Credit Card 101 For College Students:

Heading to college this fall? Whether it's your first year in school or your last, you probably already have some expectations about how things will go. Freshmen may be dreading the infamous weight gain, sophomores and juniors may be happy to be a year closer to graduation, and seniors will look forward to finally getting a degree.

It's probably safe to say, however, that you're not planning on racking up a lot of credit card debt as you go through college. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens to many college students.

The average credit card debt for college seniors is $4,100, according to a 2009 study by Sallie Mae. Eighty-four percent of college kids have at least one credit card, and the average balance for all college kids is $3,173, the study showed.

If you haven't already been offered a credit card while at college, chances are you will be. More than three quarters of college students say credit card companies have marketed to them through tables set up on or near campus, one U.S Public Interest Research Group study showed.

While that offer of a free iPod just for applying may seem like a great deal at the time, don't forget your credit card application will affect your credit report. Credit bureaus track new credit applications as part of their reporting process. Total available credit and number of credit inquiries are also factors in determining your credit score.

If you're thinking about getting a credit card for college, keep these tips in mind:

* Check your credit report and score first. Websites like allow you to view your credit score, which is a snapshot of your credit history and status. The site's Credit Score Center can help you understand exactly how credit scores work, how they are calculated, what factors impact them and when is the best time to apply for credit.

* Be skeptical and inquisitive about credit card offers. Be sure you understand the terms and conditions that will apply to your new card. That zero percent interest rate for the first 12 months may sound great, but will the rate leap to 30 percent if you're a day late making a payment?

* If you don't already have one, open a checking account and consider making it a joint account with one of your parents. You'll need that account to pay your credit card bill, even if you pay online and never write a check. Setting up automatic payments online can be a great way to ensure your payments are never late or missed.

* Avoid using your credit card for consumables. For example, it makes sense to use credit to buy a new laptop; it will allow you to divide the cost into smaller, manageable payments that you can make over a few months. It doesn't make sense to use credit to pay for a tank of gas or lunch at a fast-food joint. The debt will linger longer than the item you purchased.

* If you can't afford to pay off a purchase in a couple of months, you probably can't afford that purchase at all. Only use your credit card for items you know you can pay off quickly, because the longer you carry the balance and pay interest, the more expensive the item becomes.

A credit card can be a useful tool to help you through your college years. Just be sure to follow good credit use practices to ensure student loans are your only debt once you graduate.

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