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5 credit card tips for college students

University students doing group study
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College students have plenty to juggle, from classes to social activities and all the expenses that pop up in between. A great way to manage these expenses is with a credit card. When used correctly, students can start setting the stage early for a fulfilling financial future. Not all credit cards are the same and some may fit the bill for your personal expenses better than others. However, keeping a few fundamental tips in mind when navigating your finances with your first credit card as a college student can get you on the right track fast.

5 tips for college students using credit cards

1. One card is enough

Once you’re an eligible age to apply for a credit card, you’ll have plenty of options, but one card should be enough to handle your needs. Applying for multiple cards in a short amount of time and shoring up credit inquiries can affect your credit score. Limiting your credit card usage to one card can make your credit-building easier to manage on a hectic student schedule. You can narrow down cards you have the best approval chances for without a hard credit check using Bankrate’s CardMatch™ tool.

2. Only spend what you can pay back

Remember that the credit limit your issuer determines for your card is borrowed money. Whatever you spend, you will have to pay back. Plan to pay your credit card bill in full each month on the payment due date to avoid added interest charges. The best way to ensure you pay your bill and avoid interest is to only spend what you know you can pay back at the end of the billing cycle. You could also pay the minimum amount due, but be aware that you may be required to pay added interest, and those extra costs can add up quickly.

3. Always pay on time

It’s important to know how payment history affects your credit score. No matter how busy your schedule gets, make it a priority to pay your credit card bill. Payment history makes up 35 percent of your final score result in the FICO credit score model. Since payment history accounts for such a large chunk of your score, it’s crucial that you always make your credit card payments on time and strive to pay your bill in full each month to avoid added interest.

4. Build credit first, earn rewards second

You won’t be able to access some of the best credit cards later without building good credit now. If you’re in college and getting your first credit card, your primary focus should be to build up your credit history and a good credit score with responsible habits. Rewards and benefits are a great plus of using credit cards, but they can quickly get distracting. Aim to get a card that offers tools and incentives that focus on credit building like payment reminders, credit score trackers or credit limit increases after demonstrating consistently good credit habits.

5. When in doubt, pick a student card

As a student, you’re afforded a valuable asset in the credit card market: the student credit card. Student credit cards are designed with students in mind and many offer benefits geared toward student needs. The best student credit cards usually have fewer fees, better APRs than credit cards for no credit history and an option to upgrade to a non-student version after school.

The bottom line

Suppose you use this financial tool correctly throughout your college career. In that case, a credit card can help you build up a good credit history and score early while hitting some of your biggest financial milestones quicker and easier. Good credit comes with consistently good habits, so always pay your bills on time, don’t bite off more than you can chew, start slowly but stay consistent and always focus on what matters most for your financial future.

Written by
Ashley Parks
Credit Cards Author
As a Bankrate credit cards editor, Ashley Parks is fascinated by the ways people can make credit cards work for them when armed with the right knowledge.
Edited by
Editor