College students + credit cards = colossal debt

BlogHer Original Post

How much credit-card debt do you think the average college student has racked up? On how many credit cards? And how likely is this student to be behind on his or her credit card payments?

The answers, according to one recent survey of students in New Hampshire: The average recent graduate carries $4,500 in credit-card debt. Twenty-one percent of first-year college students are four months or more behind on their payments, and 42 percent of the college students surveyed had at least six major credit card accounts--and that's not counting gasoline cards or store-issued credit cards.

Ack! How did this happen?

Well, if you've been on a college campus in the past several years, chances are you've seen credit card companies giving students incentives--most commonly t-shirts--for filling out credit card applications. While the students may get a t-shirt or water bottle out the deal, what they're not getting--credit card counseling and personal financial advice--is far more significant.

Some states are hoping to change that trend, restricting who's eligible to have a credit card, and some colleges have asked credit card companies not to solicit on their campuses. In addition, a coalition of bankruptcy lawyers and judges are using their collective experience and wisdom to influence youth to adopt reasonable spending habits early on. The Arizona Republic explains the origin and workings of the Credit Abuse Resistance Education program:

The CARE program was created by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John C. Ninfo II in the Western District of New York who didn't like what he was seeing among young people facing him in the courtroom.

According to Ninfo, 60 percent of students said they never had a serious conversation with their parents about money.

Now in 47 states, the program is taught by bankruptcy lawyers and judges. The presentation and discussion covers topics including: how credit cards work, what is good credit, what happens when credit is misused; as well as teaching about savings, creating a budget and living within their means.

College debt is a problem in Canada as well, with the Toronto Star reporting that many students graduating from college are "drowning" in both student loan and credit card debt.

If you go looking for posts by young people trying to recover from credit card debt, you'll be met with story after sad story of college graduates whose debt load is unmanageable, and whose career choices are limited as a result. If you're carrying as much debt as some of these graduates, chances are you'll have to go into, say, consulting or sales instead of pursuing full-time your dream to be a musician or artist. One recent example: Marie, a relatively recent college grad, has a total debt of $72,000--but that's down from $85,000 a year ago.

The College Board offers these common-sense tips to students who are interested in--or who have already signed up for--a credit card:

  • Read all application materials carefully—especially the fine print. What happens after the "teaser rate" expires? What happens to your interest rate if you're late with a payment or fail to make a payment? What's the interest rate for a cash advance?
  • Consider using a debit card instead of a credit card. Money is deducted directly from your checking account, so you can't spend more than you actually have.
  • Use credit only if you're certain you will be able to repay the debt.
  • Avoid impulse shopping on your credit card.
  • Save your credit card for a money emergency. (Using your card to pay for a spring break vacation doesn't count.)
  • Carry only the cards you think you'll use.
  • Pay bills promptly to keep finance and other charges to a minimum.

There's also plenty of advice out in the blogosphere. Stephanie of Poorer than You offers some financial advice to college students, and Tisha Kulak offers advice specifically tailored to college students new to credit cards. Ellen Day explains some options to a college student with a new $48,000 salary, $11,000 in student loans, and debt on three credit cards as well. Plenty of great advice can be found, too, at the Broke Grad Student blog, which recently hosted a Carnival of Personal Finance.

Students interested in helping to keep others out of credit card debt have until March 19 to participate in the "Keep It In Your Pants" contest, which calls on middle-school through grad students to produce public-service message videos about credit card debt. The prize is $5,000 to offset school expenses.

What about you? Did you graduate from college with credit-card debt? (Grad school did me in.) If you have children, will you send them off to college with credit cards in their hands?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. When she's not struggling to pay down her college loan debt (Hello, 30-year repayment plan!) or her credit card debt (thanks to a husband with crappy teeth and a broken dog), she blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.


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