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

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College Students and Recent Grads

College Ave Private Student Loans Review: Accessible Eligibility Criteria, Flexible Repayment

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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If you’re concerned about eligibility for a private student loan, consider that College Ave Student Loans stands out for its accessibility.

You could be an international student without a GED seeking an associate degree on a part-time basis, for example, and still qualify for College Ave private student loans.

Founded by former Sallie Mae executives in 2014, the online-only company offers competitive interest rates to students in college as well as career or graduate schools, as well as their creditworthy parents.

To ensure it’s the right lender for you, consider our review.

College Ave Student Loans review: The basics

While you could qualify for College Ave private student loans with several different educational backgrounds and ambitions, you still need to be creditworthy. Having a credit score of at least 660 is a good start.

The lender doesn’t disclose its specific credit criteria, but you could gauge your (or your cosigner’s) eligibility using the lender’s pre-qualification tool. Passing that test would unlock these loan features:

  • Loans for part- or full-time undergraduates, graduate students, career school students and parents
  • Prequalify with a three-minute application (and without affecting your credit)
  • No fees to apply
  • Fixed and variable interest rates

  • Borrow between $1,000 and your school’s full cost of attendance
  • Choose from four in-school repayment options, including full deferment
  • Select one of four repayment term options: five, eight, 10 or 15 years
  • Receive your loan in as little as 10 days after applying
  • Cosigners are accepted — and encouraged (note that they are required for international students who have a Social Security number)
  • Release your cosigner after more than half your repayment term has elapsed
  • Enjoy a federal loan-like six-month grace period after leaving school
  • Net a 0.25% interest rate reduction for enrolling in autopay
  • No penalty for paying off your loan early
  • Forbearance — the ability to temporarily suspend payments — is awarded on a case-by-case basis
  • Student loan forgiveness in the case of the borrower’s permanent disability or death

While the majority of the loan characteristics above are true no matter your status in school, there are some notable differences for graduate students, career school students and parents.

Graduate students

Whether you’re seeking a postgraduate, master’s, doctoral or professional degree, you can count College Ave private student loans as an option. Note that the ceiling on College Ave’s interest rate ranges as of early June 2019 was significantly lower for graduate students compared to undergrads.

In summer 2019, College Ave also added unique perks for postgraduate students seeking an MBA or other professional degree. The loans include longer grace periods, for example, with 12 months for dental students and 36 months for medical students.

There are also deferments available for students who enter a residency program — or, in the case of law school students, a clerkship — after receiving their degree. Additionally, students seeking these advanced credentials might be able to select a longer loan term (20 years) than their peers.

Career school students

If you’re pursuing an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree in a career-focused program, including at some community colleges, keep this bonus in mind: College Ave offers borrowers of this loan type a $150 statement credit for completing their program.

Parents

College Ave gives parents even more repayment term flexibility. The lender said on its website that it would assist creditworthy parents in choosing one of 11 possible repayment terms, spanning between five and 15 years.

Another plus of borrowing from College Ave: The lender allows Mom or Dad to directly receive up to $2,500 of the loan funds to cover smaller, secondary expenses including books and supplies. (The balance would be sent directly to the student’s school.)

On the downside, however, the floor on College Ave’s interest rate ranges as of early June 2019 was noticeably higher for parents than for undergraduate students. Plus, parent borrowers only have three in-school repayment choices, not including full deferment. Making interest-only payments is the cheapest option available.

What we like about College Ave Student Loans

It’s rare to find a lender that’s so accessible. In College Ave’s eyes, you don’t need a high school diploma or GED, don’t need to be pursuing a four-year degree, don’t need to be enrolled full time — you don’t even need to be an American student (as long as you have a Social Security number).

Aside from flexibility on qualifying, below are a few more features of College Ave private student loans that benefit from additional context.

A bevy of in-school repayment options

Many private lenders offer fewer repayment options than College Ave. But College Ave provides four payment methods, including:

  • Deferred: Postpone payments until six months after leaving school, allowing interest to pile up on your balance.
  • Flat: Submit monthly dues of $25 to eat into the accruing interest on your loan.
  • Interest-only: Pay only enough each month to cover accruing interest to ensure you face the same balance you borrowed upon leaving school.
  • Full: Enter repayment immediately by making interest-and-principal payments, so you’ll owe less than what you borrowed once you step off campus.

For cash-strapped students, making (significant) in-school payments isn’t always possible. For other students with income or parental support, entering repayment sooner could pave the way for a faster route out of debt. That’s why it’s so nice to have options.

According to the lender, about 6 in 10 College Ave borrowers elect to submit in-school payments to whittle down interest before the reality of repayment hits upon graduation.

