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With many postsecondary students piling up significant debt loads, financial experts advise them to learn good habits for spending, saving and borrowing.mocker_bat/Getty Images/iStockphoto

With many postsecondary students piling up significant debt loads, financial experts advise them to learn good habits for spending, saving and borrowing.

That could be a daunting task, considering all the other challenges university and college students face, but the effort could pay off in the long run.

"On the one side of the coin, I really want people to think about school while they're in school and they really shouldn't have to worry about paying back debt," said Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada.

"But the other side of it is – and it's the more realistic side – no one wants to be sacked with a huge amount of debt once they've gotten their first job."

A recent survey by the Bank of Montreal found Canadian students, on average, expected to owe $26,297 when they graduate.

Respondents said they anticipated being able to pay off that amount in an average of 6.4 years – the operative word being "anticipate."

In reality, it could take a lot longer than that, says BMO vice-president Janet Peddigrew.

"Based on other surveys, it's taken people as high as 14.5 years, which is the reason why they need to really think about student debt, what it means, how you use it smartly."

Government loans are available, but many banks offer financing options such as student lines of credit.

Schwartz advises students to shop around. "Don't be shy. Banks are competing for business," he says.

Students can also manage their finances when they're in school to help ensure they're on solid footing once they graduate.

A recent Royal Bank of Canada survey suggests nearly two-thirds of Canadian postsecondary students plan to live away from home and expect their costs to be 50 per cent higher if they make that choice.

That's why it's crucial to track spending, says Melissa Jarman, director of student banking at RBC.

On top of fixed costs such as rent and utilities, there are a host of discretionary expenses that, while small individually, can add up to a lot, such as takeout dinners, bus fare or nights out.

"There are a number of those day-to-day expenses that maybe, while they were living at home, parents were taking on," Jarman adds. "All of a sudden they're gradually taking on all of those expenses as well. So those things can really add up."

A number of mobile apps are available to help students track their spending.

And using a student ID card to get discounts on anything from clothing to transit to restaurants can be helpful, too.

It's good to establish good financial habits early, said Jarman.

"There's some things that will just take you well beyond your years as a student and help you out in life," she said.

Schwartz said that it may not be realistic for students to start paying off debt while still in school, given the fact that it's tough to balance a job with academics.

But to the extent that they do have some extra cash from a summer or part-time job, it's possible to chip away at the amount owing.

And it's important to at least have a plan for debt repayment, with realistic goals and timelines, said Schwartz.

"If you want to pay off a certain amount of your student debt, set a goal towards that and then set up your budget to allow for that payment," Schwartz said.

One way is to set up an automatic withdrawal from your bank account to pay off the debt in small increments. A little bit can add up over time.

"Make it invisible," said Schwartz. "Often what we do, especially because it tends to be difficult to repay debt, is have that debt payment come off first and then have the rest of the amount that you have left over for the month work for you."