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College Students and Recent Grads

A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Credit Card

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Are you thinking about opening a credit card? Or have you recently opened a card? You may be overwhelmed by the various terms associated with credit cards, but worry not — we’ve compiled a guide to walk you through the common fees you may encounter as well as how to use your credit card beneficially.

How credit cards work

On a basic level, credit cards are lines of credit that you can use over and over again as long as you pay off your balance. They’re a handy way to pay for purchases and can help you build credit when used responsibly. Credit cards usually have detailed terms and conditions that list fees, rewards, benefit restrictions and more. As a new cardholder, you may be confused by these terms, but we’re here to help you understand common features so you can avoid unnecessary fees.

Typical credit card terms

  • Annual fee: This is the fee you will be charged each year — if your card has one.
  • Credit limit: The maximum amount of credit you can charge on your card.
  • APR: This is the annual percentage rate or, simply, the interest rate you will be charged on balances carried. Since the rate is annual, divide it by 12 to get your monthly interest rate. Most often, this rate is variable and fluctuates with the prime rate, so your APR may change at any time.
  • Cash advance APR: If you use your card to take out cash, you will be charged at a higher interest rate versus regular purchases.
  • Penalty APR: This is a higher APR than you are typically charged and is often the result of a late payment or returned payment. The penalty APR can be in effect for several months or indefinitely, depending on the issuer.
  • Intro 0% period: You may be fortunate to have a credit card that offers an introductory period — upward of six months — where you can benefit from carrying a balance and not being charged interest during that time. The terms for these intro periods vary.
  • Late payment fee: If you pay late, you will incur a fee typically greater than $30.
  • Returned payment fee: Payments you submit that aren’t approved may be subject to a fee usually upward of $30.
  • Foreign transaction fee: Some cards charge a fee for purchases made outside the U.S. that is typically around 3%.
  • Cash advance fee: Cash advances you request most likely will be charged a 3%-5% fee of the amount requested.
  • Balance transfer fee: Any balances you transfer from an existing credit card to an eligible new card may be subject to a balance transfer fee, on average 3%-5% of the amount transferred.

Other common credit card features

  • Sign-up bonus: Your card may offer a sign-up bonus, which typically requires you to spend a certain amount within a given time period (usually three months) to receive a bonus.
  • Rewards: Many credit cards offer rewards programs that can earn you cash back, points and miles for purchases. This can be a great way to be rewarded for your spending, but don’t overspend and risk falling into debt for the sake of earning rewards.
  • Alerts: Issuers often let you set up fraud or balance limit alerts and reminders when it’s time for a payment.
  • Autopay: If available, set this up so you avoid late or missed payments.

Choose a card that fits your needs

There are numerous credit cards available for a wide range of needs from building credit to earning rewards, to getting out of debt and more. You should decide what your goal is with a credit card, then compare cards from various issuers prior to applying. Some issuers allow you to fill out a pre-qualification form that performs a soft pull on your credit to see if you may qualify for a card. This does not affect your credit score and is a great way to shop around for the best deals. One note: Pre-qualification is not a guarantee of approval.

Read our list of the best credit cards in a variety of categories to find a card for your needs.

Read the terms and conditions

An important step prior to applying for a credit card is to review the cardmember agreement. Each card has different rates and fees that vary based on any number of reasons, including credit history, actions you take (or don’t take), the prime rate in the market and more. It’s key to review the cardmember agreement so you’re aware of any fees you may be charged as well as how the card works. On our site, we’ve reviewed cards from top issuers as well as lesser known cards to help you make sense of some of the terms you face — but still be sure to read the cardmember agreement before you apply.

Practice responsible credit behavior

Make on-time payments. Perhaps the most important part of maintaining a credit card is to make timely payments. By doing so, you avoid late payment fees and penalty APRs that hurt your credit score. Autopay is a helpful feature to ensure your bill is paid on time, or you can set up reminders.

Pay your balance in full. A great goal is to always pay your bill in full so you don’t carry a balance. Any unpaid balance will be charged interest (unless associated with a promotion) and can cause you to rack up debt. This also negatively affects your credit score.

Avoid overspending. It’s common for people to mismanage their credit cards and be tempted to overspend, but with proper budgeting, you can avoid falling into debt. A good rule of thumb is to only spend what you can afford to pay at the time of purchase — this way you know you can pay off your balance. Also, if you have a rewards card, don’t overspend just to earn rewards because the debt you incur will counteract any rewards.

