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Should I Get a Credit Card as a College Student?

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Going to college is, among other things, a four-year journey of self-discovery when you can leave home, spread your wings, and begin to make your own decisions.

It may also be a time when you start thinking about getting a credit card.

Before you rush to apply, you should consider the pros and cons of having a credit card as a college student.  

Do Most College Students Have Credit Cards?

Nearly 65% of college students have credit card debt, which means at least 12.7 million of the approximately 19.6 million students enrolled in a college or university in the United States have a credit card. So, it’s safe to say that most college students do have and use plastic.

Truth is, credit cards and the college experience go hand in hand. Students on average have more than $3,200 in credit card debt. The biggest sources of those expenditures? Online shopping and dining out.

Five good questions to ask yourself before choosing a credit card.

Is It Good for College Students to Have Credit Cards?

Whether or not it’s a good idea to have a credit card as a college student has a lot to do with your financial situation and the way you approach finances in general.

For example, if you have at least a part-time job that pays you consistently, it may make sense to open a credit card. Having and using a credit card wisely will help you establish or build credit, which will make it easier to secure loans and other forms of credit after you graduate.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a steady income and you’re prone to spending freely, think long and hard before applying for a credit card. It’s easy to run up credit card debt if you aren’t careful, which could impact your financial well-being for years after you turn the tassel.

The best way to determine if a credit card is a good idea while you’re in college is to ask yourself some important questions and take an honest look at your finances.

Using a credit card wisely will help you establish or build credit, which will make it easier to secure loans after you graduate.

Pros and Cons of Getting a Credit Card in College

In many ways, getting a credit card while you’re in college can be a savvy financial move that offers a number of benefits. Credit cards can help you:

Build Credit

Although you can build credit without a credit card, paying with plastic is one of the quickest ways to establish a credit history. Your credit report details your credit activity over time and is used to calculate your credit score, both of which will impact your ability to secure loans and other forms of credit in the future.

A credit card can provide the safety net you need if your car breaks down (or any other emergency comes your way).

Learn to Manage Debt

Using a credit card to pay for pizzas and clothes while you’re in college is easy. Learning how to manage credit card debt effectively can be more difficult — but not impossible. You can do both by showing restraint, making payments on time, and keeping your credit utilization low.

Deal With Emergencies

Peace of mind is a beautiful thing, particularly when you’re a student who may not have a huge amount of savings or an emergency fund to help pay for the unexpected. A credit card can provide the safety net you need if your car breaks down or you have to visit the ER (or any number of things that may come your way while in pursuit of a degree).

Establish an emergency fund long before you get into hot water.

Earn Rewards

Sign-up incentives and perks for spending shouldn’t be the primary reasons to get a credit card in college. However, if you’re going to be paying with plastic anyway, rewards credit cards offer loyalty points, travel miles, or cash back benefits that can come in handy when you’re getting by on a college student’s budget.

A good rule of thumb is to treat your credit card like a debit card and only charge what you can afford to pay off.

Of course, there are downsides to having a credit card when you’re living in a dorm or crammed in a small apartment with other degree-seekers. If you aren’t careful about when and why you pay with plastic, you can potentially:

Develop Bad Spending Habits

The convenience of paying with a credit card can lead to bad spending habits if you grow accustomed to charging with little thought to how it impacts your overall financial situation. A good rule of thumb is to treat your credit card like a debit card and only charge what you can afford to pay off each month — and then do it.

Even a single late credit card payment can lower your credit score and put a negative mark on your credit report.

Damage Your Credit

Even a single late credit card payment can lower your credit score and put a negative mark on your credit report that remains for up to seven years. The best way to protect and build your credit history — not to mention avoid fees and penalties that accompany late or missed payments — is to pay at least the minimum amount due on your monthly credit card statement.

Rack Up Debt

Although making the minimum payment each month will keep you in good standing with your card company, credit card debt can quickly get out of hand with this approach. Interest charges are added to any portion of your bill that carries over to the next month and, when combined with any new purchases, creates a compounding effect that won’t stop until you start making larger payments and curb your spending.

Pros of Getting a Credit Card in College Cons of Getting a Credit Card in College
Helps build credit May create (or worsen) bad spending habits
Teaches you to manage debt Damages credit if you don’t pay bills on time
Provides a safety net for emergencies Can lead to huge debt if used excessively
Allows you to earn rewards  

Best Credit Cards for College Students

As a student, you generally have fewer credit card options than someone who’s in the workforce and has had more time to establish their credit history. Here are some cards to consider when you’re in school:

  • Student credit card. Designed specifically for young adults (age 18 and up) in college or grad school, student credit cards are usually unsecured cards that have lower credit limits than traditional credit cards. Some offer special benefits for students, such as perks for good grades, and may provide limited rewards like cash back for certain categories of purchases.
  • Secured credit card. With a secured credit card, you’re required to pay a cash deposit (usually $200-$300) that serves as your spending limit. The deposit is collateral that protects the credit card company if you don’t pay your bill. Secured cards are good for building or rebuilding credit, and many card companies allow you to upgrade to an unsecured card within a year.

 

Make debt work for you — learn the difference between good and bad borrowing.

  • Shared credit card. When a parent or other trusted person adds you as an authorized user, you receive a card in your name that’s linked to their credit card account. You can use the card for purchases just as you would if you were the primary cardholder, allowing you to build credit without having to apply for a card using your name or credit history.
  • Store credit card. Although you’re limited in where you can use and what you can buy with a store credit card, it’s typically easier to qualify for this type of credit account than a traditional credit card. The main reason to consider taking out a store credit card — which will almost certainly have a higher interest rate than a traditional card — is to build your credit while (perhaps) purchasing necessities like food and clothes. 
It’s typically easier to qualify for a store card than a traditional credit card.

Credit Cards for College Students With Poor Credit

If you have poor credit (550 or below credit score) or none at all, your best chance for being approved is to apply for a secured credit card or get added as an authorized user to an existing account. A student card may be another possibility, depending on the lender and assuming the cause of your poor credit rating isn’t a history of not paying your bills.

Credit Cards for College Students With Good Credit

On the other hand, if your credit score is 670 or higher, you have a much wider range of options. Student cards, secured cards, authorized user accounts, and store cards seem like no-brainers, but you should also research rewards cards and cards that feature no fees, low or no APRs, and other perks.

You shouldn’t have trouble finding a credit union or bank willing to at least consider issuing you a credit card.

How to Get a Credit Card as a College Student

You shouldn’t have trouble finding a credit union or bank willing to at least consider issuing you a credit card. Offers for student cards usually begin arriving in the mail and your inbox months before you step foot on campus.

Of course, applying for a credit card as a student and actually being approved are two different things. You can improve your chances of qualifying by familiarizing yourself with the application and approval process before submitting any forms.

Once you’ve done your research, you’ll need to apply for the credit card that seems right for you. It’s an easy process that can be done online on the card company’s website.

Looking for help with a PenFed credit card? Try our help center.

If you’re ultimately approved for a credit card, be smart about when, where, and how often you use it by following some common-sense tips for credit card first timers. The sooner you establish good credit card habits, the better. 

The sooner you establish good credit card habits, the better.

The Takeaway

Getting a credit card has become a rite of passage for millions of students pursuing a postsecondary education.

Before you follow others’ leads and apply for your first piece of plastic, make sure you’re prepared — both mentally and financially — to accept the responsibility that comes with being college-age cardholder.

That’s a life lesson that will serve you well while in school and well after you receive a diploma.

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