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Avoiding student debt

By Ashleigh Viveiros

There's just no way around it: post-secondary education is incredibly expensive. Whether you're attending a college or a university, you're going to be on the hook for thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition, books, and living expenses by the time you slap on your graduation cap and gown.

The goal of every student, of course, is to make it through school with as little debt - which generally means as few student loans - as possible. Here are a few tips on how to do it:

Choose your school wisely

Right off the bat, you can have a direct effect on how much you're going to spend on school by taking a serious look at all of your options.

Tuition is expensive everywhere, but some schools, for a variety of different reasons, are more expensive than others. But just because a school charges more for its program doesn't necessarily mean you can't get an equally solid education elsewhere.

Be sure to take a look at the cost of all your prospective schools - factoring in not just tuition, but also the cost-of-living in the city where the school is located, as well as travel costs for trips back home, if necessary, and so on - and figure out which choice makes the most sense - both educationally and financially.

Parental help

If you're lucky, your parents have been saving for your post-secondary education since the day you were born. Or maybe they're just loaded, and feeling generous. But, for most students, the Bank of Mom and Dad has a somewhat limited withdrawal balance, and they may not be able to help you out all that much with tuition. That's okay, though, because every little bit helps, and there are lots of other ways your parents can help defray the costs of your education.

Living at home is one obvious way to save a lot of money if you're attending school close to home. It does mean you'll be under your parents' thumbs for a few more years, but the money you'll save on rent, food, and other living expenses is probably worth it in the long run.

Your parents may also be willing to help you out in other, smaller ways - maybe they can cover some of your rent or car insurance payments, provide you with a basic living allowance to supplement your own income, help purchase school supplies at the beginning of the year, or simply promise to always send you back to school with enough food to fill up your fridge. Check to see what they're willing to do, and remember - it all adds up.

Family help

While your parents are the most obvious choice when it comes to soliciting financial help from family members, don't overlook other relatives. Maybe you have a well-off grandparent or aunt and uncle who would be willing to borrow you some money for school. If you have a good relationship with them, it won't kill you to ask. And if they say yes - and are willing to be flexible on when you have to pay them back or whether they're going to charge you interest - you've found a great alternative to more formal, high-interest forms of debt.

But money isn't the only way family members may be able to help you out. If you're attending school away from home, you might be able to save some money on living expenses by moving in with a relative who lives nearby. A cousin, uncle, even a grandparent might be willing to open up their home to you for a few years and help you get started in the world. You'll probably still pay some rent, but, overall, the cost of living with family will still be less than if you were completely out on your own.

Get to work

Even if your parents and other family members are willing to help you out with school, there's still going to be a financial gap that YOU need to fill.

An obvious way to fill it is by finding part-time or casual work during the school year. While balancing school and work can be tough, it's worth it if you can earn enough money to get you through the year. And even if you think you already have enough money for the basic school expenses, it's still a great idea to work a few shifts somewhere to earn some spending money for the fun stuff.

If you can't handle juggling school and work at the same time, then you should at least be working your butt off during summer vacation (sorry, no European adventures for the debt-free student).

When looking for summer employment, you ideally want to find a job that pays you the highest wage you can find, offers lots of hours, and is located somewhere where your expenses are low. That might mean moving (you guessed it) back home for the summer instead of staying in the city your school is located in. It may also mean foregoing doing something you really love (say, teaching swimming twice a week at the pool) for something that pays better and offers more hours (say, planting trees out in the middle of nowhere).

If you're really set on getting through university with as little debt as possible, you may also want to consider taking a year off from school to work full-time. This is one of the best ways to earn enough money to cover your expenses, but be sure not to let the glamour of a steady paycheque lure you away from continuing your education altogether.

Free money

If you're looking for money to pay for your education that you don't have to earn yourself or pay back, then scholarships, bursaries, and grants are definitely the way to go.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, these three funding options seem pretty similar - they all involve someone giving you free money to pay for school. But they are quite different, and you need to keep those differences in mind when applying for them.

Scholarships are generally awarded to students based on some sort of achievement - academic, athletic, etc. In some cases, schools will award entrance or undergraduate scholarships to students automatically based on your grades, while other scholarships require an actual application - possibly including an essay, letters of reference, etc. - on your part.

Bursaries and grants, on the other hand, are often awarded based more on demonstrated financial need or special situations than any sort of achievement, though they do usually still require you to apply for them and meet certain requirements. For example, some bursaries are geared specifically to help out single parents, students with disabilities, part-time students, minorities, and so on. Meanwhile, some grants are aimed towards women in financial need training to enter certain male-dominated fields, such as engineering or medicine.

Either way, to find these types of finances, you'll need to do some digging. The Internet is a good place to start (the scholarship section of SchoolFinder.com has a wealth of information, and you may also want to check out ScholarshipsCanada.com), but you'll also want to check with your guidance counsellor and your school's financial aid office to see what you're eligible to apply for and to confirm the various deadlines for each.

Your family may also be able to provide you with some leads to scholarships and the like. In many cases, your parents' work connections or involvement in any number of different clubs or organizations may make you eligible for special scholarships you wouldn't even know about otherwise.

The key is to keep looking for every potential source of income out there - throughout your years in school - and, basically, apply for EVERYTHING you are remotely eligible for. In many cases, students miss out on money they could have easily received just because they were too lazy to fill out a form. Don't let it happen to you.

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