Keep a low utilization rate. The percentage of available credit you use is known as utilization, and is a factor in your credit score. It’s important to keep a low utilization rate so issuers see you’re not a risk. Constantly maxing out your card raises concerns for issuers and can cause you to fall into debt.

Check your monthly statements. By simply reviewing your monthly statements, you can proactively notice any fraud that may occur on your account and isn’t flagged by your credit card company. Most companies send notifications if they think there’s fraud on your account, but they don’t catch every instance of suspicious behavior.

Check your credit score and credit report. Checking your credit score on a monthly basis is a good habit to get into and can promote positive credit behavior. Read our guide for where to access your free credit score and other credit tips. It’s also a good idea to check your credit report every few months to make sure everything checks out and no unknown accounts are open in your name. Annualcreditreport.com is the only source for authorized credit reports from the three major credit bureaus and you can run one report every year for each bureau — we recommend spacing them out every four months.

Secure your card. Don’t leave your card unattended and don’t loan it to friends since neither of those actions have a positive result. Your card is your responsibility and should be treated with care. If you happen to lose your card or it’s stolen, contact your issuer immediately and put a hold on your account until your card is found or replaced.

Don’t request a cash advance. Cash advances are notorious for high fees and tricky terms than can draw you into debt, so it’s best to avoid them at all costs. If you need cash, look to personal loans, which may have better terms.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Alexandria White
Alexandria White |

Alexandria White is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Alexandria at [email protected]

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College Students and Recent Grads

What Is a Private Student Loan? Here’s the Must-Know Info You Need

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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College is more expensive than ever, and most students cover costs with a mix of savings, scholarships and federal student loans from the Department of Education. But what is a private student loan, and how does it fit into this picture?

Private student loans offer a way to cover a gap in funding if you don’t have enough after maxing out your available federal loans. But these private student loans differ from federal ones in major ways, so it’s crucial to understand what you’re getting into before signing on the dotted line.

Here’s what you and your family need to know.

What is a private student loan?

A private student loan is money you borrow from a private lender (such as a bank or credit union) to put toward your education. Most lenders require you to be enrolled at an eligible school to qualify for a loan.

Each lender sets its own criteria, which you’ll have to meet in order to get the loan. Some will let you borrow up to cost of attendance of your school, while others set annual borrowing limits.

If you qualify, many lenders will send the funds directly to your financial aid office to cover your tuition bill. Any remaining money will get sent back to you to use for living expenses or, if you don’t need it, to return to your lender. Note, however, that some lenders will send the funds directly to you instead, meaning it becomes your responsibility to use them for your tuition bill.

When you borrow, you’ll choose repayment terms, typically between five and 15 years. You’ll also likely get to choose between a fixed interest rate, which stays the same over the life of your loan, and a variable rate, which can start lower but might also increase over time.

Each lender could offer different rates and terms, so it’s important to shop around before a private loan to find the best one.

What’s the difference between a private and federal student loan?

As a college or graduate student, you can borrow private student loans from a banking institution, or you can take out federal student loans from the government. Here are the main ways in which private student loans differ from their federal counterparts:

  • Private student loans require a credit and income check. While anyone who qualifies for federal aid can borrow federal loans, private loans have stricter requirements. To qualify, you’ll need to meet certain criteria for credit and income — or apply with a cosigner who can.
  • You’ll probably need a cosigner. You can borrow federal student loans in your own name, but if you’re an undergraduate, you’ll probably need a cosigner (such as a parent or guardian) to take out a private student loan. Because their name is on your loan, the cosigner becomes just as responsible for repaying the debt as you are.
  • Private student loans have less flexible repayment plans. Federal student loans come with a variety of repayment plans, including income-driven repayment, graduated repayment, deferment and forbearance. Private lenders, on the other hand, usually offer plans between five and 20 years, which you select at the time of borrowing. Some lenders will let you postpone payments through forbearance if you lose your job or go back to school, but this isn’t guaranteed.
  • You might be considered in default after three missed payments. Federal loans come with a 270-day delinquency period before your loan is considered to be in default, but private lenders might put your loan into default status after just three months of missed bills.
  • Private student loans can have a fixed or variable rate. While federal Direct loans to undergraduates have a fixed rate of 5.05% for the 2018-19 school year, private loans can have either a fixed or variable rate — usually, the choice is yours. Rates typically range from around 4% to 13%, depending on your (or your cosigner’s) credit.
  • You won’t get your interest subsidized. Students with financial need can qualify for subsidized federal loans, which don’t accrue interest until you graduate and your six-month grace period ends. Private lenders don’t offer subsidized loans, so interest will start piling up as soon as you get the money.
  • Private student loans aren’t eligible for federal forgiveness programs. Programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness only work for federal loans, not private ones. That said, private loans may be eligible for some loan repayment assistance programs, which could be offered by your state or a private organization.

