By Mary Grace Heath

Credit cards can be a great tool to have in college. They can help you develop good spending habits, earn rewards and build your own credit history, which will be important if you want to buy a house one day.

But credit cards can also become a dangerous burden if they are used incorrectly, leaving students in major debt. Sometimes students don’t recognize the consequences debt can have until they are too far in.

Matt Goren, a financial planner and professor at the University of Georgia, said the root of college students’ credit card debt problems is likely the same reason other people may have issues with credit cards.

“They don’t realize how much money they are spending in such a short period of time,” Goren said. “They have this feeling like it is “free money” so they can pay it off later, and it is so far into the future that they do not have to worry about it right now.”

In college, some students gain independence for the first time and begin to live on their own as well as making their own income. While this new feeling of freedom is born, the social life of college grows, and students look for an alternative way pay for their new lifestyle. That is when the temptation of credit card debt can slip in.

Jonathan Morgan, 23, a finance student at the University of Georgia, said he got into credit card debt quickly when he began college.

“Credit card debt was an immediate temptation upon starting college. I had new independence, a decent part-time job, and was living on my own for the first time,” explained Morgan. “The lack of discipline ended up getting me into trouble.”

A lot of responsibility comes with having a credit card. Knowing what you should use them on and remembering to pay them off on time is essential or you will end up paying more later in interest. People take on more debt as the interest accrues on their card’s unpaid balance.

Jack Kurtz, 24, a University of Georgia graduate with a degree in marketing, shared a scenario of student credit card debt and the high interest rates associated with it.

“For college students, interest rates on debt are usually around 20 percent, meaning that for every dollar in debt you will owe an additional 20 cents each year,” said Kurtz. “If you are currently $100 in debt, after one year you will owe $120; $144 after year two, and $172.80 after year three assuming you didn’t add to or subtract from your debt. The larger the debt, the faster the debt will grow.”

There is not silver bullet when it comes to repayment plans for credit card debt. There are steps to take to begin the process, but those steps might not always be “fun” and enjoyable.

“We need to increase your income and cut out all other expenses,” said Goren. “But that’s not sexy, that’s a boring thing. Work more, spend less and climb yourself out of debt, it’s not fun…. You just have to control your behavior for a little bit, and that’s it.”

Controlling your financial behavior in college can be extremely difficult for some students, but it is crucial when trying to pay off debt.

Morgan described a similar strategy from his own experience, where he had to manage his behavior and allow more income to come in while cutting out many of his expenses. He climbed his way to being debt free.

“I was fortunate to have my parents as a resource when trying to pay down my debt,” said Morgan. “Although they wouldn’t offer to pay my debt for me, they did let me live with them for several months, covered my living expenses and gave me the work I needed to make the money to bring my balances down.”

Seeking out advice about credit and understanding the negative sides of taking on too much debt are important before applying for a credit card. But if you are already in credit card debt, Goren suggested that you take a deep breath and start taking action to get out of it.

“Before you get (a credit card), look at yourself in the mirror and know can you use this thing responsibly and if you can’t at all then don’t get one,” Goren advised. “And if you do find yourself in debt, don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world, have patience and as long as it took you to go into debt it’s probably going to take you (that) long to get out of it, so all of these quick fixes, overnight it’s gone, generally that stuff doesn’t work… just work to pay it off.”