By Ian Allen
College students face a unique financial situation: they put a steady income on hold and instead spend an average of over $35,000 annually for their education according to EducationData.org.
Therefore, credit cards pose both unique benefits and threats to students, said Swarn Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
He said college students can find value in credit cards as emergency sources of liquidity and a way of building a strong credit history.
Chatterjee, who researches financial decision-making and counseling, explained that although credit cards can be a useful tool, any college student considering applying for one should first take stock of their own financial responsibility.
He said for the majority of college students, owning a credit card is likely more trouble than it is worth and that credit cards can “create problems if misused.”
Chatterjee emphasized that increased debt and financial stress can directly lead to a decline in mental health. He said it “spills over into grades, job performance and human capital development.”
He also said that though credit cards can be helpful in building credit, there are other ways to accomplish the same goal. NerdWallet suggested applying for a secured loan or becoming an authorized user on a family member’s credit account. Furthermore, cardholders risk negatively impacting their score if they surpass their credit limit.
However, for students like Manav Mathews, a senior at UGA, the financial risks of credit card ownership are not as severe.
Mathews, who owns two cards, described himself as “pretty financially responsible.” He will be entering the workforce soon after his graduation this May and has been accepted to attend Harvard Law School in 2023 through a junior deferral program.
Mathews uses his cards to earn rewards and build up his credit history. He treats them “like debit cards,” paying off their balances as soon as he can and only spending money he already has.
For students looking to apply for a credit card, Chatterjee explained that choosing the right card is essential. He recommended looking for cards with no annual fee, low interest rates and useful rewards programs.
And although credit limits vary from card to card, Chatterjee said they can be increased on a card over time. He said, “if someone manages their card well, then the credit limit will take care of itself.”
Chatterjee said the best places to begin looking for a student credit card are local credit unions, which tend to offer the best deals on interest rates. Otherwise, he recommended using online tools like CreditCards.com and NerdWallet to compare deals.
Elisa Fontanillas, a freshman at UGA, is in the process of researching credit cards. She has used a debit card to manage her money since high school, but some of the long-term benefits of a properly managed credit card have begun to appeal to her since starting college.
“At our age, it’s a little harder to build up your credit,” she said. She plans to find a low-interest credit card that she can use to build up her nonexistent borrowing history.
Fontanillas, unlike Mathews, is not expecting a steady source of income in the near future. For students in this situation, Chatterjee said having a parent or guardian as a cosigner on a credit card is a good idea. It makes applications more likely to be accepted and lowers interest rates, he said.
Chatterjee ultimately recommended that even financially responsible students only use a credit card as a source of funds in an emergency.
“It’s not money, it’s an emergency-use tool. Use it like that,” he said.
Ian Allen is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.