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The recruitment brochures show the campus in its summer or early-autumn glory. Prim hedges. Attractive students laughing against the backdrop of old brick buildings blanketed in ivy. But, for those worried about money, choosing a university involves more than just looking at the pretty pictures. It means reading the fine print first.

During the last academic year, the average university student in Canada paid about $4,917 per year in tuition fees, according to Statistics Canada. Across the country, fees range from less than half the average in Quebec and Newfoundland, to hundreds, if not thousands, more in most provinces and for professional schools.

The way students pay for university—and survive it while studying—vary as well. A Statistics Canada study showed 90% of Canadian students relied on more than one source of funding. Students typically eke out an existence through a combination of savings, loans, scholarships, grants, bursaries, part-time work and internships.

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All sources of cash help pay the bills, but some have more strings attached than others. And budgetary savvy or incompetence can have a lasting effect on post-post-secondary life.

Tips from the field

Make a budget in September and stick with it, says Leslie Penney of St. John's, Newfoundland. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Memorial University two years ago and writes a financial advice column for Memorial's student newspaper based on his student experience and his work in the mortgage industry.

Living frugally isn't glamorous. According to Penney, it means using a regular cellphone instead of a Blackberry or iPhone since that move alone could cut your bill in half. It also means schlepping around a Thermos since a $5-a-day coffee habit can add up to about $400 a semester. Penney recommends buying books used and selling them the following semester, or sharing them among friends. And he says that while an occasional splurge on meals is okay, students should try going out for breakfast or lunch, as dinner tends to be more expensive. As well if you decide to go out in the evening, it's better to drink beer in moderation at home instead of pubs or clubs—that is provided you're of drinking age. Penney also advises those on a budget to write a grocery list before heading to the supermarket to prevent impulse buys, but says to watch out for sales at the supermarket. Finally, Penney says that the best way to save on entertainment is to take advantage of the free or inexpensive events on campus.

The need to borrow

The Canadian Federation of Students estimates that the national student debt is $13.5-billion. And, according to Statistics Canada, more than half of Canadian students are funded by government-run loans. Provincial and federal governments offer loan programs, and the rules vary depending on where you live. Generally speaking, these loans are needs-based (there's an income ceiling to qualify) and the interest rates are lower than a line of credit or credit card.

Plus, perks such as grants, debt reduction initiatives and interest-free grace periods are worked into the terms of the loan. Scholarships are a good way to supplement the cost of an undergraduate degree, but very few students (about 5%) can get full funding this way.

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Part-time jobs are standard among students, even those with scholarships and student loans. Some student employers, such as Tim Hortons Inc., provide scholarships. The Canadian Forces will fund a degree in full, but you must commit to serving for a certain amount of time.


Student loans were how William Wolfe-Wylie paid for his history degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. He graduated with a degree in History and English—and $28,000 in debt—in 2007. "And that was with parents helping me out where they could, living frugally and working as much as I could," he says.

When he chose the small liberal arts university, the goal was to get as far away from his Toronto comfort zone as possible. He doesn't have any regrets, but he paid for his choice. In his second year, for example, he ended up living in a house with eight people to help slice the rent as thinly as possible.

The cost of tuition at Mount Allison went up about 20% during his degree—and it was on the higher end of the spectrum when he started. "One of my standard meals for one summer—when I was living on $15 a week for groceries—was a box of KD and a tin of tuna mixed into it with whatever spices I had," he says. Today, three years later, he and his fiancée pay roughly $1,000 a month on student loans. "That impacts pretty heavily our-day-to-day lives," he says.


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Jordyn Marcellus graduated without debt from the University of Calgary this year with a bachelor of arts in psychology. He toiled through two jobs every summer in Fort McMurray, Alberta, then worked two jobs during the school year in Calgary. With his parents kicking in a few hundred dollars a month, and his line of credit, he made it. "It was always a little bit intense and a little bit tough," he says. He didn't sleep, didn't see friends as much as he would have liked and says that working so much negatively affected his grades. But he says he got great work experience. "I wouldn't recommend it; it's not good for academics, but I think a lot of people are doing it anyway," he said. He, however, wishes he had put more thought into his school choice. Tuition at the University of Calgary is about $5,600 a year for a full-time student, which is higher than average, but it was his cost of living that posed the biggest hurdle. Calgary's housing boom left him paying hundreds of dollars more in rent than he would have if he had lived somewhere else.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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