If you plan to borrow money to finance your college education, play it smart and look before you leap.

Unfortunately, not everyone does. Approximately half of all college freshmen who take out student loans don't even know much they will owe, according to a study from the Brown Center on Education Policy.

“Students who do not have a good idea of their level of borrowing are likely to be surprised or even fearful when their first loan payments come due,” said study authors Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos in a public statement.

If you want to save money in the long run, take an organized approach to deciding whether, and how much, to borrow.

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Step 1: Estimate your costs

Get in touch with your school's financial aid office, even if you haven't yet formally enrolled. Ask them to help you estimate how much your education will cost, including tuition, books, fees and living expenses.

If you haven't yet decided on a school, do some research online. Many colleges offer an online “net price calculator” that helps you to estimate the cost of attending. The College Board hosts many of these calculators on their website so you can compare prices at different institutions.

Step 2: Look elsewhere for the money

“Basically, if you can pay for something any other way than borrowing, then you should do so,” according to the Carnegie Mellon Financial Aid website. In other words, after estimating costs, see if you can your college financial needs via scholarships, part-time jobs, internships, grants or help from family.

You can apply for all forms of financial aid from the federal government at once, via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The government doesn't charge a fee for completing this application, so if a private service offers to “help” you with it, the Department of Education says to turn them down. It's probably a scam.

Total up all funds from these sources, then subtract it from your costs. Now you know how much, if any, you need to borrow.

Step 3: Look at federal loans

The federal government has four different loan programs for students. According to the Department of Education, these often have the best terms, which might include:

  • No credit check
  • Fixed interest rate (which means the rate won’t increase)
  • Lower interest rates
  • Flexible repayment options
  • No payments while in school
  • Deferment options
  • No prepayment penalty
  • Loan forgiveness if you enter public service

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Step 4: Look at private loans

If the federal government won't lend you the money, you can still apply to banks, state agencies, your school or other lenders for a private student loan. Terms aren't always as good as a federal loan, so experts at the Stanford University Financial Aid office suggest asking these questions:

  • Is the lender reputable?
  • What are the loan origination fees?
  • When do I have to start making payments?
  • What is my interest rate and monthly payment?
  • Can the lender raise my interest rate or monthly payment after I've borrowed the money?
  • Is there a prepayment penalty?
  • Is there a balloon payment?
  • Are there any deferment or forbearance options?

While many honest private-sector lenders exist, beware of scam artists who try to snare you into high-priced loans. The FTC warns deceptive sales practices include names or logos that look like a government agency, high-pressure sales tactics and free gift offers. Some will even steal your personal information and sell it on the black market, so never give it out until you're certain that the lender is legit.

Step 5: Estimate your monthly payments

The College Board's online Student Loan Comparison Calculator allows you to enter different loan amounts and interest rates to see what your monthly and total repayment may be for both federal and alternative loans.

The Department of Education's online Repayment Estimator provides similar information, with estimates according to different payment plans, such “Income Contingent” or “Pay as You Earn.”

Step 6: Estimate your future earnings

Find out if the average salary in your chosen profession is enough to pay off your loans quickly and comfortably. You don't want to combine a champagne-level debt with a beer-level job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook lists everything from median pay for different jobs to employment outlook.

Try not to borrow more than 10 percent of what you expect to make during your first year after finishing college, the Carnegie Mellon Financial Aid office suggests. That makes it possible to pay it off within ten years.

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David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.