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Headed for College : Getting Personal

Don’t let “personal finance” throw you – it’s just you and your money, literally. Of course, that’s not nothing – personal finance covers everything from your budget to your investments to your retirement plans.

Right now, though, the big concern is day-to-day finance. Checking accounts. Books. Making money. The way we see it, you can learn about it now, or wait until you make a mistake. We suggest now.

The first thing you’ll want to do is open a bank account. You need it to pay bills, and anyway it’s a lousy idea to carry all your cash around with you. The question is, what should you know about when you walk into the bank?

Savings accounts
Like the name says, these are a good way to start saving money. You won't earn much interest, but your money’s always there if you need it. Check for minimum balances and monthly fees -- big monthly fees defeats the purpose here.

Checking accounts
This is your workhorse, the account you’ll use for writing checks and using ATMs and debit cards. Be sure to check your monthly statement against your own transaction records (you are keeping transaction records, right?) to make sure neither you nor the bank has made any mistakes. (Click here to learn how to read your bank statement and reconcile your checking account.) And make sure you keep track of your account balance -- if you bounce a check, it could cost you as much as $30, sometimes more.

Everyone knows what these are, but not everyone uses them wisely. Find out how many your bank has, and whether there’s a charge to use them – or to use other banks’ ATMs. And remember: it’s not free money. Keep track of your withdrawals or you’ll overdraw your account.

Debit cards
It works like a credit card, but acts like a check. Funds are immediately withdrawn from your account, so you can’t spend more than you actually have in your account – in other words, it's a great way to avoid racking up credit card debt. Again, keep track of  your transactions or you could overdraw your account, which is the same as bouncing a check.

Credit unions
Credit unions work like banks, but membership is usually limited to people with a particular common bond – teachers in a union, for example, or students at a particular university. However, a credit union is owned and controlled by its customers, so it usually offers lower than average service fees and minimum account balances.

Do some research before you join a credit union. Make sure the customer service is rated well, and check the interest rates and fees against those of the banks.

Online banking
Most banks nowadays let you bank online. It’s incredibly convenient for you—feel like checking on whether or not you’ve got enough coin to take off for spring break in the middle of an all-nighter? Not a problem. Make sure your bank offers online banking, and check to make sure that any fees they charge for online banking are reasonable. (No fees is the most reasonable, obviously.) You’ll want to use online banking, too – setting automatic payment plans for regular bills (like car payments, for example) is a great way to avoid late payment and finance charges.

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