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College Students and Recent Grads

Is It OK to Spend Your Financial Aid Refund?

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Just a few weeks into their college education, many students receive funds totaling hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars — the “extra” money from the student’s financial aid package. Usually, the money comes with little to no information on how students should spend it, or how to return any funds they may not immediately need.What many students may not realize immediately is, the majority of the time, taking any extra money not truly needed to pay for educational expenses results in them owing even more student loan money and making payments over a longer period of time after graduation.

Simply learning about the money and creating a budget could prevent many students from adding to the average $34,144 student loan balance they are already expected to pay back.

What Is A Financial Aid Refund?

Your refund is the amount of money left over after all of your scholarships, grants, and federal and private student loans are applied toward tuition, fees and other direct educational expenses for the semester. The refund could come as a lump-sum direct deposit to your bank account, as cash or as a check.

The school legally has to disburse any leftover Federal Student Aid money you are awarded. “[Schools] cannot hold onto that credit balance unless the student gives written consent,” says Karen McCarthy, Director of Policy Analysis at National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). In the case of a PLUS loan, the parent must give consent for the school to hold the credit balance.

Most refunds most likely come from leftover federal student loans, but recipients of some grants may receive a refund for unused funds as well.

In fall 2009, Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Crystal Chery, was just beginning an associate’s degree program at Kingsborough Community College. She qualified for the Pell Grant, which covered $5,350 of her tuition and expenses for the school year. After tuition and fees totaling $1,550 were paid, Chery received a credit for about $1,125 to her bank account each semester.

While there is no official record of exactly how many college students end up with a positive balance on their account after all of their financial aid package is applied, each semester possibly thousands of U.S. college students in the United States find themselves in a similar position as Chery did her freshman year.

The total amount of financial aid that a student is able to receive is up to the institution’s calculated cost of attendance, which is a big part of the math that goes into calculating a student’s financial aid award. Sometimes colleges pad their total cost of attendance estimates to include things that aren’t directly paid to the school, like books, housing, transportation or child care. The idea is that the student will use any leftover funds for other things they need in order to go to school.

“Kids going to a $4,000 community college can walk away with about $5,000 of refunded money,” says college aid expert Joe Orsolini, especially if they find ways to save on expenses like housing. In Chery’s case, she lived at home, which meant she didn’t need any funds for housing.

If you received a refund from a mix of loans, scholarships and grants, carefully examine your refund to understand where it came from and if you’ll have to pay back that money.

Grant and Scholarship refunds

Grants and scholarships — truly “free money” — are usually applied to your institutional bills first. There may be restrictions on how you can use money from these sources, as rules vary widely by state, institution and scholarship program regarding how students are allowed to spend the funds they receive.

Usually the amount of “free money” a student gets is smaller compared to loans they receive and is depleted by direct institutional bills, so most students don’t get that money refunded to them. However, it’s possible for some students who received a large amount of scholarships to be refunded “free” money.

Chery isn’t required to repay the leftover Pell grant money she received for her education, as she doesn’t fall under any special circumstances like students who may have withdrawn early from their program, or dropped to part-time enrollment during the payment period. In addition, the school was legally required to issue her a refund credit for the excess federal funds.

Student loan refunds

If you receive a refund from unused federal student loan money, you’re free to keep it, but remember you’re still borrowing that money. You will need to pay any federal loan money refunded to you, with interest, starting six to nine months after you graduate.

Generally speaking, you should return any unused loan money that you don’t need right away to avoid taking out more in loans than you really need. But if you need to keep it, make sure you spend the money wisely.

Whatever you do, “don’t go buy a car or go on spring break with [your student loan refund],” says Orsolini. If you’re spending federal loan money, a $10 pizza today at 6.5% APR will cost close to $20 to pay off in 20 years.

Do that math for thousands of dollars in student loans. Make your best effort to limit any flexible, frivolous or impulsive spending to money you don’t have to pay back with interest.

How you handle your student loan refund may also depend on what kind of loan it is — unsubsidized or subsidized.

Subsidized student loans

Interest won’t begin to accrue on subsidized student loan money until six months after you have graduated. So, if you keep your refund, you don’t have to worry about racking up interest charges on the debt you owe while you’re in school.

For that reason Orsolini argues students shouldn’t give back any “extra” subsidized loan money until they are in their last semester of college.

“Until you know for sure that you’ve made it to the finish line, hang on to that money because you never know what is going to happen,” says Orsolini. He recommends placing excess financial aid funds into a 529 college savings account, where it can grow, and you can use the money if you plan to attend graduate school.

If students don’t want to open a 529 account, Orsolini recommends they stash unused subsidized loan money in an emergency savings fund, to help maintain as much flexibility as possible in paying for college.

Orsolini says this method provides a financial safety net for students, as you never know what can happen to your income. If you choose to do this, you should pay back any unused subsidized loan money the month before your graduation to avoid paying interest.

Warning: Orsolini’s method takes a lot of self-restraint.

