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Sweat the Small Stuff

By Kara McGuire

College students sometimes learn the hard way that paying with plastic eventually means real money out of their pockets – and it adds up fast.

Now that parents across the country have dropped their eager progeny off at college, let the 3 a.m. pizza parties begin. Seriously though, for many students, college is the first time they are managing their own money.

Let’s hope that most parents laid the groundwork as well as Jane Swenson. Swenson began teaching her daughter Chelsea about financial management as a preteen. While paying the household bills together, Swenson explained the importance of balancing a checkbook, keeping records of bills paid, and the dangers of high-interest credit cards.

Sometimes Chelsea would roll her eyes and exclaim, “Oh, Mom,” but Swenson thinks the lessons paid off. Chelsea, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Minnesota, has only recently signed up for a credit card, more to build a credit history than to use regularly.

Students are beginning to take warnings about credit cards seriously. A Nellie Mae survey showed that 76 percent of college students have credit cards, down from 83 percent in 2001. The survey by the big student loan maker also showed that the average balance has been decreasing by a few hundred dollars per year, to $2,169 in 2004. (Students in the Midwest, however, carry average balances close to $2,500.) That’s a lot of debt for a young person with student loans, grad school plans or dreams of moving to New York City.

Natalie Wicker, a student at the University of St. Thomas, has watched many friends get caught up in the moment charging goods they didn’t need or couldn’t afford. “They see themselves as being ‘responsible’ if they are merely paying the minimum amount due,” she said. Only 21 percent of undergrads pay off their balances each month.

They’ll be responsible all right. Paying the $20 minimum on a $1,000 balance at a 10 percent interest rate means they’ll have this debt for a little more than 10 years and it will take $1,500 to pay it off, not including that latte and muffin charged this morning.

This is one reason why Natalie signed on with the What’s My Score campaign, a program designed to spread the word on college campuses about the importance of healthy credit, in particular a healthy credit score. Credit scores can affect the interest rate you’ll get if you’re about to buy a car or take out a loan. Some insurers use credit scores to determine your premium and some landlords look at it when renting out apartments. Estimate your credit score at the website

When Chelsea was a freshman last year, she carried America’s other favorite piece of plastic: the debit card. Because it takes cash right out of your checking account, best be sure you have enough to cover the balance or you risk overdraft fees of around $30. Chelsea did that once and vowed, never again.

“It’s not the big expenses that become a problem for freshmen; it’s the $4 lattes twice a day,” said Marjorie Savage, author of “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me).” Try an all-cash diet to remember what it really feels like to buy stuff.

Chelsea will need to pay more attention to her budget this year, because living in an off-campus apartment means buying her own groceries. She’s also bringing a car to school, but isn’t worried about gas prices because she figures she’ll only use the car for trips to Target.

Savage said Chelsea should make room in her budget for driving more than she anticipates. “You think you’re going to take the bus every day, but it’s not as timely as you’d hoped and you have parking expenses.” And I’d bet her scarce resources will be tapped for excursions to the Mall of America.

Don’t you wish they had Cliff’s Notes for campus money management? Some colleges, like the University of Minnesota, do offer courses on dealing with debt and daily dollars. Their health service has a credit counselor and anyone can ask a money question at the financial aid office, said Savage, who is also the university’s parent program director.

For independent study, pick up the recently released book “The Quarterlifer’s Companion” by Abby Wilner. Even though it’s geared toward new grads, it has a good section on budgeting and credit for any young person. If you want to laugh all the way to the bank, “Broke! College Students Reveal the Secrets to Getting By on Less,” is a compilation of anecdotes written by Supurna Banerjee. For those of you whose backpacks already weigh a ton, and have stories and advice written by your peers.

Yeah, I know you have 100 pages to read before your 8 a.m. class. Still, make the time to bone up. “Every opportunity to increase your financial savvy will cause you a lot less stress in the long run,” Natalie said. I’d say that advice deserved and A.


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