Should College Students Get Credit Cards?

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Should a college student get a credit card? Sure, a credit card can make it easier to pay for schoolbooks or shop online. But of all the reasons college students might want to get a credit card, the most important is their financial future. Without a credit card in college, you may find it harder to rent an apartment, get approved for a car loan or get credit after you graduate. Find out how getting a credit card now can make your life easier later on.

How College Students Can Benefit From Having Credit Cards

Think of your first credit card as training wheels for your adult financial life. If you can handle one credit card with a low credit limit responsibly now—while your parents may still be willing to help you out of any jams—you'll be better prepared to manage rent, utilities and car payments once you graduate. Here are some other benefits of getting a credit card in college:

  • You'll build a credit history. If, like most students, you have few or no credit accounts, you have what is called a "thin" credit file. This means credit bureaus don't have enough information about your use of credit to assign you a credit score. The earlier you get a credit card, the earlier you can start to build your credit history.
  • You'll learn the basics of credit management and score tracking. Paying your credit card balance in full and on time every month will help improve your credit score. You should also check your credit report regularly to monitor your credit score and spot any mistakes or warning signs that someone is fraudulently using your credit.
  • You'll be prepared for financial crises. If an expensive emergency such as an unexpected medical bill or car breakdown strikes, you may not have enough cash in your bank account to cover the cost. Having an emergency credit card in your wallet can give you and your parents peace of mind, especially if you attend college far from home.
  • You can earn rewards. Some student credit cards offer rewards such as airline miles, cash back on purchases or credits for maintaining a certain GPA. They aren't as extensive as the rewards regular credit cards offer, but even a $20 credit can be a windfall for a college student on a tight budget.

Do you feel confident you know how to manage money responsibly? Maybe you've been stuffing your piggy bank since you opened a lemonade stand in first grade, or paid cash for your first car at 16. If you're a financial whiz, you may even want to get more than one credit card. As long as you make your payments on time, having multiple credit cards can help you build your credit history and improve your credit score. Learn more about how many credit cards a college student should have.

Signs Students Should Hold Off on Getting a Credit Card

Of course, some people just aren't ready for the responsibility of a credit card in college. Do you have (or have you ever had) a job? Are you the one always treating your friends to lunch? Does your phone buzz nonstop with alerts from your bank that your checking account balance is in the single digits? Do you wish your school offered a major in shopping?

If managing money is an ongoing challenge for you, getting a credit card in college probably isn't a good idea. Credit cards can tempt you to spend more than you can afford. If your credit card balance climbs too high, it could damage the very credit score you're trying to establish.

If you aren't yet ready for a credit card, start by opening a checking and savings account, putting money into savings on a regular basis, and using your debit card responsibly.

How to Get a Credit Card as a Student

If you're sure you're ready to handle a credit card, where do you start? As a student with little or no credit history, here are the best ways to get your first credit card:

  • Get a secured credit card: Secured credit cards can be useful tools to help college students build a credit history. They function like any other credit card, with one important difference: You have to make a security deposit when you apply. This amount typically ranges from $200 to $2,000 and typically serves as your credit limit. By making regular monthly payments, you build a credit history, and as your credit score improves, you may qualify for a regular credit card from the same issuer. When you apply for a secured card, ask the issuer if they report to the credit bureaus—not all do.
  • Get a student credit card: If you have your own income, even from a part-time job, you may qualify for a student credit card. Designed for college students, these cards usually have lower credit limits than traditional credit cards, and often have less stringent income requirements too. In addition to demonstrating income, you'll need to be 18 or over, prove that you're enrolled in college and pass a credit check to get a student credit card.
  • Become an authorized user on someone else's card: A parent or other family member can add you as an authorized user on one of their credit cards. (Check with the credit card issuer first to make sure that payment history will be reported on your credit report as well as the primary cardholder's; otherwise, it won't help build your credit history.) You'll get your own card, be able to make purchases and benefit from the primary cardholder's good credit habits. The primary cardholder is ultimately responsible for the payments. To stay in their good graces, agree on a limit to how much you can charge and how you'll pay your share of the bill each month.

Before applying for any credit card, get a free credit report so you can make sure there are no mistakes or problems. With your first credit card in hand, you'll be on the road to a bright financial future.