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Avoiding the 'freshman $15,000'

With college costs skyrocketing, these expert tips could help keep your son or daughter solvent.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 23, 2012 11:27AM
Image: Graduation cap (© Brand X Pictures/Photolibrary/PHOTOLIBRARY GROUP LTD)Ever heard of "the freshman 15," the weight gain that supposedly attaches itself to new college students? Try this on for size, so to speak: "the freshman $15,000," or the unnecessarily high expenditures of freedom-dazzled youngsters.

That $15k figure isn't based on any actual debt amount; it's just a play on words that's floating around the blogosphere. But given how many students graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt, it's not hard to imagine racking up $15k per year just on tuition, fees and books.

That's before we even get to problems like:
  • Too-frequent swipes of the debit card (hello, bank fees!).
  • Overspending on entertainment, dorm décor and meals out.
  • Abusing credit cards (despite the Credit CARD Act, the under-21 crowd can still get credit).
  • Not understanding that private student loan interest rates are variable.
  • Using "extra" loan money for a lavish lifestyle.
How to avoid these mistakes? Read on.

Removing temptation

Countless adults will testify that it can be way too easy to overspend with a credit card. So why put one in the hands of an 18-year-old maddened by the options of a college town?

"If you don't get a credit card . . . there's a limited amount of trouble you can get into," says Zac Bissonnette, the author of "How to Be Richer, Smarter and Better-Looking Than Your Parents."

And yes, it is possible for 18-year-olds to get around the Credit CARD Act. According to both Bissonnette and Curtis Arnold of, some credit issuers consider student loans to be "income."

(Take a minute for a face-palm and an "OMG." I'll wait.)

Ben Woolsey of thinks debit cards are a much better fit for college freshmen. Students who do have credit cards need to weigh spending "as if it were coming directly out of their bank account." Which, of course, it is -- unless Mom and Dad are footing that bill, too. (Post continues after video.)
With debit power comes debit responsibility: Parents must teach teens how to balance a checkbook to prevent them from incurring bank fees. It happens in the money-savviest of families. Arnold's daughter, a high-school senior, overdrafted within two weeks of getting the card that was supposed to teach her how to spend responsibly.

Folding green

What about a cash-only plan? If students had to take actual dollars from their wallets they might think twice about those Escher posters or wheat-grass smoothies.

Speaking of cash: If your teen received money gifts upon graduating from high school, here's hoping he put most of it in the bank. Bissonnette has an even better idea: Send what's left to the college right now, to reduce borrowing in the 2012-13 school year.

Yes, that would mean turning down some loan money. Good! Otherwise your student might think that leftover loans = living large. Remember, the typical 18-year-old has no experience with debt.

"He or she simply may not be able to comprehend the impact a large debt load will have on their future," says Carina Diamond, a certified financial planner in Akron, Ohio.

Use a student loan repayment calculator to figure minimum monthly payments. Add in other post-graduation expenses such as rent, utilities, food and car payment and insurance. Compare that figure -- which doesn't include things like furniture, electronics, nights out with friends or vacations -- with the starting salary of the student's planned career.

"Show them how unnecessary increases in debt now will affect them later," Diamond says.

Tough (financial) love

Diamond recommends that parents make it crystal-clear what they will and will not contribute. For example, you might spring for four years' worth of tuition but not five; you might agree to provide no more than X dollars per semester for food and other expenses.

I'd suggest writing all this down and having both parents and student sign it. That way your resolve won't crumble in the face of the first tearful phone call from the daughter who overdrafted or the son who bought concert tickets instead of groceries.

If it's in writing, your spouse doesn't have to be the Big Meanie who says "no." All he or she has to do is take out the agreement and point to your signature -- and your student's.

"You've got to be consistent and have one unified voice," Arnold says.

As hard as it can be to watch your kid struggle, remember that bailing him out will only enable him to continue to make poor financial choices. Tough financial love really is for the student's own good. And a week's worth of ramen or that extra Saturday shift at the pizza place won't hurt him. Really.

More on MSN Money:

Aug 23, 2012 2:19PM

Parents, teach your kids about debt and money

Give them chores to do, thats part of what they owe for being part of the family

Give them other chores to do for a small allowance

Make available other ways to make money (maybe just getting a job for older kids)


Then let them take a loan out from you for something they would use alot or really want


Allow them to pay you back monthly, if they miss a payment, take away the item for 2 months for every month they miss

If they get 6 months behind, sell the item and keep the money

You don't have to make the loan for the entire amount but make the payment enough that it forces them to MANAGE their money or find ways to make more

You still give them gifts and buy alot of stuff for them as usual but give them an idea of what its like to make choices about money

Also force them to save at least a little each month so they can see how that builds!!

