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Okay class, listen up: It’s time for the money talk

As students hit the books again, some of them at college or university for the first time, they have much more to worry about than grades: their finances.

But budgeting isn't something taught in the classroom, and often not a topic parents spend a lot of time on at home.

What's worse, students will emerge from their post-secondary studies with an average debt load of $27,000, which is dispatching a new generation into their working life primed to join other Canadians with sky-high debts, and a society where, according to the Canadian Payroll Association, almost half are living paycheque-to-paycheque.

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Adam Awad, who is the national chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students, said his organization continues to lobby governments to cut tuition fees, eliminate interest on provincial loan repayments, and offer more grants.

"That's the root of the issue," he said.

But according to Gail Vaz-Oxlade, who is a best-selling finance writer and host of several debt-related television shows, getting control of debt levels is far more basic than that. Lack of preparation is often the biggest mistake students make, she said.

"They have no clue where to even start," she said. "They go into school and it never occurs to them that there is a time when the debt has to be repaid."

On her website, Ms. Vaz-Oxlade has posted some excellent spreadsheets to help with budgeting for beginners. She includes a student lump sum worksheet (which helps students calculate all of their income from summer job, scholarships, loans and parents, with expenses including tuition, textbooks, food and rent) as well as student cash flow worksheet (month by month expenses for the school year that includes everything from bank fees to cellphone bills to laundry.)

Some students, she added, are worse at making sure their money lasts.

"Children who come from middle-class families think they can maintain a middle-class status while at university," she said. "Students are supposed to be poor."

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Here are some ways for students – and, Canadians in general – to make their money go farther:

Food: Don't buy coffee or bottled water out. Fill your own water bottle and coffee mug at home. Same goes for lunch. Pack it and bring it to school. Those weekday $4 latte translate to almost $1,000 a year. And a recent poll by Visa Canada found that most of the 60 per cent of Canadians who eat out once a week fork out between $7 and $13 on their meal. Packing a lunch from home could save hundreds of dollars.

Accommodations/utilities: Don't spend money on cable or satellite TV. Cut your long-distance phone costs by getting Skype. Get roommates or live at home. This will help pare down bills.

Entertainment: Going out for drinks, dinner and concerts adds up. Take in free events. If you do go to a movie, pick discount days, and don't buy pricey theatre snacks. Entertain with friends at home.

Banking: Shop around for a bank with free chequing accounts. Don't use bank machines other than your own if you have to pay fees. Don't put yourself into overdraft or write cheques without sufficient funds in your account– mistakes that come with big fees. If you apply for a credit card offered on campus, make sure you pay your balance each month. While getting a card to help establish a credit rating may be helpful, it's not worth it if the price is a mountain of debt at high interest rates.

Student discount: Take advantage of student discount deals such as the Student Price Card. Get student passes for public transit.

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Textbooks: Use library resources instead of buying textbooks, but if you do purchase, don't pay full price on new books. Scan classified ads for used books, check the big booksellers such as Amazon or Indigo, which are now offering discounts on new or used or even textbook rentals. Just be sure the deal item is the correct edition. Some postsecondary institutions have also reached agreements with Access Copyright, the Canadian copyright licensing agency, to allow students to reproduce copyright-protect materials both in print and in digital form.

Do you have any other money-saving tips you want to add? Leave them in the comments below.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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