a fraternity or buying concert tickets. They're also buying their own textbooks.

To do that, both got summer jobs. Nolan earned $10 to $15 a hour as a dog washer for a local pet groomer; Delaney took home $8 an hour – after taxes – as a birthday party host and snack bar attendant at Fairytale Town in Land Park.

When they land at college this fall, they'll each have about $4,000 in their bank accounts.

"Books are a priority; incidentals come second," said Nolan, who said his only indulgences as a freshman were off-campus burgers and baseball caps.

Last year as a freshman, Nolan paid for all his textbooks, including about $490 for his two chemistry classes. Whenever possible, he bought used books and compared prices online at Amazon.com.

This year, the molecular toxicology major is saving roughly $900 a month by living in off-campus housing with a minimal meal plan. He's also bringing a rice cooker for making dinners with his roommates.

It's all about one shared family goal: graduating in four years with no student debt. The Wongs are pulling together a combination of savings, work-study grants and a small amount of financial aid.

Last year, with only one child in college, the Wongs filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which determines a family's eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study.

"We didn't get one penny in federal financial aid," noted Ellen, whose husband is a social sciences teacher at McClatchy High School.

This year, with two kids in college, the Wongs qualified for a combined $16,000, which includes a work-study campus job for Delaney, who's majoring in environmental studies.

Altogether, the Wongs figure their out-of-pocket costs for college this year will run about $50,000.

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.

As a freshman at MIT, Audette used an Excel spreadsheet that listed all his monthly income (scholarships, savings, Mom and Dad) and his expenses (cellphone plan, off-campus meals, weekend entertainment).

Far from being a drag, the exercise "gave me confidence to know what I could spend, especially on weekends," said Audette. "Knowing when I could go out, and when it was better to stay in, actually made my life less stressful."

It also made him realize he needed to supplement his income, which including taking odd jobs as a DJ, a medical test subject and a campus administrative assistant.

Similarly, Delaney Wong has already applied for a seven-hour-a-week campus dining hall job for her work-study grant.

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.

"A debit card allows them to spend what they have, not what they don't," said Golden 1's Bland.

She 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.

"There's value in having a credit card, but only for emergencies," Bland said, such as a medical emergency or a last-minute flight home.

Or as NerdWallet's Audette put it: "Your first credit card should not be used for spending; it should be used for building credit history."

Which means: Use it sparingly and always pay off the monthly balance.

Mistakes happen

As any veteran parent of a college student knows, there'll be some financial hiccups. The lost laptop, the overdrawn bank account, the late tuition payment, perhaps an off-campus speeding ticket that busts a budget.

Audette recalls one of his freshman financial bloopers: buying expensive speakers – in cash – that turned out to be shoddy but nearly broke his first-quarter budget.

"I learned to be very careful about 'deals,' " he said, as well as to think twice before making impulse purchases.

Don't despair

"There are valuable lessons to be learned from mistakes and this is the time to learn them, while in high school and early in college," said Golden 1's Bland. "(Students) don't have mortgages; they aren't paying big auto loans. ... It's not Mom or Dad telling (them) how to manage (their) finances; it's (them) learning in a controlled environment, with a limited budget."

COLLEGE-BOUND?

Here are some helpful sites:

CashCourse.org has free financial tips and budgeting help, even how to "eat cheap" in college.

Nerdwallet.com, a San Francisco-based personal finance site, has a new "Education" blog geared to college students and 20-somethings.

WhatsMyScore.org has hip tips on college finances, including apartment hunting, car buying and budgets.

"Be Debt Savvy" at www.salliemae.com/bedebtsavvy has budget calculators, tips on managing credit and loan repayment advice.

Source: Bee research

11 THINGS STUDENTS DON'T NEED

Packing for college is all about what you can cram into a dorm room for life away from home. Here's what Kiplinger's financial magazine suggests students can live without:

NEW TEXTBOOKS

Most campuses sell or rent used textbooks. Check local Craigslist or campus bulletin boards, or online sites like BigWords.com or CampusBooks.com. If you have an eReader, buying digital textbooks can be far cheaper than a new hardback.

A HIGH-END COMPUTER

An inexpensive laptop or desktop computer should suffice. Netbooks are cheap, but their small keyboards and slow speed aren't ideal for college.

A PRINTER

Buying a printer, ink cartridges and paper can add up. Instead, buy a $10 flash drive to save those 20-page assignments, then print from the campus computer lab (which you may already be paying for as a "technology fee.") Ask about page limits and extra fees.

COSTLY SMARTPHONE PLANS

Cellphone data contracts can run as high as $200 a month. Instead, look at no-contract alternatives, such as Virgin Mobile's Beyond Talk Plan, which starts at $35 a month for unlimited Web, data, messaging and email.

CABLE TV

Eliminate cable costs by accessing news and favorite shows online, either streaming from your computer or a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox 360 or Playstation gaming consoles.

A CAR

Gas, maintenance and parking permits add up, not to mention traffic tickets and repairs. Note to parents: If your student won't be driving, ask your auto insurer about temporarily taking your son or daughter off your plan to save on premiums.

A CREDIT CARD

The average freshman racks up nearly $700 in card debt, according to a recent study by Sallie Mae. Instead, 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, etc.

BIG MEAL PLAN

Don't load up your student's meal account. Often, it's use it or lose it. Better to start low and see how much he or she eats, then replenish the plan midyear.

CAMPUS HEALTH PLANS

If you have family health coverage, your child may be covered at college. If your plan does not cover out-of-network costs (say emergency hospitalizations away from home), campus health insurance may be cost-effective, but be aware of low coverage limits.

PRIVATE LOANS

Steer clear of private student loans, which typically carry variable rates (as opposed to fixed-rate federal loans) and fewer repayment options.

Source: Kiplinger.com

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