So if federal student loans have more flexible repayment plans and better interest rates, why borrow private student loans at all? The most common reason is because federal loans come with annual borrowing limits, so you might not have enough funding to pay tuition.

Unless yours is a rare case — for instance, if you’re a graduate student who could get better rates on a private loan and don’t need the federal protections — you’ll want to turn to federal loans first. Unfortunately, however, more than half of students borrow privately before exhausting their federal options.

What are the interest rates on private student loans?

The interest rates on private student loans vary from lender to lender. As of April 2019, some of the most competitive lenders offer fixed rates starting at 3.89% and variable rates starting at 3.00%.

Although this beats the current rate on federal loans, you or your cosigner would be unlikely to score these lowest interest rates unless you have excellent credit. On the other end of the spectrum, fixed rates can go up to 12.68%, and variable rates as high as 12.22% among our recommended lenders.

And don’t forget that these figures do change — in September 2018, rates ran as high as 14.24%. Interest this high could be a real burden for the 15% of graduates who carry private student loans.

As for deciding between fixed and variable rates, remember that the variable rate exposes you to the risk that rates (and possibly your monthly payment) could rise. If you’re confident you can pay your debt off quickly, a variable loan might be worth the risk, while if you’re planning a 10- or 15-year repayment, you might be safer with a fixed loan.

That said, you could always refinance your student loans for new rates and terms if you have the credit to qualify or have a cosigner who can do so.

What about repayment terms?

When you borrow a private student loan, you’ll get to choose your repayment terms. A 10-year plan is standard, but some lenders also let you opt for five, eight or 15 years.

You can use our loan calculator to estimate what your monthly payments would be on each plan. It might be tempting to choose a five-year plan and get out of debt more quickly, but it’s not worth it if you can’t keep up with the higher monthly payments. Meanwhile, on the flip side, a long term with lower monthly payments might appeal to you, but consider how much you’ll have to fork over in interest over the years. The calculator can reveal how much you could expect to pay over time — that said, you can typically prepay your loan without penalty if you suddenly come into some money.

Before you borrow, it’s also crucial to go over your repayment agreement. Some private lenders let you defer repayment while you’re a student and for six months after you graduate, while others require immediate payments or interest-only payments while you’re still in school.

Also make sure you know when your first payment is due so you don’t fall behind or go into default.

Learn what private student loans are before you borrow

Private student loans have both pros and cons for you as a borrower.

On one hand, they can be useful tools for paying for college and earning your degree. But on the other, as a downside, you’ll probably have to enlist a cosigner to qualify, and sharing debt doesn’t always go smoothly.

Plus, you might have relatively high interest rates, meaning you could end up paying back a lot more than you borrowed.

Whatever you decide, make sure you understand what private student loans are before you borrow any. That way, you can make an informed decision about borrowing before it’s too late.

And make sure to compare offers with multiple lenders so you can find one with the best benefits, rates, and terms for your private student loan.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Rebecca Safier
Rebecca Safier |

Rebecca Safier is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Rebecca here

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College Students and Recent Grads

How to Get Rid of Private Student Loans: Forgiveness and Other Options

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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After maxing out their eligibility for federal student loans, many students and families turn to private student loans to pay for college. While private loans can help fill the funding gap, they can also become burdensome if you borrow too much or get saddled with high interest rates. That’s where private student loan forgiveness and other types of assistance come in handy.

