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HERE'S WHERE TO GET HELP PLANNING COLLEGE COSTS

If you have a teen-ager approaching college age, you're probably hoping some financial aid will come your way.

There's no way to be sure how much you can get, but you can get a pretty good idea about how much the family will be expected to contribute to college costs if you apply for a federally backed loan.

Sallie Mae, the government-authorized lender, has a calculator on its Internet site for estimating the Expected Family Contribution (http://www.salliemae.com).

You fill in data on the student's and parents' finances, and the number of household members and children in college.

The machine then tells you how much the parents and student would be expected to pay.

Even if college is years away, parents can use the calculator for "what if" exercises. You would see, for example, that the EFC is higher if the college savings have been put in the student's name rather than the parents'.

Or you can order Sallie Mae's free booklet, "Paying for College," by calling (800) 806-3681. Sallie Mae also has a hot line with aid experts available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at (800) 891-4599.

Also try the Department of Education's free 1997-1998 "Student Guide" and the brochure "Funding Your Education," which can be ordered at (800) 433-3243 or can be downloaded from http://www.ed.gov

Incidentally, the department has made it possible to fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid online through its Internet site (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov).

Hold cash-value policies 20 years

The Consumer Federation of America warns that cash-value life insurance policies often are a bust because consumers tend to terminate them before they turn a profit.

"If you do buy a cash-value policy -- and they can be good investments -- you must hold the policy 20 years; that must be your commitment," said James Hunt, an actuary with the consumer group who analyzed the rates of return of 4,000 such policies.

Only in year 15 do the returns even start looking attractive.

But 25 percent of buyers relinquish their policies in the first two to three years, losing most, if not all, their investment, he said. Fifty percent terminate in the first 10 years.

"For consumers who don't know what they're doing when they buy life insurance . . . probably the best advice is to stick to term insurance," said Hunt.

Currency help for travelers

For those who are traveling abroad this summer, here are a few online ways you can find out the value of the U.S. dollar against foreign currencies:

Thomas Cook -- (http://www.thomascook.com). Select "currency converter" and follow the fun and easy 4-step process.

Currencies of the World -- (http://pacific.commerce.ubc.ca/xt/). The Policy Analysis Computing & Information Facility in Commerce at the University of British Columbia Web page, which provides a currency exchange rate chart for 65 countries. Select "Table" for rates.

T(at)p Online's Currency Converter -- (http://www.taponline.com/tap/travel/xenon.html) or (http://www.traveloco.com/tools/xenon.html). Provides an easy-to-use exchange rate converter.

Universal Currency Converter -- (http://www.xe.net/currency/). Another good currency exchange rate site that provides conversion in English and Swedish.

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