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NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Heading off for your freshman year at college? Before you plunge into the whirl of an exciting new life, make some money-management vows to avoid a mess that could dampen the fun. Here are some tips:

Use debit, not credit

For routine expenses, and even the big ones such as flights home for the holidays,

debit cards are a great option

. There are few fees, if any, and each purchase is drawn against money in your checking account. If there's no money, the purchase is denied (check your overdraft coverage, though; see below). With a debit card, you won't face interest charges, late fees and other expenses that can be incurred with a credit card.

Before plunging into the whirl of an exciting new life at college, it's smart to make some money-management vows to avoid a mess that could dampen the fun.

Be wary of

overdraft protection

, which allows purchases even if your account is empty. Fees for this service can be very high. It does make sense to have a credit card for backup --

in case a hurricane strands you

on the trip home, or your car loses a muffler. For this purpose, get a credit card with no annual fee.

Also be mindful that there are instances when it's

not a good idea

to use your debit card as the first payment option.

Use the Internet

Most banks offer free online access to accounts, making it easy to keep track of cash in your checking account. In fact, you can probably

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have the bank automatically alert you

by email or text message if the balance falls below a set level. Free services such as

can help you track multiple accounts in one place, and show how much you are spending in each category.


Budgeting seems like a boring task for people with jobs, mortgages and children, but it's a good practice even if your parents are handling the big college expenses. With a simple budget, a list of expenses you can expect each month, you can avoid cash emergencies and won't be gnawed by guilt every time you buy a slice of pizza.

Don't be an early adopter

It's tempting to have the hottest phone, most powerful computer and coolest tablet, but you pay a big premium for cutting-edge features. If you don't really need those functions, keep your old devices a little longer or buy new ones without top-of-the-line glitz.

Borrow smart

These days, most students graduate with some debt. It's hard to avoid that, because

college is so expensive

. Student loans are often called "good debt," because they lead to better jobs and a more interesting life.

Still, interest charges should be avoided if possible, and many students look for part-time jobs to minimize debt. That may make sense to avoid high-interest debt such as credit card charges for living expenses. But if you are eligible for

low-rate student loans

such as Stafford loans that charge only 3.4%, borrowing may be better than working, especially if working would hurt your grades or take the fun out of college.

Think value, not price

Try to assess the long-term value of every expenditure, as well as the price.

A dirt-cheap used car

may be a good option, but not if it guzzles gas and will be in the shop half the time.

Often it's the little expenditures that deliver the least value, even though the cost is low. A $1 bag of potato chips from a vending machine produces no long-term value, and the immediate need could be satisfied more cheaply with a snack bought at the supermarket and kept in your backpack. When drinking fountains are free, any money spent on bottled water is wasted.

A dollar here, a dollar there ... it adds up. If you save $15 or $20 a week on needless expenses, you could have some pretty decent Saturday nights instead.

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