- College is an ideal time to start building a credit history, which is vital later on when it’s time to open utility accounts, apply for car loans and mortgages, and even apply to rent an apartment.
- For those without credit history, the best way to start is to be added to a parent’s account, or open a secured credit card.
- After that, the smartest move is to open a “real” credit card, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
- Read more personal finance coverage.
Credit card debt can be brutal and punishing – as the total amount of credit card debt in the US jumped to nearly $US4.1 trillion this year, there’s no question that it’s something you generally want to avoid, especially if you’re younger and less financially stable.
This is a message that younger generations seem to have received loud and clear. Data suggests that millennials have been wary of cards, although a recent study shows that they may be starting to embrace them.
While that might seem like bad news, it’s actually a positive for the millennial generation, and as Generation Z reaches adulthood, it’s vital that they follow suit – responsibly, of course.
Why students should care about their credit profile
Virtually every American has a credit profile, which is a history of their use of credit, including accounts held, past borrowing, and payment history. Banks that issue loans and credit cards use the information in your credit profile to determine how trustworthy you are, and how likely it is that you’ll pay back whatever you may owe in the future.
Your credit score, meanwhile, is a numerical representation of all of the raw information in your credit profile. It’s made up of a few components, including your history of on-time payments, how much outstanding revolving debt you have proportionate to your total credit line, and the average length or age of your credit history.
Having a solid credit score isn’t just important for mortgages and loans, though. Most landlords will run a credit check before approving your application to rent an apartment. Similarly, companies like utility providers and cell phone carriers check your credit score to make sure you’ve displayed responsible payment behaviour in the past.
Why students should build credit with a card
The responsible use of credit cards is an essential part of establishing a healthy credit history, which is crucial for securing major consumer loans and mortgages. I’ve known people five, six, and seven years out of college who’ve had trouble opening utility accounts, or signing up for a now-needed credit card, because they had no credit history. That created a ton of headaches that would have been easier if they had started building credit during school.
Once you have a credit card, the key is to simply use it exactly as if it were a debit card.
A lot of the fear of credit cards comes from a misunderstanding of how they work. Just because you use one doesn’t mean you’re taking on debt – you can (and should) pay more than the minimum required payment each month. If you pay the full statement amount – or the full balance – before the due date each time, you won’t be charged any interest. Plus, you’ll be able to earn rewards or take advantage of various protections and benefits.
How students can build credit with a card
For students, there are three good ways to start building credit.
1. Become an authorised user on a parent’s account
When you’re added as an authorised user on a parent or other loved one’s account, you’ll get a card with your name on it, but connected to their account. A lot of parents might want to do this so that you have a card to use in case of an emergency, but there’s a second benefit.
Even if you never make a charge on the card, the entirety of that single account’s history will be added to your credit profile. Of course, it’s important that the account you’re added to doesn’t have any negative marks, so that you only have positive data points.
When I left for college, my mum added me to her oldest account, an Amex card. When I checked my credit report a few years later using Credit Sesame, I saw her entire account history on my profile as if it were mine – it showed “my” account as being older than I was!
How to build credit with a credit card
2. Open a secured credit card
If you’ve never been added to a parent’s account, or you aren’t able to be added, you still have an option – get a secured credit card.
A secured credit card is one where you put down a deposit – for example, $US200 – and then you get a card with a credit limit of the same amount. You can pay the card on time and prove that you’re responsible, and eventually upgrade it to an unsecured credit card and get your deposit back.
You can usually get a secured card from the primary bank you use for your checking account. Alternatively, Discover offers a solid option that even earns cash back.
3. Open a “real” credit card
Although being an authorised user on an account or having a secured credit card can help build your early credit, you should still open a “real” credit card as soon as you have that early history established. You can open a student credit card through wherever you bank, but a better option is to open a solid cash-back or rewards card.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is an ideal option.
Why the Chase Freedom Unlimited is ideal for students
The Freedom Unlimited earns 1.5% back on all your purchases – no bonus categories to worry about. It has no annual fee, and it features an introductory 0% APR for the first 15 months, so if you want to break the rule and carry a balance for a few months (for instance, if you need to replace an ageing laptop but it’s a bit too pricey right now) without paying interest, this provides a great opportunity (after the introductory APR offer, a variable APR of 16.74% to 25.49% applies – so you should definitely pay off the balance by then).
While there are a few cards out there that offer 2% cash back, the real appeal of the Freedom Unlimited is that while the card is marketed as “cash back,” it actually earns Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (UR) points that you can redeem for cash (1 point = $US0.01).
Down the line, when you’re ready to upgrade to a card that earns better rewards, you could consider opening the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card so you can start enjoying free travel by using your points. You can pool your points from the two cards, and get a bonus when purchasing travel through Chase, or transfer them to travel partners like British Airways and Hyatt.