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Cutting Back: How to Keep College Costs in Check

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By Claudia Buck

—Make a file: Get a file folder and toss in all your receipts for one month. Whether it’s a candy bar or a computer, keep your receipts. After 30 days, pull it out to see what — and where — you’ve spent. If you’re buying too many pricey coffees or fast-food sodas, you’ll see it. Or track your spending in more tech-savvy ways, on sites like Mint.com. Being aware of your daily spending is a way to keep your yearlong costs under control.

—Check it out: Look for banks or credit unions with student-friendly checking accounts, with such perks as no monthly fees, low (or zero) minimum balances or free ATM withdrawals. Some will waive fees on your first-time overdraft. But be aware of any other fees, such as a surcharge for out-of-network ATM withdrawals. Sign up for mobile alerts on your phone, which can ping you if a bill is due or your account is running low.

—Avoid the plastic: At the very least, treat your credit card as a last resort, used only for emergencies. A debit card can limit your spending; when the account runs low, you can’t spend. But there’s more risk if it gets lost or stolen. A credit card, while safer in cases of theft, can be riskier in racking up big bills and costly fees. In 2012, the average college undergraduate was carrying $3,173 in credit card debt, according to Federal Reserve System statistics.

—Meal deals: If you or your parents bought a campus meal plan, use it. Otherwise, it can be just throwing away money. Don’t buy a bigger plan than you need; adjust accordingly every quarter or semester. Keep snacks on hand: peanut butter, crackers, fresh fruit. It can help avoid last-minute trips to fast-food outlets. Sign up for your local grocery store’s rewards card so you’ll get discounts whenever you shop.

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