Unsubsidized student loans

Students shouldn’t pocket any unsubsidized student loan money, as interest will begin to accrue immediately, and keeping the money won’t be worth it.

“Even if you put it in a savings account for a few months, it’s going to accrue more interest as a loan than it would in the savings account,” says Ashley Norwood, Consumer and Regulatory Adviser at American Student Assistance (ASA), a nonprofit student loan advocacy group that helps students finance and repay their student loans.

Avoid keeping unneeded unsubsidized loan money at all costs if you can.

If you find yourself keeping the loan because you need to live off of it, Betsy Mayotte, Director of Consumer Outreach and Compliance at ASA, suggests you do your best to reduce your cost of attendance.

You could make up some or all of the maximum $2,000 a student can receive in unsubsidized loans by getting a part-time job or a work-study job, for example. If cost of living is too high at the school you’re attending, look at a cheaper school or consider moving home if the school is close enough

Should You Spend Your Refund — or Return It?

Unless you have restrictions on how you can use it, what you decide to do with your refund money as a college student is really up to you.

“The assumption is that the student is using that credit balance to pay for those [indirectly billed] expenses,” says McCarthy.

But students don’t always do that.

“When I was in college, I remember all of my friends getting True Religions and all of this stuff [with their refund money] … I did not,” says Chery. “I was focused on other things.”

Chery used her fall semester “refund” to buy equipment to launch a DJ career, starting with a $1,350 MacBook, which she used to create her own mixes and to use at gigs she booked while in school. With the following semester’s refund, Chery purchased a Canon 60D DSLR camera for another $1,200 because she wanted to “dabble in photography and promote [her business].”

Chery says the investment paid off. After booking larger, professional gigs and gaining some experience, she was able to present work that helped her land an internship with Hollywood, Calif.-based media company, REVOLT TV, where she got to work with big-name music artists like Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash.

“When I started making these investments, I didn’t know that they were going to alter my career like that,” says Chery, who now hosts and books events with hundreds or thousands in attendance throughout the northeast United States.

After you’ve allocated funds to different areas of your budget, you need to figure out what to do with any extra funds. If the money is “free,” meaning you don’t have to pay it back later, you can keep it, but you may need to look into what you are allowed to spend it on, says McCarthy, as there may be restrictions on how you can use scholarship or grant money.

If you think you have enough money for your needs, the experts at ASA and NASFAA agree students should immediately send back any money they don’t think they need, since students can always ask for that disbursement again later on.

Giving money back or canceling a federal student loan won’t affect how much financial aid you are offered the following semester and if you need the money later on in the current semester, Mayotte tells Magnify Money.

“Let’s say you refused all of the loans. You can go back to the financial aid office and ask for part or all of that loan money up to 180 days after the last day of classes,” adds Mayotte.

As long as you were eligible to receive the student loan funds during that pay period, you can receive a federal loan for a prior or the current payment period without penalty if you ask for it within the 180-day period.

For example, you can technically still receive loan money you denied during the fall semester if you request a late disbursement for that money during your spring semester as long as it’s within 180 days after the end of the payment period.

Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Before Spending (Or Returning) Your Refund

Have you paid for all of your non-negotiable expenses for the semester?

Certain non-negotiable expenses (read: tuition and fees) are usually billed at the beginning of the semester, but the school won’t send you a bill for everything you can’t succeed without, like technology for classes, a working laptop, or sheets for your dorm bed. Here are a few possible spending categories you may or may not include in your budget:

  • Living expenses not billed by the institution
  • Books and other educational supplies you’re going to need over the course of the whole term
  • Transportation (gas, on- and off-campus parking)
  • Child care, if you need this so that you can attend school
  • Miscellaneous personal expenses

Do you need the money to cover other college-related expenses?

There are a host of hidden college costs college-bound families fail to consider for one reason or another, and they can dry an unsuspecting student’s checking account. They are all the little things families don’t think about during move-in, like organization membership fees and paying for food outside of a prepaid student meal plan. If you can’t cover those things with part-time income during the school year, tally up an estimate and keep what loan money you need.

Do you have an emergency fund?

You should have every reason to have savings, especially if you’re paying for school on your own. You won’t get many opportunities to stash away $1,000 in cash working for minimum wage as a barista in school. Pocketing some of the money now will help you steer clear of rainy days and expensive borrowing options in the future when those hidden costs creep up on you. Set one up ASAP.

How to return your refund to the Department of Education

The rule is simple: Return the loan within 120 days of disbursement, and it will be like you never took it out in the first place.

The rule is found in the text of the Master Promissory Note, which all FSA borrowers are required to sign promising to pay the loans back before they can receive any federal aid funds. The following information is found under “Canceling Your Loan”:

You may return all or part of your loan to us. Within 120 days of the date your school disbursed your loan money (by crediting the loan money to your account at the school, by paying it directly to you, or both), you may cancel all or part of your loan by returning all or part of the loan money to us. Contact your servicer for guidance on how and where to return your loan money.