Pick your repayment term

Some lenders, including Sallie Mae, assign you a loan repayment term based on your creditworthiness.

One benefit of borrowing College Ave private student loans, however, is that you (and your cosigner) could independently choose your term. You might select five, eight, 10 or 15 years, depending on your budget and future income. (Unlike with federal loans, however, private lenders like College Ave don’t allow you to change terms later, extending or shortening your repayment term as you wish.)
College Ave said on its website that 84% of borrowers choose a term of 10 years or less.

Receive strong customer service

Nearly 400 College Ave borrowers had awarded a 4.8-out-of-5 rating of their lender — at least according to the lender website.

For a more objective accounting, Trustpilot lists a four-star rating for College Ave, and the Better Business Bureau gives the lender an “A+” grade.

What to keep in mind about College Ave Student Loans

If you like what you’ve learned about College Ave private student loans, keep in mind that no lender is perfect for every borrower.

Decide for yourself whether the following facts should point you in the direction of a competitor.

A long trek to cosigner release

By College Ave’s math, 96% of undergraduates have a cosigner on their loan. After all, teens and 20-somethings can make up for their thin credit files by piggybacking on a creditworthy cosigner, usually Mom or Dad.

The majority of top-rated lenders allow you to release that cosigner (from their legal obligation to repay your debt, if you can’t) after 12 to 48 months of successful payment history.

With College Ave private student loans, however, it’s a long haul. To remove your cosigner from your loan agreement, you must:

  • Reach the halfway mark of your loan term
  • Make 24 consecutive on-time payments
  • Show twice as much income as your loan balance
  • Pass a credit check

If you want to reward your cosigner by sending them on their way, you might avoid a 15-year loan term. Under that scenario, you wouldn’t be able to release them until you’ve been in repayment for seven-and-a-half years.

To make matters worse for some borrowers, international students can’t achieve cosigner release at all.

If cosigner release essential to you and your guarantor, you might consider borrowing from Sallie Mae, which offers a 12-month route to release.

A limited form of forbearance

Forbearance is a vital component of any student loan, as it allows you to press pause on your repayment in the face of hardships such as unemployment.

Unfortunately, College Ave is cagey about its forbearance policy, leaving details off its otherwise resource-heavy website.

It turns out, the lender evaluates forbearance applications on a case-by-case basis. In other words, if you find yourself out of work or under another sort of financial duress during repayment, there’s no guarantee College Ave will grant you a reprieve.

If you think you might need a more clear-cut safeguard built into your loan, you might opt to borrow from Discover, as the bank offers a variety of protections, from payment extensions to as many as 12 months of forbearance.

Third-party loan servicing

If you’re attracted to College Ave, in part, because of its modern, easy-to-use platform and strong customer service record, you might be disappointed to learn that the company outsources the servicing of its loans.

Repayment of College Ave private student loans even takes place on a different website. University Accounting Service (UAS) handles statements and payments and fields customer concerns.

When deciding whether College Ave is right for you, factor UAS into the equation, too. You might be wise to contact the latter company to get a sneak peek of its effectiveness in answering your loan management questions.

If you’re left wanting more, you might be better off walking into your local bank or credit union, where your loan will be funded and managed under the same roof.

Are College Ave Student Loans right for you?

If you’re an atypical college student — maybe you’re attending part time or seeking an associate degree — College Ave private student loans are more accessible than education financing found elsewhere.

Even if you’re attending a traditional four-year school, you could be drawn to the online lender’s assortment of in-school and postgraduate repayment options. They give you the power to customize a loan that works best for your borrowing situation. Plus, if you (or your cosigner) are especially creditworthy, you could unlock some of the lowest interest rates offered by banks, credit unions and online competitors.

College Ave won’t be as appealing, however, if you’re counting on a fast pathway to cosigner release or federal loan-like safeguards such as mandatory forbearance. To pit College Ave against the competition, find out where the lender ranked among our top-rated student loan companies.

MagnifyMoney has independently collected the above information related to this review, which is current as of June 3, 2019, unless otherwise noted. College Ave. neither provided or reviewed the information shared in this article.

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.

Andrew Pentis
Andrew Pentis |

Andrew Pentis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Andrew here

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Building Credit, College Students and Recent Grads, Credit Cards, Earning Cashback

How You Can Have a Good FICO Score Just One Year After Opening 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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When I moved to the U.S. from my hometown of Hangzhou, in China, to pursue my undergraduate degree, the thought of establishing a credit history wasn’t even on my radar. I was, after all, an international student from China, where day-to-day credit card use had only recently caught on.

