Student gets expensive 1st credit card lesson

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Dear Debt Adviser,
Hi. I’m an 18-year-old full-time college student. During my first semester I received a $500 credit card. Unfortunately I went over the limit and made no payments. My bill is now five months late and it’s doubled in amount. What should I do?
— Chrissy

Dear Chrissy,
As a student, you know you have to pay to get an education. Well, this class is going to cost you about $1,000. In some respects it’s better this happened now and not later when the stakes are higher and you stand to lose a home, family and some much bigger dollars!

As it stands now your bill has doubled in five months from late and over-the-limit fees in addition to interest charges that are probably close to 30 percent. The balance will continue to climb until you begin to make payments.

That’s where you need to start. Determine what you need to do to be able to make payments on the account. Get a job? If you get money from home, use that. Whatever it takes (that is legal of course!) to have enough money to make a regular monthly payment of at least $60 per month. You will most likely need a larger amount for the initial payment to the creditor, but $60 per month would have the bill paid in 22 months — assuming no additional charges. See for yourself with Bankrate’s “What will it take to pay off my credit card?” calculator.

You don’t say, but I am going to assume that you have not communicated with the creditor. Once you know where you’ll be getting the money and how much you will have to send in, that would be the next step. You are close to the period when the original creditor is likely to charge off the amount due as a tax loss and turn it over to a collection agency. If you can avoid dealing with a collection agency, that would be better.

Before you make that call, have a plan for how you will make payments that are acceptable to the creditor and that the amount is one you can realistically afford to pay. Assure the creditor you will make timely payments until the balance is paid in full. You will need to negotiate with the creditor to stop the late and over-the-limit fees or your payments will not make any significant dent in the balance. A first payment of $100 or more may be enough to convince the creditor to stop the fees. If not, you may need to enlist the help of an outside third party such as your parents or a credit counselor.

Next, get a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus and review how much damage has been done to your credit by not paying this bill. Look at this as your current grade in Personal Finance 101. You will need to improve this grade as many employers pull credit reports as part of making a hiring decision. A negative credit report can keep you from getting a good job.

Because you are young, you have the advantage of time on your side to rebuild your credit before you will need to launch your career or borrow any significant amount of money for a home or other large purchase. The best way to better your credit rating is to make payments on time every month for the next couple of years. That will get you a passing grade in Personal Finance 101!

I would be remiss as the Debt Adviser if I did not close this letter by telling you to stop using those other credit cards you may have gotten on campus until you dig yourself out of this mess. If you continue to charge, you will never get out of debt.

Good luck!

The Debt Adviser, Steve Bucci, is the president of Money Management International Financial Education Foundation and the author of “Credit Repair Kit for Dummies.” Visit MMI for additional debt advice or to ask a question of the Debt Adviser go to the “Ask the Experts” page and select “debt” as the topic.