You do not have to pay interest or the loan fee on the part of your loan that is cancelled or returned within the timeframes described above. We will adjust your loan amount to eliminate any interest and loan fee that applies to the amount of the loan that is cancelled or returned.

If you make the 120-day deadline, you’re in the clear. You won’t be required to pay loan fees or any interest already accrued on unsubsidized loans in that time. Sometimes, your university can send it back on your behalf, so your first point of contact should be the financial aid office at your institution. Check with them to see if they can send the unused federal student loan funds back on your behalf, or if you will need to send the money back to your loan servicer on your own.

After the deadline, you’ll need to simply make a loan payment back to your loan servicer. You can begin to pay your loans back while still in college. If you do, you won’t pay any interest on subsidized student loan money (it doesn’t begin to accrue until six months after you graduate), but you will pay any loan fees charged to your account.

When will I get my financial aid refund?

If you’re expecting a refund, you aren’t likely to see that money until after the add/drop period for classes — the grace period during which you can change your choices without penalty — ends. That can be about three to four weeks into the semester, although some schools may disburse funds earlier. According to the Department of Education, schools must pay a credit balance directly to a student or parent no more than 14 days after the first day of class or when the balance occurred if it occurred after the first day of class.

Until then, you’ll have to cover your costs out of pocket.

“Students who are expecting refunds are very anxious for them,” says Norwood.

Norwood adds the anxiety may be because many students who see a refund check are lower income — they may see the money because they qualified for more aid. They may depend on the funds from the refund to pay for important costs related to their education such as rent for off-campus housing or educational supplies for classes.

If you missed something on your financial checklist — like signing the Master Promissory Note or completing Loan Entrance Counseling — over the summer, you may see funds even later than four weeks. Overall, if you’re hoping to use refund money to cover your rent or other school expenses, you may need to come up with the cash by other means.

“If [students] don’t budget well for the whole year, it’ll be the same thing in January,” says Mayotte.

There is a silver lining for you if you received Federal Student Aid (FSA). As of July 1, 2016, Title IV schools are required to provide a way for FSA recipients to purchase books and supplies required for the semester by the seventh day of the semester if:

  • The school was able to disburse FSA funds 10 days before the semester began, or
  • The student would have a credit balance after all FSA funds are applied.

The school doesn’t have to write you a check outright for books. Institutions can award the funds in school credit or bookstore credit, too, but must grant you the amount you are expected to spend on educational supplies according to the institution’s calculated cost of attendance by the end of the first week of classes.

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.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at [email protected]

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College Students and Recent Grads

Top Checking Accounts for College Grads

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For many college students, their default banking option while in school is a student checking account, which is typically free. Unfortunately, when you graduate you lose those benefits. Many student checking accounts will begin to charge you monthly maintenance fees unless you meet certain requirements.

So, where do you go from there?

Few young adults would turn to their parents for fashion or dating advice and, yet, one of the most common ways we’ve found young people choose their bank account is by going with whichever bank their parents already use. This could be a bigger faux pas than stealing your dad’s old pair of parachute pants.

The bank your parents use may carry fees or have requirements that don’t meet your lifestyle or budget, and make accounts expensive to use.

But where do you even begin to choose the right checking account?

When you’re nearing graduation, start planning your bank transition.

Many banks send a letter in the mail a few months prior to your expected graduation date informing you that your student checking account is going transition to a non-student account. If you’re not careful and you disregard the letter, you may be transitioned into an account that charges a fee if you don’t meet certain requirements.

You can always call the bank and ask to switch to a different account or you can choose a new account that offers more benefits, like interest and ATM fee refunds.

Account Name

Minimum Monthly Balance

Amount to Open

ATM Fee Refunds

APY

Simple$0$0None2.02% - 2.15% depending on balance
Aspiration Spend and Save Account$0$50Unlimited1.00% APY
Discover Bank$0$0NoneNone, but 1% cash back on up to $3,000 debit card purchases per month
Ally Bank$0$0Up to $10 per statement cycle 0.10% to 0.50% APY depending on balance
Consumers Credit Union (IL) Free Rewards Checking$0$0Unlimited ATM reimbursements5.09% on balances up to $10,000,
0.20% APY on balances between $10,000 and $25,000 and 0.10% APY on balances over $25,000
La Capitol Federal Credit Union Choice Plus Checking$0(if less than $1,000, there is a $8 fee)$50Up to $25 per month4.25% APY on balances up to $3,000 2.00% APY on balances $3,000-$10,000 and 0.10% on balances over $10,000
Boeing Employees Credit Union Member Advantage Checking$0$0Up to $6 per month4.07% APY on balances up to $500, 0.05% APY on balances over $500
TAB Bank Kasasa Cash Rewards Checking$0$0Up to $15 in ATM fees reimbursed4.00% APY (applies to balances up to $50,000)

The 5 key things you should look for in a checking account

When you’re shopping around for a new checking account, there are several things you should look for to ensure you’re getting the most value from your account:

