While strolling through campus on a gorgeous day I was distracted from my fruit smoothie by someone offering me a free t-shirt. Since t-shirts comprise 75% of my wardrobe I stopped to learn more. I quickly found out that I would more or less be paying for this t-shirt for the rest of my life in the form of a credit card. With my budget, I know that if I can’t afford something now, I probably can’t afford it when the bill comes due next month. And I am absolutely sure I can’t afford it plus 8% the following month.

Now, I could have filled out the form, gotten the t-shirt and not used the credit card. I’d like to believe that I am responsible enough for that. In fact, I am that responsible. I have a couple of credit cards on me right now. I can’t remember the last time I used them because they are only for emergencies. Luckily, I live a disaster-free life and never have to use my credit cards.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch, or free t-shirt for that matter. On every campus across America there are dozens if not hundreds of students who have been lured into staggering credit card debt by the promise of a free shirt, alarm clock, or coffee maker. Not every student understands the finer points of credit. Not every student understands how interest rates and late fees can raise the price of a cup of coffee from $4 to $400 by the end of the year. Credit cards are great if you have a stable income from month to month. If you know with absolute certainty you can pay the credit card bill at the end of the month than by all means use it. But, if like me you are on a limited budget and drinking free coffee at work in the morning, keep the plastic at home.

To sum up, there are some three great cliches that ring true here-

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch (free t-shirt)
  2. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing (NOBODY just gives things away without an ulterior motive)
  3. Don’t borrow from Peter to pay Paul (which is what you do when you use a credit card. Peter is far meaner than Paul and charges ridiculous interest rates)

Sometimes there are things even I have trouble understanding. Shocking but true. Take for example some of the results from a recent survey on buying textbooks conducted by campusbooks.com. Every time I think about it I get more confused as to why more people don’t purchase their textbooks online.

There is no good reason why less than half of all students surveyed purchase their required texts online. Where someone might look at this survey and see numbers, I look at it and see students throwing away money that could otherwise be used on food and entertainment. I see someone eating Ramen Noodle when they can be eating carry-out Thai food. The average college student is now spending more than $4,000 on textbooks over the course of their education. The average savings on books purchased online rather than at the main campus bookstore ranges from 38% on a new book to 49% on a used book. Over the course of 4 or 5 years that’s thousands of dollars. Now we aren’t talking Ramen Noodle to Thai Food we are talking about the difference between riding a beat up Huffy to class and a new scooter.

This overspending on textbooks is made that much more confusing because most people list PRICE as the main factor when buying a book. Not convenience, not rubbing elbows with your fellow students at the campus bookstore, not the warm fuzzy of having purchased a bag full of heavy textbooks, but PRICE. Even though price is the main factor, and studies show significant savings when purchasing texts online, students still buy elsewhere. Even crazier is that most people who do shop online DON’T use a price comparison tool! You don’t need a college education to know that different stores have different prices. Textbook prices fluctuate wildly across the country and the best way to get the best price is to use a simple price comparison tool. Campusbooks.com’s price comparison tool lists price, shipping costs, and availability from dozens of vendors. Some students using the tool have saved almost 60% on their books.

To sum up, if you want to eat Thai food and ride a scooter to class, use a price comparison tool and shop for your books online.

Campusbooks.com recently conducted a survey of textbook buying students and the findings were quite interesting. The survey confirmed some of my long held beliefs when it comes to the textbook buying public but there were also a couple of surprises. The results won’t necessarily make the latest edition of Scientific America but they were pretty interesting nonetheless.

My first surprise was to find out that almost as many people are shopping for books online as at the campus bookstore. It wasn’t too long ago when the campus bookstore was a clear cut choice. The least surprising fact to emerge from the survey was that price is the most important factor when shopping online. In fact, price was the main factor in just under 70% of the respondents. And even though price is an overwhelming factor when shopping online I was surprised that there were so many other factors at work too. Other factors included (in order) reputation of seller, reputation of website, inventory availability, and delivery time. All of these other factors were listed on less than 10% of the surveys. The reputation of seller and website were listed as the 2nd and 3rd most important factors and combined for almost 18% of responses.

