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College Guide - Avoid crushing college debt

College brochures should come with a surgeon general warning that reads, "College causes a beer gut, an addiction to pizza, skeletons in your closet and absurd debt." The majority of that list can be easily overcome with exercise and a change of address or two. Debt, however, follows you like Screech followed Lisa Turtle in "Saved by the Bell." It seems to never go away.

According to a 2008 Sallie Mae survey, 84 percent of undergraduates had at least one credit card, up from 76 percent in 2004. The average number of cards grew to 4.6 per student, and half of college students surveyed had four or more cards. That means at least half the people reading this – yeah, that's you – are sitting on a fat stack of plastic cash. And with relatively easy access to student loans, financial-aid checks make college life a little more lavish every quarter, enabling students to live well beyond their means and without immediate worry of financial consequence. What might seem like a fairy tale transforms into an inescapable ball and chain years later. Doesn't sound so free now, huh? Never fear, dear financially inept pupils; here are a few tips on how to stay out of debt in college without the burden of an actual job.

Take advantage of the Internet

If you don't have time for a 40-hour work week and need a creative way to make cash or get discount products and free gift cards, try online surveys or work as an at-home contractor. Websites such as www.wahm.com – traditionally for work-at-home moms – provide you with listings of legitimate work-from-home companies. And websites like www.stophighcosts.com link you up with companies that are willing to give incentives such as deep discounts for trying their products. While getting stuff for free with no strings attached would be great, this ain't one of those deals. You'll have to sign up for trial memberships and in some cases, pay a small shipping fee to qualify for the merchandise. But it'll be well worth it when you get your almost-free, strings-attached "gift."

Apply for scholarships

Scholarships and grants are the best way to get free money for college because it doesn't have to be repaid. First, you should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and visit your college's website to see what scholarships it offers. Also, check out websites like scholarship.com, www.fastweb.com and www.collegeboard.com that help you find money specifically for college.

Don't use credit cards for food

We know late-night Taco Bell kicks ass when you're drunk. But you don't really want to be paying for Taco Bell 10 years from now. For that matter, a year from now, you don't want to pay for anything that you no longer physically possess or that you can pay for with cash. Remember, if you don't pay off purchases by the next billing cycle, you pay interest – and a lot of it.

Walk, bike or take public transportation

Gas prices are breaking the bank these days. One way to save money and stay healthy is to walk or bike short distances. For longer commutes, try public transportation; monthly passes usually save lots of cash, and MARTA has discounts for college students.

Don't buy anything new

Consignment stores and thrift shops provide gently used clothing and furniture for considerably cheaper prices than you find in department stores. Some consignment stores actually buy merchandise from boutiques and department stores when they're unloading for the upcoming season, so you can get some great steals that are new and inexpensive. And if you're strapped for cash and don't have the time for a Saturday morning yard sale, take used clothes to consignment shops like Plato's Closet, Nearly New Shop or Psycho Sisters to sell your clothes for cash.



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