  1. A $0 monthly fee: Sometimes banks may say they don’t charge a monthly fee but read the fine print — they may require a minimum monthly balance in order to avoid it. There are plenty of free checking accounts available for you to open, so there’s no reason to stay stuck with an account that charges a monthly fee. Take note, as some accounts may require you to meet certain criteria to maintain a free account like using a debit card, enrolling in eStatements or maintaining a minimum daily balance.
  2. No minimum daily balance: Accounts without minimum daily balances mean you can have a $0 balance at any given time. This may allow you to have a free account without meeting balance requirements — although other terms may apply to maintain a free account.
  3. Annual Percentage Yield: APY is the total amount of interest you will earn on balances in your account. Opening an account that earns you interest on your balance is an easy way to be rewarded for money that would typically sit without earning anything. You should definitely aim to earn a decent APY on your savings account.
  4. ATM fee refunds: You may not be able to access an in-network ATM at all times, so accounts providing ATM fee refunds can reimburse you for ATM fees you may incur while using out-of-network ATMs. Those $3 or $5 charges add up!
  5. No or low overdraft fees: Most banks charge you an overdraft fee of around $35 if you spend more money than you have available in your account. Therefore, it’s a good idea to choose an account that has no or low overdraft fees.

Top overall checking accounts for college grads

For the top overall checking accounts, we chose accounts that have no monthly service fees, no ATM fees, refunds for ATM fees from other banks, interest earned on your deposited balances and with strong mobile banking apps. While there is no all-inclusive account that contains every benefit, the accounts below are sure to provide value whether you want a high interest rate, unlimited ATM fee refunds or 24/7 live customer support.

1. Simple

Cash management app Simple acts as a hybrid checking and savings account with a generous APY and no fees. It features unlimited transfers between your checking account and Protected Goals account, as well as high APYs ranging from 2.02% on balances under $10,000 to a whopping 2.15% on balances over $10,000. Simple also provides fee-free access to 40,000 ATMs – although it doesn’t rebate ATM fees you might incur from machines outside its vast network. With built-in budgeting tools integrated into its app, Simple is a strong contender for the best checking account for college grads.

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on Simple’s secure website

2. Aspiration Spend and Save Account

The Aspiration Spend and Save Account offers a wide range of benefits for account holders and has few fees. The $50 amount to open is fairly low, and once you open your account there is no minimum monthly balance to maintain. Aspiration gives you up to five free ATM withdrawals per month.

As the account name suggests, there are two sides to the account: a spending sub-account and a savings sub-account. The spending side yields no interest, while the savings side earns 1.00% APY. To earn this APY, you must deposit at least $1,000 in the combined account monthly, or maintain a balance of $10,000.

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on Aspiration’s secure website

3. Discover Cashback Debit

Cracking our list for the best checking accounts for college graduates is Discover Bank, which takes a unique approach to checking account rewards. Instead of offering an APY on deposit balances, Discover opts for cash back as an incentive to get consumers to sign up for its checking product. The Discover Cashback Debit account offers up to 1% cash back on $3,000 of debit card transactions per month. That coupled with its zero fees and free access to 60,000 ATMs nationwide make it one of the best checking accounts for college graduates.

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on Discover Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

4. Ally Bank

Online bank Ally Bank offers a solid checking account with minimal fees, decent APYs and other attractive perks. Its Interest Checking account charges no monthly maintenance fees and provides free access to Allpoint ATMs nationwide, as well as a $10 reimbursement per statement cycle for any other ATMs fees incurred. Ally Bank’s APY isn’t too shabby, either: You can earn an APY of 0.50% with a $15,000 minimum balance. Other cool features include its Ally Skill for Amazon Alexa, which enables you to transfer money with just your voice.

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on Ally Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

Top high-yield checking accounts for college grads

Since most checking accounts offer little to no interest, high-yield checking accounts are a great way for you to maximize the money that typically would just sit in your account without earning interest. These accounts often offer interest rates that fluctuate depending on how much money you have in the account. However, in order to earn interest, there are some requirements that you may have to meet such as making a certain number of debit card transactions and enrolling in eStatements.

1. Consumers Credit Union (IL) Free Rewards Checking

The Consumers Credit Union (IL) Free Rewards Checking account is just that: Rewarding. It offers a tier-based APY, which includes a 5.09% APY on balances up to $10,000, 0.20% APY on balances between $10,000 and $25,000 and 0.10% APY on balances over $25,000. In order to earn the highest APY, you must complete at least 12 signature-based debit purchases, receive at least one direct deposit, ACH debit, or pay one bill through their free bill payment system, log into your online banking account and be signed up for eStatements and spend $1,000 or more with a Consumers Credit Union Visa credit card each month. This account has no fees and offers unlimited ATM reimbursements if requirements are met.

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on Consumers Credit Union (IL)’s secure website

NCUA Insured

2. La Capitol Federal Credit Union Choice Plus Checking

This checking account has a $2 monthly service fee, which can easily be waived if you enroll in eStatements.