This clearly shows that there is still a bit of fear on the part of the purchasing public, despite how commonplace online shopping has become. We all want the lowest price, but for close to 20% of us we fear we might be getting duped. As for the other respondents, who listed inventory and delivery time as the most important factors,well, you people need to jump start your book buying process. In all honesty, when time becomes a more important factor than price it means you should have purchased your books earlier. Time is money. And those without the time tend to pay more money.

It’s very simple, the earlier you purchase your textbooks the less money you will spend. So please for your own sake, find out what texts are required for your courses as soon as possible. Then visit campusbooks.com to use their price comparison tool. Within seconds you’ll know the price, availability, and shipping times from a variety of online stores.

As mentioned in my last blog I didn’t spend the entire summer lounging around watching movies and catching up on my book list. I wouldn’t be very helpful if I didn’t keep my ear to the pavement to stay aware of new ways to help college students pay for tuition, books, rent, etc. I try to stay fairly current on the financial aid front and it’s always nice to earn something new that I can pass on.

Recently I learned about something called “summer melt” which surprisingly is not about sitting in an open field at a concert festival in 100 degree heat. “Summer melt” is actually a yearly phenomenon that occurs when incoming students make a last minute decision to NOT to attend a certain college or any college at all. More often than not these would be students are leaving financial aid packages on the table. All that money then goes back into a collective pool where it sits until someone asks for it. Apparently summer melt has grown bigger and bigger every year. More and more people are deciding to attend college, creating significantly more financial aid than was previously available. When a student gets accepted to a school an Aid package is created. If a student is accepted to 5 schools, 5 Aid packages get created with 4 of them ultimately becoming someone else’s extra financial aid if they know how to get it.

Receiving summer melt financial aid is actually remarkably simply, just ask for it. As with most things in life, if you don’t ask for it, you probably won’t get it. Ultimately, financial aid is there to be given away. Its sole purpose is to be given away to students like you. Even if you are already the recipient of a Financial Aid package there is nothing preventing you from receiving more assistance.

The best way to ask for additional financial aid is with a well written letter. If you are receiving Aid, thank the school for that. Confirm that you will be attending school the upcoming semester and simply inquire as to whether there are additional financial aid packages available now that other students have made their enrollment decisions. If your financial situation has changed since your original Aid package was awarded it is important to let the school know that. Be courteous, grateful, and excited to attend school in your letter. Then, follow up with a phone call a week later, or better yet stop into the Financial Aid Office a few days before school starts and sit down with a counselor. Be courteous, polite, and grateful- never forget you are begging for free money. You may just walk out of the office with more aid and less stress than thought possible.

By Dan Russell

I love my summer.  I cherish the slower pace, longer days, better weather, and free time the season provides me.  Every summer I like to read more books and go to more movies than I normally would be able to.  The only exception this summer is that I’ve had even more free time than normal.  In addition to movies and books, I also taught my dog how to fetch and sharpened my cooking skills.

I’ve already been to more movies in the last couple of months than I did in the preceding year.  Best of all, each one was entertaining; which is nice because like everything from gas to White Castle Sliders, the prices have gone up.  The very least I expect when I fork over $10+ is to be entertained for a couple of hours.  Just recently I checked out Wall-E which was really good.  I find it hard to stay away from Pixar movies.  They make one movie a year, and it’s usually exceptional.  I didn’t find Wall-E as great as most of the reviewers, but it was cute and enjoyable. Not so cute, but equally enjoyable was the new Indiana Jones movie-Crystal Skull. It’s impossible not to like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, but overall the movie was closer to Temple of Doom than Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The problem Lucas and Spielberg have is that Indy will never have a more compelling villain to deal with than the Nazis.  My favorite movie of the summer so far has been Iron Man.  Each element of the film was quite good from the actors, to the plot twists, to the open ending letting me know that there will undoubtedly be a second and third movie.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention a movie I recently saw on cable: Surf’s Up.  It is, without a doubt, absolutely and unequivocally, the greatest movie ever made about surfing penguins.  It has been a while since I saw a movie that was so head and shoulders above every other movie in its category.  The last movie I saw of that caliber might have been Vision Quest which set a new standard in High School Wrestling movies.

