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budget builders

Cassandra Chambers, a graduate of Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University and Toronto’s Centennial College, is on a break from her job in downtown Toronto.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Cassandra Chambers learned a lot as a communications student at Waterloo's Wilfrid Laurier University and Toronto's Centennial College, but there is one thing she wishes they taught better – money management.

"I feel like there were a lot of things in the curriculum we don't get to learn about – things like mortgages, taxes, how to run your own business," says Ms. Chambers, 26.

"The business and commerce students learn this, of course, but if you're an arts student, you don't."

Now working in Toronto for a sound studio that provides audio content to advertisers, Ms. Chambers says it was always a matter of keeping close tabs on income and spending to get through school.

"I relied on OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) throughout and my mom also helped me out," she says.

In 2011, Ontario brought in a 30-per-cent discount for eligible postsecondary students with lower incomes, and this year, the province announced it will provide free tuition for 210,000 eligible postsecondary students. But the tuition reduction came late in Ms. Chambers' student life, so she had to scrimp.

"I would do an Excel sheet at the beginning of each term, looking at what I made from working and my monthly allowance from what my mom would give me," she says.

Ms. Chambers also applied for and received several student grants. "A few thousand is nice, but it doesn't pay your way through school," she says.

To bolster her income, she also worked part-time throughout university and community college. "If I didn't have my family's help, I would have had to work full-time all through school, as well as going to classes," Ms. Chambers says.

As the student loans come due, she continues to work full-time, mostly in her chosen fields of communications and entertainment. For a while, Ms. Chambers worked as personal assistant to actress Meghan Markle, believed to be Prince Harry's girlfriend.

In school, Ms. Chambers says she learned quickly to be down to earth about her student budgeting.

"I guess I'm pretty nerdy. Some of my friends would use their OSAP money for things like iPods, but I didn't," she says.

"In first year at Laurier, we got a 'one card' from the school to help with purchases on campus. At first I treated it like free money, but I learned quickly."

Her financial education included learning to share groceries and other expenses with roommates and to avoid excessive living.

"It seems obvious, but you don't want to get caught up in spending all your money on booze and partying," she says.

Sandra Foster, a Toronto-based financial author and consultant, agrees with Ms. Chambers that postsecondary education should come with some kind of instruction manual about money management.

"It's unfortunate that a course in basic financial skills, such as short-term budgeting, does not go hand in hand with loans for postsecondary education. A student loan can seem like a windfall at the time but it comes with choices, and, in my opinion, with financial responsibility," says Ms. Foster, president of Headspring Consulting Inc.

"Using the loan wisely can be an investment in your personal capital, your future earning years. Spending it on non-educational items, or outside the purpose of the loan, could cause financial regret long after your education is completed," she says.

It is better to understand money management while you are in school, not later, Ms. Foster adds.

"I believe that students would benefit from a starting and mid-point review of their finances and their financial decisions," she says.

"It can help them make the most of what they have at this critical point in their lives. While the decisions students make are ultimately their own, their decisions can impact their lives for years after graduation."

Now several years out of school, Ms. Chambers still has the heavy knowledge that about $35,000 in student debt still hangs over her head. As she has been working steadily, she pays back a portion of her loan every month.

"Still, it will take eight or nine years," she says.

She saves money by continuing to split rent and groceries with roommates, and for a while, she moved back home to save even more.

In her field of entertainment and communications there is a lot of industry-related partying, but she tries to be extra careful not to spend a lot of money on work-related nightlife.

"I also try to be careful about credit-card debt," she says. "I like to pay it off as fast as I can."

It is a matter of continuing the financial management skills she learned as a student – because she had no choice.

"I still try to prioritize what I need over what I want," Ms. Chambers says.