While the terms state a minimum balance requirement of $1,000 and a low balance fee of $8, the fee can be waived if you make 15 or more posted non-ATM debit card transactions per month.

To earn the top interest rate on your checking balance, you just need to make at least 15 or more posted non-ATM debit card transactions per month. There are numerous surcharge-free La Capitol ATMs for you to use, and after signing up for eStatements you can receive up to $25 per month in ATM fee refunds when you use out-of-network ATMs.

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on La Capitol Federal Credit Union’s secure website

NCUA Insured

3. Boeing Employees Credit Union Member Advantage Checking

Contrary to its name, anyone can join the Boeing Employees Credit Union – however, to do so, you must join the Northwest Credit Union Foundation’s “Friends of the Foundation,” which has a $20 membership fee. That $20 fee could be well worth it, though, if you take advantage of the credit union’s Member Advantage Checking account. This account has a generous 4.07% APY on balances up to $500, as long as you open BECU Member Checking and Savings accounts, sign up to receive eStatements and make at least one transaction a month. There are no monthly service fees, and the Member Advantage Checking account offers $6 per month in ATM fee reimbursements.

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on BECU (Boeing Employees Credit Union)’s secure website

NCUA Insured

4. TAB Bank Kasasa Cash Rewards Checking Account

Based in Ogden, UT, TAB Bank’s Kasasa Cash Checking account is a great choice for recent graduates. You can earn a very competitive 4.00% APY by meeting a few simple requirements: Have at least one direct deposit, ACH payment, or bill pay transaction posted to the account during each billing cycle; and make at least 15 debit card purchases of $5 or more. Even better, the bank will reimburse up to $15 in ATM fees per month from making withdrawals outside their ATM network.

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on TAB Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

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.

James Ellis
James Ellis |

James Ellis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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Best of, College Students and Recent Grads, Credit Cards

Best Student Credit Cards November 2019

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.

Getting a credit card while you’re in college can set you up for financial success, provided you avoid racking up unnecessary charges. If you are over 18 and have a steady income, applying for a card now will kick start your credit history, and you can start building that all-important credit score.

Learning how to choose and use the right student credit card is relatively simple. Make sure you avoid annual fees and go with a bank or credit union you can trust. When you get the card, make sure you use it responsibly and pay the balance in full and on time every month. If you do these things consistently over time, you can leave school with an excellent credit score. And if you want to rent an apartment or buy a car, having a good credit score is very important.

Our Top Pick

Discover it® Student Cash Back

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on Discover Bank’s secure website

Rates & Fees

Read Full Review

Discover it® Student Cash Back

Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com and more up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
Regular APR
14.49% - 23.49% Variable
Credit required
fair-credit
No FICO History Required

Magnify Glass Pros

  • Good Grades Reward program: Did you study extra hard this year? If you’ve gotten a 3.0 GPA or higher for an entire school year, Discover will reward you with an extra $20 statement credit. You can get this statement credit for up to five years in a row as long as you’re still a current student when you apply.
  • Free FICO® score: Just like how you have grades for your classes, your FICO® score is your “grade” for your credit. Credit cards have a huge effect on your FICO® score. You can watch how your new credit card affects your score over time with a free FICO® score update on your monthly statement.
  • 5% cash back : You can earn up to 5% cash back at different places that change each quarter, on up to $1,500 in purchases every quarter that you activate. Past categories have included things like Amazon purchases, restaurants, and ground transportation. Even if you don’t buy something in the bonus category, you’ll still earn 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Cash back match at end of your first year: In addition to rotating 5% cash back categories, new cardmembers will also get an intro bonus. When your first card anniversary comes around, Discover will automatically match your cash back rewards you earned during your first year.

Cons Cons

  • Remember to sign up for bonus categories: Even though this card comes with a great cash back rewards program, it comes with a catch: you’ll need to manually activate the bonus places each quarter. You can do this by calling Discover or logging in to your account online. If you forget, you’ll still earn 1% cash back if you make any purchases in the qualifying categories.
  • Gift certificates only available at certain levels: You can redeem your rewards for many things such as Amazon purchases, a statement credit, or a donation to a charity, to name a few. But, if you’d like to get a gift card instead, you’ll need a cash back balance of at least $20 saved up in your account.
Bottom line

Bottom line

The Discover it® Student Cash Back offers great perks for college students, such as a rewards program for good grades and a free FICO® score so you can learn about your credit firsthand. Its cash back rewards program is our favorite. No other card for students (that we could find) offers the opportunity to earn up to 5% cash back. And with no annual fee, this is our top pick.