When not watching movies I try to catch up on my reading.   I recently read Chuck Klosterman’s book “Fargo Rock City” which celebrates his own youth, growing up listening to Heavy Metal Music in a small North Dakota town.  Klosterman has a great voice and tends to make some very unique points, some of which are profound and other equally idiotic.  His main point in Fargo Rock City is that Heavy Metal was the dominant musical style from the early 80’s to early 90’s but has never been considered a serious musical genre by writers.  The onset of Grunge and collapse of Guns ‘n’ Roses amongst others obliterated Heavy Metal.  This book celebrates Klosterman’s love of a musical era and an attempt to cast new light on music most people took for granted.

The most interesting book I read this summer had to be “Freakonomics” by University of Chicago Professor Steven Levitt.  Professor Levitt has a way of examining old issues in light of new statistics and interpreting them in surprising ways.  Chapter by chapter he examines abortion, gun control, the economics of drug dealing, sumo wrestling, standardized testing, and even the long term affects of baby names.  One of the more interesting facts I came away with is that swimming pools kill more children every year than handguns.  It’s a fact, but so little known that there is no swimming pool lobby yet.

And, just so no one thinks I’ve been completely slacking all summer long, next week I will report on some things I learned over the summer when it comes to financial aid.

By: Dan Russell

Recently John Hechinger of The Wall Street Journal reported on a growing trend in the Textbook Industry: Custom Textbooks.  For those unaware let me take some time to explain.  A custom textbook is one that is published specifically for one school and one school only.  Often, these custom texts are published annually or even semi-annually every semester, and they are usually required reading.

According to the WSJ, a typical custom book would be used in a Freshman English Course.  Acme University will require all incoming freshman to enroll in this English Course and purchase the Acme Version of ‘A Writer’s Reference’.  The only difference between the standard Writers Reference by Dana Hacker that most schools use and Acme’s is the cost, the Acme name across the front, and an extra 30 pages detailing Acme U’s writing program.  Oh, and it’s nearly impossible to buy a used version because the notice on the back cover reads “This book may not be bought or sold used.”

For those students who are pinching pennies and relying on their end of semester textbook sales to fund their next semester’s textbook purchases this can be a real problem.  Unlike other textbooks that are no longer being used, custom textbooks cannot be sold to other campuses due to their custom nature.  So, what can you do?

First, when you are purchasing your books be aware of custom texts.  They are fairly easy to spot and have a few tell-tale markers.  They will usually be spiral bound to cut costs, and they will almost always have the University’s name, Department, or Professor’s name across the front cover.  Second, talk to your professors.  Find out what you can about the new custom text, i.e. what makes it custom.  Sometimes the only difference is the front and back cover.  Or, if there is additional text included, you might discover that text is downloadable for free through the University’s website.  Knowing this little bit of information might save you some money.  In addition, it is always in your best interest to introduce yourself to your professors.

By: Dan Russell

As with most things, and certainly all things involving money, scholarships and other financial aid opportunities are sometimes scams designed to part you from your money. It’s an unfortunate, but time proven fact that there is a small percentage of the human population making life worst for the rest of us. They cheat the elderly out of their life savings, they sell broken down cars to newly expecting parents, and they put lead in toys sold to babies just to make a few dollars more. They also prey upon students and their parents who are desperate to find just a few extra dollars in order to go to school to get a better life.

Knowing that there are unscrupulous people and companies in the world fraudulently representing scholarship and Aid opportunities will hopefully make you more careful as you sort through applications. In this case, the mind numbing task of filling out applications is actually working in your favor. With the exception of the essay portion almost every application requests the same information- grades, address, interests, field of study, extracurricular activities, etc. When you come across an application that requests your credit card or banking information it should raise a giant red flag. If it looks a little peculiar, it probably is. Set that application aside and take a few minutes to investigate it. Ask the school guidance counselor about it or better yet, contact the Federal Trade Commission whose job it is to investigate these issues.

