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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: As a senior in college, I have learned many things, but I have one important lesson to share with anyone who is just beginning a college career.

In my freshman year, I was bombarded with credit card applications promising great rates and free merchandise for signing up. I couldn't resist accepting, but promised myself I would use credit cards only for emergencies.

Well, here I am about to graduate and I now owe several thousand dollars on my cards. I calculated that if I pay only the minimum each month, it will take me 12 years to pay off what I owe. The sad fact is that I have nothing to show for this debt. Much of it was for meals with friends, going out to clubs and living beyond my means.

Some tips I wish I had been given to me before signing up for those cards:

(1) Live within your means. College can be about having fun, but you can do that without going into debt. Be creative and expand your horizons.

(2) If you cannot pay cash for a meal at a restaurant, do not eat out. Eat at the school cafeteria or make a sandwich.

(3) The new CD or DVD you want will still be around when you can afford it. Listen to the radio or rent a movie instead of buying it on credit.

(4) Rather than going to a club or movie with a group of friends, find inexpensive activities (like playing cards or board games) and spend your evening enjoying them. You'll be amazed at what you can save.

(5) If your college offers a class on managing credit and credit cards -- take it! If you have already resolved never to rely on credit, it will only reinforce that decision.

I hope you deem this letter important enough to print, Abby. Credit card debt is a huge problem for many college students. I should know. -- COLLEGE SENIOR WHO LEARNED THE HARD WAY

DEAR COLLEGE SENIOR: Thank you for your timely warning for freshmen entering college this fall. And now I have one for you: You have learned an expensive lesson. Credit counseling may help you consolidate your debts and ensure that you don't destroy your credit history before you have even established one. Check your phone directory for a list of credit counseling services or visit www.nfcc.org to locate one that's a member of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit (NFCC).

Good luck, grad!

DEAR READERS: Today is Father's Day. I offer good wishes not only to fathers everywhere, but also to those caring individuals who donate their time mentoring youngsters whose fathers are absent or deceased.

Many readers have asked me for a prayer in memory of a father who is no longer living. The following is from my Hebrew Union Prayer Book. It is one that is recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is also available in my "Keepers" booklet:

IN MEMORY OF A FATHER

"Thy memory, my dear father, fills my soul at this solemn hour. It revives in me thoughts of the love and friendliness which thou didst bestow upon me. The thought of these inspires me to a life of virtue; and when my pilgrimage on earth is ended and I shall arrive at the throne of mercy, may I be worthy of thee in the sight of God and man. May our merciful Father reward thee for the faithfulness and kindness thou has ever shown me; may he grant thee eternal peace. Amen."

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby -- Keepers Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)

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