Read our full review of the Discover it® Student Cash Back

Best Flat-Rate Card

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

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on Capital One’s website

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
1% Cash Back on all purchases; 0.25% Cash Back bonus on the cash back you earn each month you pay on time
Regular Purchase APR
26.99% (Variable)
Credit required
fair-credit
Average/Fair/Limited

Magnify Glass Pros

  • 1.25% cash back if you pay on time: Each purchase you make earns a flat-rate 1% Cash Back on all purchases; 0.25% Cash Back bonus on the cash back you earn each month you pay on time. This makes it handy for people who want as simple a card as possible. And it rewards great behavior.
  • Higher credit lines after on-time payments: If you’re approved for this card, you’ll receive a credit line of at least $300. If you make five on-time payments in a row, you can call Capital One and ask them to increase your credit line.
  • No foreign transaction fee: This is a great card to take overseas, because you won’t have to pay any foreign transaction fees. Most cards charge an average 3% foreign transaction fee, but Journey allows you to use your card abroad without being charged extra fees.

Cons Cons

  • High APR: This card carries an APR of 26.99% (Variable). That’s almost twice as high as some other student credit cards, such as the Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card with a rate as low as 12.90% - 22.90% Variable APR. It’s just one more incentive to pay off your bill in full each month.
Bottom line

Bottom line

We really like this card because it actively rewards you for developing good credit-management behavior by offering a small cash back bonus for on-time payments. In addition, the cash back program is straightforward with no confusing categories to remember or opt into, making this card a good option for students who want a simple, flat-rate card.

Read our full review of the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Best Intro Bonus

Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card

The information related to Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card has been collected by MagnifyMoney and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication. Terms Apply.

Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card

Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
3% cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for the first 6 months, 1% cash rewards on virtually all other purchases
Regular Purchase APR
12.90% - 22.90% Variable
Credit required
excellent-credit
Good/Excellent

Magnify Glass Pros

  • Interest rates as low as 12.90% - 22.90% Variable APR: Depending on your credit, your interest rate could be between 12.90% - 22.90% Variable APR, but there is no guarantee you’ll receive the lower rate. This is a lower variable APR range than most student cards, and can help if you aren’t able to pay your balance in full one month.
  • Intro Rewards Bonus: 3% cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for the first 6 months, 1% cash rewards on virtually all other purchases
  • Access to credit education: Wells Fargo provides you with all sorts of tools and information to learn about things like credit, budgeting, and expense tracking. While this is a nice feature, it’s not exclusive to Wells Fargo. You can get this information from free tools such as Mint, or even reading books and blogs. But it is pretty handy having it right at your fingertips when logged in to your account.

Cons Cons

  • Need to be a Wells Fargo member to apply online: You can go into any one of the 6,000+ branches and apply for the card. You can also apply online, but you’ll need to be an existing Wells Fargo customer. However, anyone can open a checking account online with a minimum deposit of $25.
  • High bars for some cash back redemption options: There are a lot of redemption options available through Wells Fargo’s own online cash back rewards mall. However, if you’d just like straight cash, you have a few options. You can request a direct deposit into your Wells Fargo checking account, savings account, or Wells Fargo credit card (if applicable) in $25 increments, or request a paper check in $20 increments. That can take a long time to accumulate if you’re not spending much with your card.
Bottom line

Bottom line

The Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card is a relatively simple card with a great intro bonus of 3% cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for the first 6 months, 1% cash rewards on virtually all other purchases In addition, the low variable APR is handy for those who think they’ll be carrying a balance on their credit card from month to month at some point in the future. This is generally something we recommend against, but if you can’t avoid it, the Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card is your best bet.

Read our full review of the Wells Fargo Cash Back CollegeSM Card

Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Magnify Glass Pros

  • Unlimited rewards. Earn unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases everywhere, every time and no expiration on points.
  • Flexible rewards redemption. You can redeem your points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars or baggage fees. Plus, this card doesn’t restrict you to a particular airline or chain of hotels.
  • Free FICO score. Keep track of your credit score via online banking or Bank of America’s mobile app.
  • Chance to earn more rewards. Have an active Bank of America checking or savings account? Then this card offers a chance to get a 10% customer points bonus on every purchase. The card is also eligible for the benefits of the Preferred Rewards program, though that program is based on banking and/or investment balances that might be too high for many college students to qualify for.
  • Foreign transaction fee? There is None.

Cons Cons

  • Points are not worth as much when redeemed for cash back. When redeemed for a travel credit, each point is worth $0.01. However, if redeemed for cash back, points are only worth $0.006 each. For example, 2,500 points redeemed for travel would be worth $25. The same number of points redeemed for cash back would be worth $15.
Bottom line

Bottom line

If you’re looking for a student card offering travel rewards, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students could be a good option. With an annual fee of $0 and points that can be redeemed for travel with any airline or stays with any hotel line, this card gives you options.