Students and parents should also be weary of opportunities that cost money to apply for. Often a student will be invited to an ‘exclusive’ seminar where they will be given a high-pressure sales pitch to pay for an opportunity or risk losing it. Or they will be asked to pay a membership fee to an organization that awards scholarships. Sure, that $25 membership fee is pittance compared to the $2,000 annual scholarship. But, that’s because the scholarship isn’t real. ALWAYS investigate any organization promising you financial aid if there is a fee involved.

The FTC is always on the lookout for scams such as these. With their help and the help of vigilant students and parents across the country fewer and fewer students are getting scammed. If you encounter a scholarship or Aid opportunity that looks too good to be true; or just want ore information on what to look out for please visit the Federal Trade Commission’s site http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/ouchalrt.shtm.

By: Dan Russell

Thanks to Fastweb.com and similar websites students now have access to a huge number of scholarships.  Billions of dollars in free financial aid is now easily accessible via the internet.  These Free Money sites are similar to job sites in the way they simply list out all those opportunities that fit your parameters. It can be easy to get carried away simply clicking on scholarship opportunities that you then forget what you’ve done.  Let’s face it, after reading through 50 links over the course of an hour, they all start to look the same anyway.  If you go through 50 links everyday for a week there is no chance you’ll remember the first link you looked at after lunch on Tuesday.  Living in the information age is a great boon for students.  But, if you don’t know how to organize all that info you might wind up drowning in it.

With so much information at our fingertips it becomes even more important to keep track of everything.  Trust me, as I have learned the hard way, being organized will pay off in the long run.  There are a number of good reasons to keep track of the Free Money you have applied for.  First off, you don’t want to waste time doubling up your efforts by applying for the same scholarship 3 times.  Many of these applications also need an essay.  If you are organized you will be able to keep track of these essays and you’ll find that certain essays are a fit for a number of Free Money applications.  The students who are winning multiple scholarships typically do so with just one or two very well-written essays.

In order to make things easier on yourself it helps to build a simple spreadsheet when you begin.  On that spreadsheet you’ll want to list out all the info pertinent to each Free Money opportunity.  The Company or Organization, the due date, amount of award, application requirements.  Do that for every single opportunity before you apply for anything.  At the end of a period of time, organizes that spreadsheet.  What you’ll discover is that many of these applications require the exact same information and have similar essay questions.  Taking a day to fill out all the applications rather than doing them one at a time will save you time and energy in the long run.

by: Dan Russell

Seeking out and applying for scholarships, fellowships, and grants is easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean slackers are rewarded. Just because you have access to so many more opportunities doesn’t mean you should take the application process lightly. I have always felt that people take more care to read and fill something out when they are doing it with pen and paper rather than by mouse and keystroke. I know I do. For some reason my attention span seems to lag when I scroll too long.

If you are like me, than straighten up and refocus. When it comes to filling out information for Free Money (as I will now refer to scholarships, fellowships, and grants) you don’t want to miss anything. For example, the survey form for fastweb.com’s scholarship search will probably take you a good 10 minutes to fill out. There are the typical questions about grades completed and GPA, as well as boxes to check for your extracurricular involvements. But then they proceed to ask questions about organizations, your parent’s jobs, and any number of unfortunate incidents that might have befallen you. In a word, it’s extensive. But that’s a great thing. The more you are able to tell them about yourself the more opportunities you’ll have to apply for Free Money.

Fastweb.com takes all of your answers and sources Free Money opportunities for you. There are far more than you could possibly dream of. There are scholarships for children of specific unions and professions, grants for children who are adopted or victims of domestic violence, and even money for students willing to create blogs for Corporations. The more you can tell Fastweb.com about yourself the more Free Money you will be eligible for. A quick word of advice though not to be dishonest or over embellish. You don’t want to be bogged down with opportunities that you truly aren’t eligible for. You may have written the best essay of all time for that AFL-CIO Scholarship, but if no one in your family is a member of the Union all you did was waste your time.

by: Dan Russell