If you’re wondering how to get rid of private student loans — and do it quickly — know that you do have options. And although none of them will wipe away your debt overnight, they could help you regain control of your finances. Here are eight different possibilities to explore:

1. Qualify for private student loan forgiveness programs

Although private student loans aren’t eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you can find some student loan forgiveness programs for private loans. National, state and private organizations will wipe away a large portion of your debt, or sometimes all of it, depending on your profession or location.

For instance, the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 in student loan assistance to healthcare professionals who work in an underserved area for at least two years. Likewise, the Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program has a similar reward for eligible lawyers.

Many states, as well as some universities, also offer student loan repayment assistance for qualifying professionals. Some of the common eligible occupations include doctor, nurse, dentist, pharmacist and teacher. Check with your state to find out if it offers student loan forgiveness for private loans.

2. Find an employer with a student loan assistance benefit

Even if you can’t qualify for private student loan forgiveness programs, you might get a student loan assistance benefit from your employer. Some companies will match a percentage of your student loan payments to help you pay off that debt faster — for example, Fidelity and Aetna each offer up to $10,000 in student loan assistance to their employees.

According to Forbes, student loan matching was the hottest benefit of 2018. And with the student debt crisis continuing to weigh on the U.S., more companies might follow suit and introduce this benefit in the future.

If you are looking for a job or open to changing your employer, consider companies with this perk. They might help you make a bigger dent in your student loan balance than you’d be able to on your own.

3. Postpone payments through forbearance

While the government offers a number of flexible repayment plans for federal student loans, including income-driven repayment, private lenders don’t often have equivalent programs. On the other hand, some do allow you to pause payments through deferment or forbearance if you lose your job, return to school or run into financial hardship.

If you’re going through a financial rough patch, reach out to your lender to find out if you can put your loans on pause for a few months. This break from payments might offer the relief you need until you can get back on your feet.

Just remember that interest typically continues to accrue during a period of forbearance, so you might end up facing a bigger balance once repayment resumes.

4. Request a temporary interest-only payment plan

Along with temporary forbearance, some private lenders offer the option of interest-only payments. With this approach, you could postpone full repayment while still making small payments on interest from month to month.

Although you won’t be chipping away at your principal, you will pay down interest before it accumulates. These reduced payments could give you some breathing room until you’re able to enter full repayment.

5. Negotiate lower payments with your lender

Private lenders typically don’t offer income-driven repayment plans, but some might be flexible if you’re really struggling — after all, they don’t want you to default on your loan completely. So if you can’t keep up with payments, call your lender and find out if they can adjust your bills.

6. Refinance your private student loans for better terms

By refinancing your student loans, you can restructure your debt with new terms — typically between five and 20 years — and adjusted monthly payments.

You could opt for a short term, which might increase your monthly payments but will get you out of debt faster and save you money on interest. Or, if your bills are too burdensome, you could choose a longer term to lower your monthly payments.

You might also snag a lower interest rate, resulting in major savings over the life of your loan.

But while student loan refinancing has a number of major benefits, it’s not accessible to everyone. You’ll need to meet certain requirements for credit and income to qualify — or apply with a cosigner who can. And if you decide to refinance, make sure to shop around among multiple lenders to get the best deal available to you.

7. Discharge your private student loans through bankruptcy

Student loans are notoriously difficult to discharge through bankruptcy, but this route isn’t impossible. If you qualify for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you could wipe away your private student loans.

You will have to prove your student loans are causing undue hardship, and the entire process could destroy your credit and cost you thousands in legal fees. But if bankruptcy is your only option, know that it could lead to wiping away your private student loans.

8. Apply for permanent and total disability discharge

Finally, experiencing a permanent and total disability might remove your obligation to pay back your student loans. Some lenders will wipe away your debt in this circumstance. If you’re unable to work due to a disability, reach out to your lender to find out if you could qualify for private student loan forgiveness.

How to get rid of private student loans

While options such as forbearance and interest-only payments can decrease your bills, they won’t help you get rid of your private student loans any faster. If you’re set on shedding your debt ASAP, your best bet (outside of private student loan forgiveness) is throwing extra payments at your student loans.

If you can find ways to increase your income or decrease your spending — or both — you can use the extra money to make additional payments on your debt. This will save you money on interest and move up the timeline on repayment.

But if your budget is too tight right now, lowering payments might be the best temporary solution to help you manage your private student loans without going into default.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Rebecca Safier
Rebecca Safier |

Rebecca Safier is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Rebecca here

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