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A $20 Canadian bill is stretched by two hands.

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A student's budget is one of the most challenging there can be.

That's the view of Teresa Alm, associate university registrar at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., as she talks point blank about the costs, fees and living expenses a student faces.

A lot of the problems begin with the students, most of whom are controlling their finances for the first time.

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"We have a group of some students and their families who have done a lot of thinking and have a very well-defined plan. And there are some students who probably have done little to no thinking and everything is a shock," Ms. Alm said. "And there's another group who have some of the bigger pieces figured out, like tuition and OSAP [the Ontario Student Assistance Program, or other similar provincial aid programs], and then are just going to plan day by day and hope it all comes together," she said.

Let's assume that most students fall into the latter category. Life is full of surprises, particularly in the first year of university.

Problems typically stem from the fact that a new student gets a lump sum of money for the entire year. Yet many of their expenses, from rent and utilities if they live off campus, will be monthly, or in the case of food, daily. Even if they live in the dorm, there are numerous living expenses throughout the year.

"They get this lump sum of money to pay for their school, but that's obviously fixed revenue. They get it once, but it has to be rationed out over eight months," said Matthew Archibald, manager of student experience at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

"Sometimes they get in that mindset that the money they received from the government or from somewhere is just to pay for tuition. What students sometimes fail to realize is that it's not just for tuition. There are other fixed expenses that they have to incur and then there are variable expenses," he said. For instance, more often than not, most new students won't know beforehand what their food bill will be. So, university administrators recommend keeping a list of spending habits in that first month of school. Forget doing a tally of living expenses in August. Expenses in August won't be the same as those in September once school is in full swing. (On the flipside, September may have some one-time expenses or at least once-a-semester costs which may not continue every month.)

Yet keeping careful tabs on expenses once a student arrives is crucial to making a true budget. Queen's has a good student budget planner on its website to help map out the financial year on one page. But let's break down the different expenses a little further:

EXPENSES

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• Tuition and fees.

• Books and school supplies. This will likely include a laptop, a major expense right off the bat. Secondhand and electronic textbooks can help lower costs a little.

• Residence costs. This will often include a meal plan, plus additional grocery bills for snacks and drinks. Heading to the local fast-food outlet every night isn't a healthy option, physically or financially.

• Rent and utilities. These can be high for students living off campus.

• Phone and cellphone charges.

• Food. Every student should overestimate this a little.

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• Clothing and laundry. There's a reason why vintage is 'in' with so many students.

• Recreation, local transportation and return trips home. Students should be realistic from the start and assume they will need recreation money and will be yearning to see family when the school empties out during the holidays.

RESOURCES

• Savings and contributions from parents, relatives or spouse.

• Government student assistance. University administrators note that there's often much more money available than many students realize. As Ms. Alm at Queen's noted, "We would always encourage government assistance before a student line of credit, because they're interest free while students are in studies, as well there's some non-repayable assistance that comes with them."

• Scholarships, bursaries and awards. "Many students who qualify for government assistance are also qualifying for bursary assistance. So then we would say, 'Have you researched bursary assistance?' Bursaries are non-repayable grants at universities," Ms. Alm added.

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• Student line of credit, RESPs (if cashed in) and other government assistance (such as the Canada Pension Plan or provincial programs such as Ontario Works).

Students need to remember that university administrators are there to assist in applying for all of these and to help weigh all options. No one wants students to have undue money pressures and have that eat into their university experience.

"Are there students who have emergency [financial] situations? Yes. Have those emergency situations decreased over the years? I would say, Yes. I think partly it's because there has been a focus on proactive planning. I think that all of the stakeholders have done a good job of helping students understand the financial options," Ms. Alm said.

"We don't want students to be overwhelmed. We want them to be realistic."

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