This is it. The moment you’ve been waiting for. No, not just going to college. Getting your own credit card in college. Being on your own, buying things on your own. Not having to check with your parents to get that new phone.
Before you get too excited, though, you should know that there’s more to managing a credit card than making sure there’s money on it to cover taco night with your friends.
Your credit history is one of the most important factors of your financial life. This three-digit score will determine the loans you qualify for (one day you’ll buy your own car), the interest rate you pay, and even whether you’re approved for an apartment or a job.
Lenders judge your credit worthiness, essentially how likely you are to repay a debt on time, by obtaining your credit score. The higher the score, the better. Since you’re about to enter the credit world for the first time, here are some things to remember so you don’t hurt your score.
1. Don’t make late payments
Even the most organized people sometimes run late. While your parents may go easy on you, don’t expect that creditors will. Your timeliness —or lack of it —around bill payment accounts for 35% of your credit score. Paying just a few days after the due date won’t necessarily mark you a poor credit risk, but repeat offenses will. And serious offenses have a great affect. Late payments are categorized by the degree of lateness: 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 120 days, 150 days or charge-off (when your balance is declared as a loss by your creditor because you haven’t paid your debt).
2. Don’t let unpaid debts go to collections Speaking of charge-offs, when you don’t pay a credit card you leave the creditor in a jam. The same goes for unpaid cellphone bills and almost any bill —even a parking ticket or late library fee. After a certain period of delinquency, the creditor can no longer count your debt as an asset and will charge it off its books —an action that is reported to credit bureaus. Don’t let the name fool you. A charge-off doesn’t mean the creditor has cancelled the debt and let you off the hook. On the contrary, this black mark on your credit reports alerts future lenders that you promised to pay back a debt and didn’t.
3. Don’t keep high balances or max out your cards The amount of debt you owe makes up 30% of your score. So carrying a big balance compared to your available credit on even just one credit card can indicate that you are overextended —and a potential risk.
4. Don’t exceed your limit
Your credit limit —or the respect you show it —also affects your credit score. If you have abused your credit privileges by regularly exceeding your credit limit, lenders may charge an over-the-limit fee, increase your interest rate or even close your account.
5. Don’t apply for multiple credit accounts
Establishing a credit history is a positive move —lenders like to see that you’ve been using credit well for years —but you may see a dip in your credit score when you open a new account. Why? Because each new debt represents a risk, since lenders don’t know why you got new credit or how you will handle it (though they can guess based on your history). Will you go on a shopping spree you can’t afford, or will you use the credit carefully and pay your balance as agreed?
6. Keep an eye on your credit report
As a consumer, you’re entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can get all three at annualcreditreport.com. The reports are free, but you have to pay a small fee to get your credit score. According to the Experian website, a credit score of 700 or above is generally considered good.
As a new college student, understanding the ins and outs of your newfound financial independence will help you succeed in and out of school.