It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. a few years later to pursue my master’s degree in Chicago that I realized I’d need to establish credit if I planned to launch my career in the States.

Just one year after I opened the card, I already had a solid FICO score – 720, to be exact. This score landed me safely in the “good” credit range, meaning I probably would not have trouble getting approved for new credit. I still had work to do if I wanted to get into the “very good” credit category, which starts at 740. But as a credit card newbie, I was not disappointed in my progress.     

Here’s how I did it.

I selected the right card for my needs

I wish I could say I diligently researched credit cards to choose the best offer and best terms, but honestly, I just got lucky.

Shortly before graduate school started, I visited friends in Iowa. When we were about to split the bill after dinner at a Japanese restaurant, I noticed that all my friends had a Discover card with a shimmering pink or blue cover. The Discover it® Student Cash Back was known for its high approval rate for student applicants, and had been popular among international students.

I thought, “Oh, maybe I should get this one, too.”

One of the friends sent me a referral link that very night. I applied and got approved quickly. We both received a $50 cash-back bonus after I made my first purchase — an iPhone — using the card through Discover’s special rewards program. I even received 5% cash back from the purchase.

Besides imposing no annual fee, the card had other perks, such as rewarding me with a $20 statement credit when I reported a good GPA (up to five consecutive years), letting me earn 5% cash back on purchases in rotating categories and matching the cashback bonus I earned over the first 12 months with my account. For me, it was a great starter card, but there are plenty of other options out there.

Check out our guide on the best credit cards for students.

I also could have explored other options of establishing credit, like opening a secured card, for example, which would have been a smart option if I hadn’t been able to qualify for the Discover it student card.

I never missed a payment

Despite my very limited financial literacy at the time, I attribute my strong credit score to the old, deeply ingrained Chinese mentality about saving and not owing.

I never missed payments, and I always paid off my balance in full each month, instead of just making the minimum payment. I didn’t want to pay a penny of interest.

Credit cards carry high interest rates across the board, but student credit cards generally have some of the highest APRs. This is because lenders see students like me — consumers without much credit history — to be risky borrowers, and they charge a higher interest rate to offset that risk.

Best Student Credit Cards June 2019

It wasn’t until much later that I learned payment history is critical to good credit. In fact, it is the biggest factor there is, accounting for 35% of my FICO score.

A Guide to Getting Your Free Credit Score

I was careful not to use too much of my available credit

My friends with more experience advised me to use as little of my available credit as possible. They warned me that overuse had hurt their credit scores in the past. This didn’t much sense to me, but I followed their advice, for the most part diligently.

I later learned this is almost as important as paying bills on time each month. Your utilization rate is another major factor in your FICO score. Credit experts urge cardholders to keep their credit utilization ratio below 30%. The lower, the better.

That means if you have three credit cards with a total available limit of $10,000, you should try to never carry a total balance exceeding $3,000, and you really should aim for much lower than that.

A Guide to Build and Maintain Healthy Credit

I beefed up my score with on-time rent payments

Keeping in mind the importance of not maxing out my credit card, I never considered paying my rent with the card. In fact, some landlords charge credit card fees for tenants who try to pay with plastic.

But I did find a way to establish credit by paying rent using my checking account.

I paid rent to my Chicago landlord through RentPayment, an online service. RentPayment gave me the option of having my payments reported to TransUnion, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies (the other two are Experian and Equifax). Because I knew I’d always pay bills on time, I signed up for the program.

This likely helped me improve my credit mix, another key factor influencing a credit score. The more types of accounts you show on your report, the better your score can be — if you make all your payments on time.

Yes, I made mistakes. This was my biggest one

My first foray into the world of credit wasn’t completely blip-free.

The only thing that hurt my credit, besides my short credit history, was that I had tried signing up for a Chase credit card, along with other ways to finance my iPhone, just a few days before I applied for my Discover card.

None of the other banks approved my applications, and my score went down at the very beginning, due to the number of “hard inquiries” against my credit report. Hard inquiries occur when lenders check your credit report before they make decisions regarding your application. Having too many inquiries in a short period of time can result in a ding to your credit score.

I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I’ll be cautious in the future when it comes to applying for a lot of credit in a short time period. Overall, it should be noted that you should not be afraid to apply for new credit — even when hard inquiries do hurt your score in the short term, it typically isn’t disastrous, and your score should recover fairly quickly as long as you are a responsible user of credit. Having more available credit can also help your utilization rate — as long as you don’t increase your charges, of course.

You can also check to see if you have prequalifed for any credit cards without triggering a hard inquiry.

If you’re new to the world of credit cards, consider taking the steps I outlined above, and you, too, may have a healthy credit score before you know it.

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.

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at [email protected]

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