Start the Semester With a Financial Plan

A college student's preparation for the school year isn't complete without a personal financial plan. That's the message of the national chairperson for a newly organized consumer education group.

Here are some tips from Susan Molinari, the national spokesperson for Americans for Consumer Education and Competition.

Molinari honed her budgeting and education skills as a member of Congress from 1990 to 1997, where she served on the House Budget and Education Committees.

• Develop a realistic budget. Make a list of the things you'll have to buy and what they will cost. Compare this with what you have to spend from savings and such sources during the school year as a job, scholarship or parents.

• Track your finances. Keep track of your income, expenses and debts in a small ledger or on a computer, if you have one of your own. This will help avoid any unpleasant financial surprises.

• Shop Around. You can save by checking out all possible sources, including the Internet. Look for used textbooks and lab equipment both on and off campus and shop for items like pens and notebooks at discount stores.

• Computers. Check to see if your college or university has computer resources students can use. Even if you have your own computer, you may be able to save on items like printers by using the computer resources of your school.

Using credit cards wisely can present a challenge all their own. As a student, you'll likely be offered any number of credit cards. Shop around to get the best terms.

• Don't be shy. Ask what the interest rate is on any unpaid balance? Does the card have an annual fee and if so, how much is it? Are there charges for cash advances?

• Live within your budget. Try to pay off your balance promptly each month to avoid interest charges. Remember, the more you owe the higher your interest payments and the longer it will take to pay off your balance.

• Keep a record of your credit card numbers at home or in another safe place. If a card is lost or stolen, notify the card issuer promptly.

Check your statement closely to make sure it is accurate and that your card hasn't been used fraudulently. If your card uses a personal identification number (PIN), make sure others cannot easily decode it.

Don't use easy to figure out codes like your birthday, phone number or the last four digits of your social security number. And remember, if you write down your PIN down; keep it separate from your credit cards.

According to Molinari, "Whether you are heading off to college for the first time this year or simply returning to school, it's smart to develop a financial game plan for everything from credit card use to entertainment.

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