The information related to Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students has been collected by MagnifyMoney and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Best Credit Union Card

Altra Federal Credit Union Student Visa® Credit Card

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on Altra’s secure website

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Altra Federal Credit Union Student Visa® Credit Card

Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
Earn double Reward Points on every dollar of purchases in the first 60 days after opening your new account, then 1 point per dollar spent.
Regular Purchase APR
15.90% Fixed

Magnify Glass Pros

  • $20 reward for good credit card usage: If you can maintain your account in an “exceptional way” for your first year, you’ll get a bonus $20 reward on your card’s anniversary. All you have to do is not have any late payments, don’t charge over your card’s limit, and use your card for at least six out of twelve months.
  • Up to $500 random winner each quarter: It’s like playing the lottery, except you don’t have to buy a lottery ticket. Each quarter Altra will choose one student cardholder at random and pay back all of their purchases from the previous month, anywhere between $50 to $500.
  • Earn rewards: For the first 60 days after you open your account, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent. After that you’ll earn 1 point per dollar spent. You can redeem these points for cash back, merchandise through their online rewards mall, or travel.
  • Redeem points for a lower interest rate: If you’ll need a car in the future, this might be a good credit card to get. You can trade in 5,000 points for a 0.25% reduction, or 10,000 points for a 0.50% reduction on an auto loan through Altra Federal Credit Union. That could end up saving you a ton of cash in the long run.

Cons Cons

  • 1.00% of each transaction in U.S. dollars foreign transaction fee: This is definitely one card to leave at home if you’ll be traveling or studying abroad. Most credit cards charge a 3% foreign transaction fee, so this is on the low side. Still, it’s not too hard to find a student credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as the Discover it® Student Cash Back or the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® card.
  • Must join Altra Federal Credit Union: Luckily, anyone can join, but it might take a bit of legwork on your part compared to a bank. If you don’t meet certain membership eligibility criteria, you can join the Altra Foundation for $5. Then you’ll need to open a savings account with a minimum $5 deposit that must remain in the account while you have your card open.
Bottom line

Bottom line

If you’re a student who doesn’t mind working with a credit union, Altra provides a card that has several rewards benefits. This card is a good option if you may be taking out an auto loan in the next few years, since you’ll benefit from a reduced interest rate by trading in your rewards points. In addition to earning rewards, using this card responsibly can help you build credit.

Read our full review of the Altra Federal Credit Union Student Visa® Credit Card

Best Secured Card

Discover it® Secured

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on Discover Bank’s secure website

Rates & Fees

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Discover it® Secured

Annual fee
$0
Minimum Deposit
$200
Regular APR
24.49% Variable
Credit required
bad-credit
New/Rebuilding

Magnify Glass Pros

  • Cashback program: This card has a feature uncommon to other secured cards — a cashback program. You earn 2% cash back at restaurants or gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus 1% cash back on all other credit card purchases.
  • Cashback Match™: Discover will match ALL the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There’s no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched (new cardmembers only). This is a great added bonus that increases your cash back in Year 1.
  • Automatic monthly reviews after eight months: Discover makes it easy for you to transition to an unsecured card with monthly reviews of your account starting after eight months. Reviews are based on responsible credit management across all of your credit cards and loans.

Cons Cons

  • Security deposit: You need to deposit a minimum of $200 in order to open this card, which is pretty standard for a secured card. This will become your credit line, so a $200 deposit gives you a $200 credit line. If you want a higher credit limit, you need to increase your deposit. The security deposit is refundable, meaning you will receive your deposit back if you close the card, as long as your account is in good standing.
Bottom line

Bottom line

The Discover it® Secured is great for students who want to build credit. This card easily transitions you to an unsecured card when the time is right, and you can earn cash back. With proper credit behavior, you’ll soon be on your way to an unsecured card.

Read our full review of the Discover it® Secured

Best for No Credit History

Deserve® EDU Mastercard

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on Deserve’s secure website

Deserve® EDU Mastercard

Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
1% unlimited cash back on ALL purchases
Regular Purchase APR
20.24% Variable
Credit required
bad-credit
Fair/Good Credit or No Credit

Magnify Glass Pros

  • No credit history required: You can qualify for this card without any credit history, making this a great option for students new to credit. You don’t even need a Social Security number when applying.
  • Reimbursement for Amazon Prime Student*: This card will reimburse you for the cost of a year of Amazon Prime Student (valued at $59). You need to charge your membership to this card to qualify, and you will not be reimbursed for subsequent years’ membership fees.
  • No foreign transaction fee: Whether you travel abroad or study abroad, you can rest easy: There are no foreign transaction fees with this card.

Cons Cons

  • Low cash back rate: The rewards program has a subpar 1% unlimited cash back on ALL purchases. You can do better with some of the other cards mentioned in this post. Though as a student, rewards shouldn’t be your primary focus — instead, build your credit so you can qualify for better non-student cards. (Note that if you’ve applied without an SSN, you won’t build credit with this card until you link an SSN to your account.)
Bottom line

Bottom line

The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students is a great choice for students who are looking to build credit. Deserve markets their cards for those who may have trouble qualifying for credit, and students who fall into this category may more easily qualify for this card than for cards from traditional banks. You can earn cash back, and receive a great promotional offer of a year of Amazon Prime Student for free*.

