The dollars and cents of student credit cards

Robin Heim

Everyone knows how fun a trip to their V.U Box can be. There could be anything in there – a care package from Mom, a magazine or maybe even some spending money from the grandparents. While the possibilities seem endless, most of us have found ourselves peering into a mailbox filled with nothing but credit card offers.

Don’t let the words “Congratulations, College Student! You’re pre-approved” fool you into feeling special. That same enticing envelope (especially when it’s the only mail you have) is sent to everyone in the hopes that some will accept the offer, spend money that they don’t have and eventually pay their company interest for years to come.

For the well-informed and financially responsible student, a credit card can be a good thing. Not only does it teach financial independence, but building good credit will make it easier to apply for loans, buy a house or a car and conduct other business in the future. For many college students, however, credit cards can start a life-long battle with debt.

According to a survey conducted by Nellie Mae, a leading provider of student loans, 21 percent of undergraduates with credit cards reported that they pay off all cards each month; 44 percent say they make more than the minimum payment but generally carry forward a balance; 11 percent say they make less than the minimum required payment each month.

This means that 55 percent of students have to pay interest on the things that they buy. Until the entire balance is paid off, more and more interest accrues and more money is owed; some companies charging upwards of 20 percent interest on the unpaid balance! In reality, you could be 30 years old and still paying off a pizza you bought freshman year.

Junior Patty Llosa opened her first credit card account this summer and plans to pay off her bill each month. “I’m going to be responsible,” says Llosa. “Whenever I buy something with the card I’m going to make sure I have enough money to pay it off.”

As you jump online to accept the instant credit card offer, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, you want to find a card that does not have annual fees, a hidden charge that many college students do not take into account.

Second, find the card with the lowest interest rate possible so that if you do find yourself with a balance, your interest payments will be as low as possible. Better yet, use your card only when you are certain you can pay the full amount at the end of the month and avoid paying interest altogether.

For those not ready to handle a credit card, debit cards act the same way but take money directly out of your bank account so that you cannot spend what you do not have. Most major banks, including Wachovia, which has a branch here on campus, offer Visa or Mastercard debit accounts.

Junior Al Coco chose this option. “I always know my spending limit and do not end up needlessly giving interest to some company,” he says. Most importantly, if you find yourself in debt, talk with someone who can help you while it is still manageable. And as special as you may feel getting credit offers in the mail, do yourself a favor and throw them away.