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Don't spend your student loan on a trip to Cuba. (Photos.com/Getty Images)
Don't spend your student loan on a trip to Cuba. (Photos.com/Getty Images)

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Don’t swipe your lifestyle if you want to minimize student debt Add to ...

For kindergarten to Grade 12 students, saving money in school is all about who has the best sales on school supplies. For postsecondary students, how to graduate with the least amount of debt is the main concern.

A recent survey by the Bank of Montreal found that students expected to owe, on average, $26,297 by the time they graduated.

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I, myself, found that I already had $28,000 of debt by the end of my third year – worse yet, I was maxed out. It was then that I realized I had to change the way I thought about money and debt, while I was still in school. Even though a few of the choices I made became basic survival skills, all of them were things I later wished I’d done from the beginning:

You should HAVE TO write a realistic budget and track your spending. I know firsthand that the word “budget” can sound boring, but it’s imperative to start your education knowing at least one thing: How much money will be coming in and how much you can afford to have go out. How will you be paying for school? Will you have time to work? Will you get a roommate to split costs? Once you know all of that, tracking your spending is the best way to get a clear picture of how you think about money. After you get a better idea of where your money goes, you can write a realistic budget that you can stick to.

Finding ways to save money doesn’t make you cheap – it makes you smart. After tracking your spending for a few months, add it all up and decide what is essential and what you can live without. Most of us can do simple things to save money, like make coffee at home or brown bag our lunches. What may be tougher for students to give up, however, are things like cable, clothing allowances and nights out with friends. Quick ways to save include planning more nights in, participating in clothing swaps and switching to Netflix. And don’t be scared to whip out your student card wherever possible – discounts exist for a reason!

It’s better to shop around before buying a brand new textbook. When I first went back to school, I saved on textbooks by buying them all online and then selling them as soon as the course was over; this saved me money up front and then stopped me from having a huge stack of books to deal with at the end of my program. Then I discovered sites like CourseSmart, where students can rent eTextbooks for even less and not have to deal with selling them after. So, before you take your book list to the bookstore and pay full price, take a few minutes to see what your other options are.

Student loans and lines of credit are meant for exactly that – school. I put this last on the list but it should be at the top of your thought process – student loans and lines of credit were created so that students could pay for school; they were not created so that students could go out and party, go on vacation, etc.

I’m not a financial planner, but I know from experience how quickly swiping for a lifestyle you can’t afford can add up – and one day, you do have to pay it back. To fund your fun, consider working part-time during the school year. If you can’t juggle that with homework, work full-time during the summer and save that money for your discretionary spending throughout the year. Above all else, avoid high-interest debt (a.k.a. credit cards) at all costs – pun intended.

Cait Flanders writes the financial advice blog Blonde on a Budget .

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