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Pay for College Blog - Tips on reducing the cost of college

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Charge It, Please: College Costs and Credit Cards

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May, 
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2010

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With the economy still sluggish and students struggling to make ends meet, it has become increasingly common for students to pull out the plastic to cover the college bills–and that could mean trouble in a world where student debt seems to be ever increasing.

Teaching your child the ins and outs of budgeting for college and how to responsibly use credit cards could mean the difference between graduating free and clear, and stepping into the world of adulthood with a shackle of consumer debt. If you want my two cents, that difference is definitely worth a quick conversation.

Colleges, Congress and Credit Cards

While parents may not be too keen on handing their eighteen-year-old a brand new credit card, colleges are beginning to see it as the new norm. In fact, college bookstores have been lobbying hard to get their vendor side credit card fees reduced for years–and Congress has finally done something about it.

A recent amendment passed in the Senate would lower and regulate the processing fees that banks charge vendors who take credit card payments. Reducing these fees, which are often charged to consumers through higher prices, might actually end up helping students who routinely use their cards to cover the costs of books and tuition.

To Use or Abuse?

Last year I reported on a Sallie Mae statistic that showed the average college student to have $3,173 in credit card debt. That is a large number for any student–not to mention those grappling with growing student loan debt and the tough job market.

You can help your child choose to use (but not abuse) a credit card by discussing the basics of credit card use in college terms. For example:

  • Do Your Research. Not all credit cards are created equal. First-time card holders should do their research before applying for and obtaining a card. Students should look for a card with a (relatively) low interest rate - not just a low introductory rate -and no annual fees.  (Keep in mind a “low” interest rate for a first-time card holder will be quite a bit higher than a card belonging to a borrower with established credit.)
    .
  • Loans, Not Cards. Credit cards should never be used as a source of college funding. By filing the FAFSA, students that need an education loan can qualify for government student loans like the Stafford or the Perkins loans which have a much lower interest rate than a credit card.
    .
  • Only Spend What You Have. The best way for students to use a credit card is simply to treat it like a debit card–only charge something if you have the cash in the bank. Cards should be paid off in full every month to avoid revolving debt and the interest charges that go along with it.

The Upside of Credit Cards

As intimidating as they may seem, credit cards don’t have to be a negative for your student. A properly managed card can help students establish their credit score, which can help them qualify to rent an apartment or get a car loan further down the road.

Once your student has learned to manage a basic credit card, he or she can also look into a rewards card.  Rewards cards can help them get cash back on their purchases.  Yet again, parents and students need to do their research! Not all cards are created equal–some offer cash back while others offer airline miles or points towards gift cards. Some offer a higher rewards percentage on purchases like gas and groceries than on other purchases. (Rewards cards, too, can carry high annual fees or interest rates; and abusing or neglecting a card like this can lead to a heavy debt load.)

Remember, educating your child about building good credit and keeping a low level of debt now can really give your child a boost when graduation arrives!

All the best,
Deborah Fox

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