Aug 23, 2012 11:49PM

Why are you assuming that students need to go to a "college town" and be left on their onesies? A parent with an irresponsible child is much better off keeping that kid at home and sending him/her to community college for two years, and then only coughing up the equivalent cash for two more years of university.  The child will be a bit more mature, will have had to get a part-time job to put away money for the university, and won't have to live on campus. Universities are very good at parting children from their money--it's one of their main goals.


It is my belief that people who cannot afford easily to send a child away to a university for four years should either send that kid to a technology center or community college to get a certificate or associate's degree which the child can then use to get a job at the university of his/her choice (full time employees get tuition remission) or to get a job in a college town (ideally with a company that helps one with tuition and fees).  Kid is then on his/her own.  When they are older and paying their own bills, they tend to be less stupid.


We need to get away from the idea that there is something wrong with pursuing an associates or certificate that will give one a job skill and that 18-year-olds need to go straight to the university.  They do not.  Middle class people should seek out the far more affordable route of community college and technology centers--the kids might ultimately pursue a college degree, but they can do that on their own. When did it become mandatory for people to go to college?  It's a stupid plan--one needs additional, specialized training, but one can get that without going to college.


If a child is not responsible enough to have a credit card, that same child is not responsible enough to be spending $8K on an education.  Pretty simple.

Sep 6, 2012 10:01AM
Sometimes you just can't avoid the freshman 15. When college cost so much that's what just has to happen. I am 21 years old and I am in grad school currently. I will have about 48,000 in loans total. The problem is no financial aid for those who need it. If you have a kid you get fafsa. Because i didn't make a mistake, i don't get money. It's hard to understand.....The best way to get out of this situation is to save, save, save. I took 22 credits in undergrad and worked 52 hours a week. I was able to pay 13,000 for my last year of college, by saving from 2 minimum wage jobs. You either hustle or you don't. People are selfish and you will not get help paying for your school.
Sep 6, 2012 6:46AM
Yes, I get it we dont want kids in college to be 15k in debt, but realistically speaking, with the cost of education, tuition books and housing especially in San Franicsco, 15k per year is what it costs just for tuition and books.  Housing alone will run them 15k per year.  The only way to avoid the 15k per year is to lower tuition and book costs, and as for book costs, giving contracts to for profit bookstores like Follette only increases the student book costs.  Dont buy our books at the for profit bookstores, order them cheaper off of amazon, or find a prior student selling their books at half to 3/4 off.  Housing, get roommates and split the rent and all housing costs.  Dont go for the four per room deal that housing offers you because guess what, each one of you is paying full price, its not discounted and its not shared, thats the biggest rip off.  Then comes tuition, careful here.  If another agency is paying for your tuition, you will not get a University Grant because the university grant is there to cover tuition (in theory), it doesnt cover all the fees they take on which equals almost $500.00 that comes out of your pocket.  Also, get FWS, Federal Work Study, this is good income, and its work and you are earning money while going to school, and it lowers the amount of unsubsidized loans you need to take out, if any.  That said, once you graduate, those loans become due within 6 months unless you apply for exception or waiver.  If you are getting ready to make payments, apply for the income based payment plans as its the best way and just pay a little bit more.  Also, while you are in school, pay on those student loans, if its unsubsidized pay off the interest from the last semester.   Even if you are only paying $500.00 per semester on your student loans, that takes off the interest and a small amount on the loan of your choice and lowers the interest you will have to pay and there is no penalty for paying early or making early payments, however, send them a check dont use auto withdrawals as they screw up way to much and wont refund their screw up.  This also lowers your lifetime aggregate limits so you are not reaching it.  At the cost of education right now, get in and get out as fast as you can with the best grades you can.
Aug 23, 2012 9:39PM
Money Crisis.Learn or Burn. Teach your Child early, set up a Children's Savings Account, when at age 14 or 15 they are capable of obtaining a Summer Job have them set money aside, at age16 they can apply for regular Part-Time jobs while in High School. Make sure they place their Pay-Checks into their Savings Account and allowing them to spend 20 percent or less. Hopefully they'll see the rewards of saving than a broken bank. At age 18 get a Secured Credit Card. They'll have to learn once the money is gone they can only blame themself. So they will work, put money into the bank and spend smart/wisely on what is neccessary and not on Wants. When they call home begging for money, please say No! at least for 2 or 3 months since they will pout and go without. Then hopefully learn from their mistake that Parents are not money trees. You earn what you work for. No Free Rides in Life as it was living at home and parents provided for just about everything from Birth til High School Graduation.
Aug 23, 2012 5:28PM

A Dad's perspective

I added my daughters to one credit card I have so that they could charge books and other expenses since they went to college far from our home.  The card was for emergencies and books only; otherwise they used their checking account with ATM card with a finite amount in it for the semester.


I discouraged both of them from getting their own credit cards and neither did get one until several years after graduating.  I do not think college students for the most part "need" a credit card of their own, and will most likely abuse it as this report indicates.


