If You’re off to College, Learn to Keep Your Credit Card in Your Wallet: Tips for Managing Your Money

Study Shows College Students Are Piling Up Record Debt, Says I.I.I.

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NEW YORK, August 26, 2009 — In the midst of the worst economic times in years, many of today’s college students are turning to credit cards to finance their college education, using them for everything from everyday necessities to books and tuition. But now more than ever students need to resist the temptation to use their credit cards to make up for the lack of cash in their wallets, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).
A recent study by Sallie Mae, a leading provider of student loans, shows that students are using their credit cards more and more frequently, and racking up more debt than in years past. According to the study, the average undergraduate carried $3,173 in credit card debt in 2008. College seniors graduated with an average of $4,138 in credit card debt, up 44 percent from 2004.
“This year, college students are going to find it much harder to make ends meet because everything is more expensive and interest rates on credit cards have gone up. If they’re not careful, by the end of the year, many students will have dug themselves into a financial hole that will be very hard to get out of,” said Jeanne M. Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson for the I.I.I.
Eighty-four percent of all incoming freshman will have a credit card when they arrive on campus and most undergraduate students will have four or more cards by the time they graduate, according to Sallie Mae.  
“A person’s credit history begins with a first credit card,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “Most young people are surprised to learn that their credit history will affect them in a myriad of ways including the ability to rent an apartment, finance the purchase of a car, insurance, even when applying for a job.”
Parents and students need to work together to develop a financial plan for college. Specific educational expenses including tuition, room and board, books and fees can be viewed as “good debt” and can be covered through student loans, grants and the like. Day-to-day college expenses, including personal needs, transportation costs, telephone and other incidentals, are the types of expenses that students should not charge on credit cards.
“In most cases, college is the first opportunity for young people to make independent financial judgments,” pointed out Salvatore. “Carrying high, unpaid balances is one of the quickest ways to incur too much debt and fall behind in payments. If college students plan to use a credit card regularly, they should have limits and know ahead of time where the money will come from to pay the bill at the end of the month.”
When deciding on a credit card, students should read the fine print and shop around for the best terms. Look for cards that:
  • Have an annual percentage rate (APR) at or below 15 percent
  • Offer a grace period of at least 25 days
  • Feature no annual fee 
To develop good financial habits, the I.I.I. suggests that students:
  • Plan and stick to a budget. Living within a budget is an important skill to master.
  • Pay bills on time. Students who pay bills on time will start to build a solid credit history. Late payments can also be expensive since they include stiff penalties and may result in an increase in the annual percentage rate (APR). 
  • Use credit responsibly. Remember, credit is a loan—one that will need to be re-paid with interest. 
  • Keep in touch with creditors. If students change residences and forget to tell their creditors, a series of lost bills can result in a black mark on a credit report. Such black marks stay on credit reports for seven years and significantly lower credit scores. Most students on campuses today have computers, which means they can take advantage of electronic billing and payment in order to avoid lost bills. 

What can you do to improve your credit score if it has been damaged?

  • Do not pay someone to "fix" your credit history. Some credit repair firms promise, for a fee, to get accurate information taken out of your credit report. Accurate information cannot be deleted from your credit report. Some credit repair firms promise to fix your credit report by challenging information it contains, but they charge you a fee to do so. This is something you can do for yourself without paying the fee. 
  • Create a plan to improve your credit over time. Pay your bills on time. Pay at least the minimum balance due, on time, every month. If you cannot make a payment, talk to your creditor. Work to reduce the amount you owe, especially on revolving debt like credit cards. 
  • Do not max-out your credit limit. As a general rule, keep limits on credit cards below 50 percent to avoid the risk of hurting your FICO® score. 
  • Limit the number of new credit accounts you apply for. New applications for credit in a short time will generally lower your credit-based insurance score.  
  • In addition to the number of cards, the limits and the amount you use them, it is also important to consider the APRs of the cards you are using. APRs are not currently reported by credit card companies to the credit bureaus, and therefore they cannot be explicitly considered when computing your FICO score. However, you should know the APR of all your cards so you can add debt to a low APR card and pay it off from a high APR card. Paying off cards with higher APRs devotes less money towards interest, and leaves more money available to pay down your balances. 
  • Keep at it. Your credit history will improve over time if you make changes now. If you manage your credit obligations effectively, your credit-based insurance score will improve as well. 
  • Consider credit counseling. If you find yourself in a financial bind, consider credit and money counseling. Information is available from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the American Center for Credit Education. Students should also consider taking advantage of the financial literacy programs that are offered by many colleges and universities. Information on how to improve your credit score used by lenders is available at www.myfico.com.  
  • You have the right to dispute any information in your credit report. By law, the credit reporting agency must provide you with a free copy of your credit report and must correct inaccurate or incomplete information at no charge to you. The three national credit reporting agencies are:

    - Equifax ~ http://www.equifax.com/ ~ 1-800-685-1111
    - Experian ~ www.experian.com ~ 1-888-397-3742
    - TransUnion ~ www.transunion.com ~ 1-800-888-4213 

For more information about credit-based insurance scores and a free copy of your credit report, you can access information from Fair Isaac® or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

The I.I.I. is a nonprofit, communications organization supported by the insurance industry.

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