How to avoid money mistakes in college

As students head off to college this fall, they will be brimming with excitement — as well as anxiety.

More than anything, the top concern parents and children share is how they will afford college and deal with the debt burden that goes hand-in-hand with a degree, according to The Princeton Review’s 2018 College Hopes & Worries survey.

It’s no wonder: College costs have rapidly increased over the past decade. Now, more than 40 percent of families borrow money to pay for college, Sallie Mae found.

As a result, college-loan balances in the U.S. have jumped to an all-time high of $1.5 trillion. The average outstanding balance is $34,144, up 62 percent over the last 10 years, according to a separate report by Experian.

Before students even step foot on campus, financial experts advise beginning with a plan, which includes a conversation between parents and their college-bound children.

The financial aid package for your child’s first year of college may be set, but your family should be having an ongoing discussion about student loan debt and how to keep costs down, said Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and publisher at the website Private Student Loans Guru.

For starters, know how much you’ll owe — not just at end of the first year, but for all four years.

Then, make sure you understand how much your monthly loan payment will be once you graduate. Sites such as Student Loan Hero can provide a dashboard-type overview for borrowers, and the Department of Education, College Board and FinAid all have loan payment calculators also available online.

Keep in mind that the financial aid package that you received for your first year in college may not be the same in subsequent years. You could need more or less aid going forward depending on your family’s financial circumstances: whether, for example, another sibling goes to college or graduates, or if a parent loses a job or gets a new one.

To that end, revisit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as possible. For the 2019-2020 school year, you can start filing as of October 1 with last year’s tax information. State and college deadlines to apply for aid vary, but many distribute funds on a first-come, first-served basis.

In addition, come up with a budget to stay on track during school. It should account for money coming in from a part-time job or other resources, as well as monthly expenses, including bills that must be paid and discretionary spending, from going to the movies with friends to Uber rides back and forth.

To cut costs, maximize your student status to score discounts on essential items such as textbooks and computers, as well as extraneous purchases like clothing and dining out.

Apple, Dell and Best Buy offer reduced pricing on laptops for students and their parents, while many big name retailers, such as J. Crew, Banana Republic, American Eagle and Nike, will take off 10 percent to 20 percent off purchases in stores or online.

Meanwhile, Amazon Prime Student will cover unlimited music streaming, movies and free shipping (as well as all other Prime benefits) for $6.49 a month or $59 a year for four years or until you graduate, whichever comes first.

Finally, leave some room for savings in the budget. Even cash-strapped college students can consider stashing some cash in a Roth individual retirement account.

Unlike a traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth are taxed up front and account-holders can withdraw their contributions at any time without taxes or penalties, which makes these accounts particularly well suited for those just starting out. Plus, there are no opening account minimums at some online brokers, such as E-Trade, Fidelity and TD Ameritrade.

“On the Money” airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 a.m. ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.

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Student loan forgiveness less likely under new Trump proposal
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