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Prom planning vs debt planning Add to ...

My neighbours' lovely daughters have been busy preparing for their senior prom -- the dresses, the limo, the whole shebang.

In fact, about 58 per cent of high-school senior girls spend at least two weeks picking out their dream dress, and half of all senior boys spend at least two weeks deciding whom to ask to the prom, according to a recent survey by Sallie Mae, the largest U.S. student loan company.

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However, nearly half of the high-school seniors spent no more than five hours learning how to pay for school, according to the survey, which polled more than 500 U.S. students planning to pursue higher education.

Most girls expect to spend up to $200 (U.S.) for their dress. But what about paying for what comes after the prom and graduation?

High-school girls were about twice as likely to visit at least four stores before buying their prom dress than they were to visit at least four financial websites to learn about student loan options. Sixteen per cent of boys visited at least four college financial websites, compared with 26 per cent of girls.

Granted, it's a weighty topic and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Where does one even start?

In Canada, the federal government's National Student Loans Service Centre is a good jumping-off point. It notes that higher education -- that is, full-time CEGEP, trade school, college or university -- can cost $2,500 (Canadian) to $8,000 in tuition alone. Residence fees, with a meal plan, can be more than $8,000 a year. Full-time students paid $14,500 on average to cover a year of post-secondary expenses in 2003-2004.

The government chips in with the Canada Education Savings Grant if a child has a Registered Education Savings Plan, which lets money grow tax-free. You can put in as much as $50,000 per child. If you're fortunate enough to live in Alberta, there's more free money for you from the provincial government.

There's an array of scholarships, bursaries and grants to avail of as well. Notice how this is money that doesn't have to be repaid.

Then there are loans. If you get a government loan, you generally aren't charged any interest until you graduate, and you start repaying the principal six months after you finish school. But be careful: All student loans start accumulating interest as soon as you graduate. Students can choose a fixed or floating variable rate on their loans. The floating rate is currently 5.5 per cent; the fixed rate is 8 per cent. How much will they cost? Use this handy-dandy calculator.

(If you get a bank loan, the interest rate is likely higher and you are paying down interest as well as the principal while you're in school.)

Insolvency counsellor Margaret Johnson, who is president of Solutions Credit Counselling Service Inc., offers the following tips on managing student debt:

1. Mind the details on loan documents. Be sure to read all the fine print before signing them, no matter how long it takes you.

2. Your signature is your promise to pay, and student loans affect your credit rating.

3. You can make payments on your student loan at any point, without any penalty. If you repay your loan in full while you are a student, no interest will be charged. Any payments you make while attending school are applied directly to the principal of your loan.

And this tip from the federal government's website: Increase the size of your monthly payments. The amount you pay above your minimum monthly payment is applied directly toward the principal of your loan. This shrinks your total loan amount, which in turn reduces the amount of interest you'd be paying.

One last, radical thought: Think seriously about taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt unless you're getting a degree or diploma that helps you get a job, because you're going to have to repay it. Perhaps high school proms should consider setting the mood by winding down the night with songs such as " Beautiful Dirty Rich," " Money" or this moving piece recorded by Dalhousie University students called " The Student Poverty Song."

Follow on Twitter: @SVerma__

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