I myself did not get a credit card till after college and working for several years, and then only because it was easier to cash checks.  Today with ATM and debit purchases from a checking account, a credit card is dangerous for most young people.


The credit card companies are mostly predators trolling for gullible people.  The colleges and universities are complicit allowing them to market to the college students.

Sep 6, 2012 8:26AM
something alot of teachers and guardians dont preach enough....the graduated senior from high school should be told about community college and tech schools. they provide most all your basics and some degrees... its ALOT  less expensive and if they are going on to recieve their bachorler, masters, so on...they can finish it off on line or a university... to many times they feel they HAVE to go straight into a university... this needs to be taught as early as a sophmore in high school.
Sep 6, 2012 6:08AM
no matter how much you can talk about saving and such, its the little surprises that add up. For example, lets say your kid has a car, just your luck the car starts to need repairs during the time their in school.
You probably can't take them yourself, so they may end up catching the bus or train to school. Yes train and buses passes aren't expensive, but thats just more money you weren't expecting to spend. Then there's certain fees like labs if their a science major that sometimes aren't listed on the syllabus, or trips (language students in particular) and then usual fees that involve day to day toiletries or supplies that are needed.
Then what if they fail a class? Thats another expense as then you'll have to fork over some more cash for the class, and if you don't have the money, you're forced to sign for a loan.

I do agree on the community college bit, but heres an idea- what if the university they happen to transfer to doesn't accept all of their credits?
That means they have to take the class again at that univerisity, which means they have to pay university prices.
Though this is warned at community colleges, its also an expense people tend to overlook when they transfer and find theirselves having to shell out more then they expected because of some extra classes they need to take.

Not trying to sound glum, but I just think its bizarre when people post in comments about saving and getting a job. Just because you save it doesn't guarantee to cover unexpected cost.

Sep 6, 2012 9:38AM

When new graduates move into the job market, employers check applicants financials.  Many have been known to pass over an applicant who has excessive student debt believing that the applicant lacks the ability to manage his personal finances properly. 

 Employees with financial problems often have those problems enter his workplace distracting him from the job he is being paid to do.  Conversely, the applicant who has a work history while in college and a smaller amount of accumulated debt, will often be put on the top of the list for consideration. 

Aug 26, 2012 1:14PM
My daughter is currently in college and there are times when she has to have a credit card.  For example for her chemistry class she had to logon to a website and pay $10 on the credit card to access needed quizzes etc.  It was considered to be part of the fee for the class.

She is an authorized user on my credit card and it is to be used for books and necessary expenses.  Any time something is charged she calls and lets me know what was charged and how much.  There have not been any problems.

Donna I do thank you for turning us on to Swagbucks.  It has made a HUGE difference in the cost of textbooks.

Sep 6, 2012 6:19AM
I think more schools should offer incentives though, like Berea- that school you get to attend for free if you volunteer your time.

Not everyone does the work study program, but some may be willing to do minor volunteer bits for the school to cover expenses. I mean its the least the schools can do, they keep driving up their tuition and the price of textbooks isn't getting any cheaper, which is strangely ironic especially considering these very schools usually claim to be "Non-profit".

Perhaps there should be incentives that act as bonus to a student simply for coming to class- heck, the fact your attending the school is why any of the staff have jobs and the school is open for business anyway.

Sep 6, 2012 10:38AM

I am a single parent and spent countless hours helping my son find scholarships in his senior year of high school.  He received a couple scholarships after more applications than I can remember, too many, but what he was awarded was not close to what he needed.  He wants a way out of the "single mom poverty" we have lived in for 10 years now so has willingly saddled himself with debt this first year in college.   Neither one of us saw any other way to make it work.  I will try my best to pay the interest when I can but my first obligation is to make sure he has the basic things he needs to stay focused.  We both continue to search for scholarships and assume that each year he will need to take on more debt to be able to finish college. 

Sep 6, 2012 10:01AM
Sometimes you just can't avoid the freshman 15. When college cost so much that's what just has to happen. I am 21 years old and I am in grad school currently. I will have about 48,000 in loans total. The problem is no financial aid for those who need it. If you have a kid you get fafsa. Because i didn't make a mistake, i don't get money. It's hard to understand.....The best way to get out of this situation is to save, save, save. I took 22 credits in undergrad and worked 52 hours a week. I was able to pay 13,000 for my last year of college, by saving from 2 minimum wage jobs. You either hustle or you don't. People are selfish and you will not get help paying for your school.
Aug 23, 2012 3:31PM
and be ready to work at wal mart after a wasted 4 years too
Sep 6, 2012 8:34AM
Attend and get great healthcare career skills in as little as 12 weeks
Sep 6, 2012 8:35AM
Attend and get great healthcare career skills in as little as 12 weeks
Aug 23, 2012 3:30PM
lol your 17 or 18 panicking over college and its cost?? im 20 and still have never worked. no jobs here in idaho more leaving then coming. so stop whining
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.