The information related to Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students has been collected by MagnifyMoney and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Also ConsiderAlso Consider

Golden 1 Platinum Rewards for Students

Golden 1 Credit Union Platinum Rewards for Students:

This credit card offers a snazzy rewards program: rather than accumulate points, you’ll get a cash rebate instead. All you have to do is make a purchase. At the end of the month, you’ll get a rebate of 3% of gas, grocery, and restaurant purchases, and 1% of all other purchases deposited back into your Golden 1 savings account at the end of the month. Anyone who lives or works in California is eligible for credit union membership.

What should I look for in a student credit card?

The most important thing to consider when looking for a student credit card is that it charges no annual fee. You should never have to pay to build your credit score. Fortunately, most student cards don’t charge you an annual fee, but it’s still something to watch out for.

The second most important thing you should keep an eye out for are tools that help you learn about credit or even promote good credit-building habits. For example, some student credit cards will give you a free monthly FICO® score update. You can use this freebie to see in real time how your credit score changes as you build credit history by keeping the card open, or paying down your credit card balance, for example.

The last thing you should be considering when picking out a student credit card is the rewards program. I know, I know, it seems counterintuitive. But stick with me — I’ll show you why in the next question.

Why shouldn’t I be concerned about maximizing my rewards while in college?

Rewards cards are nice to have. But if you’re a college student, here’s the truth: you probably won’t spend enough to earn meaningful rewards.

Why? With a good rewards program, you can earn points or cash back. A small percentage of your monthly spending can add up quickly. However, given the tight budget that most college students live on, it will probably take a while to earn meaningful rewards. For example, if you earn 1.25% cash back and spend $300 a month on your card, you would earn $45 of cash back during the year.

College students are very good at making good use of $45. And our favorite card offers a great cash back rewards program. Just don’t expect to earn a lot of cash back, given the tight budget of a college student.

Why should I get a credit card as a college student?

There are a lot of great reasons why you should get a credit card, as long as you can commit to using it responsibly.

The single biggest reason why you should get a credit card as a college student is because you can start establishing a credit history now. When you graduate from college, you will need a good credit score to get an apartment. And your future employer will likely check your credit report. Building a good credit history while still in college will help prepare you for life after graduation.

Getting a credit card while in college can also train you to develop good credit habits now. But you need to be honest with yourself. If you find that you can’t avoid the temptation of maxing out your credit card, you might want to switch to a debit card or cash.

Finally, getting a credit card now can be the motivation you need to start learning about credit. These skills aren’t hard to learn, and they could save you thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars later in life (when you want a mortgage, for example).

What is the CARD Act and why should I care about it?

Many years ago, credit card companies would market on college campuses. You could get a free beer mug or t-shirt in exchange for a credit card application. And you would be able to qualify for a credit card without having any income. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act was signed into law in May 2009 to change a number of practices.

How did the CARD Act change student credit cards?

The CARD Act made a lot of changes in how credit card issuers do business with students. One of the biggest changes was requiring students to be able to demonstrate an ability to pay. If you are under 21 and do not have sufficient income (a campus job, for example), you would need to get a co-signer.

In addition, colleges must now limit the amount of credit card marketing on campus. The days of free t-shirts and pizzas in exchange for credit card applications are gone. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible for a college student to get a credit card. Some highly reputable banks and credit unions still offer student cards. And building a good credit score while still in college is still highly recommended.

How can I protect myself from racking up debt?

When used properly, credit cards are a very convenient method of repayment. However, when not used properly, you can end up deep in credit card debt. It is important to establish a healthy relationship to credit now, with your first credit card.

You should try to ensure that you pay off your credit card bill in full and on time every month. Ideally, you should set up an automatic monthly payment. And to keep yourself on track, take advantage of alerts offered by most credit card companies. You can even get daily text messages reminding you of your balance.

How can I automate my credit card usage?

If all of this sounds confusing, don’t worry. There’s actually a way you can automate your payments so you never even have to bother with the hassle of using a credit card. All it takes is a few minutes of upfront work.

First, you’ll need at least one recurring monthly bill of the same amount, such as Netflix or Spotify. Log in to your account and set up an automatic payment each month using your credit card. Make a note of how much your monthly bill costs.

Next, log in to your bank account. Set up a second automatic payment to go to your credit card each month for the same amount as the bill. If your bank doesn’t offer the option to set up automatic payments, you may also be able to set up your credit card to automatically withdraw the amount of the bill from your bank.

Because you know this bill will be for the same amount each month (barring any price increases), you can literally just leave this running in the background each month on autopilot. You don’t even have to carry your credit card in your wallet if you don’t want to. Then, when you graduate, you’ll automatically have an improved credit score!

What happens to my student credit card when I graduate?

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the finish line. But what about your student credit card? You may choose to hold on to your student card since it might be your oldest credit account and this can play a part in your credit score. If you close your student credit card account, it will reduce your average age of credit accounts and could hurt your credit score. Instead of closing the account, you can ask your student card issuer if there is an option to upgrade your card.

Here is a summary of our favorite cards:

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Lindsay VanSomeren
Lindsay VanSomeren |

Lindsay VanSomeren is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Lindsay here