4 warning signs your college student is racking up card debt

4 warning signs your college student is racking up card debt UpperCut Images/UpperCut Images/Getty Images


4 warning signs your college student is racking up card debt UpperCut Images/UpperCut Images/Getty Images


When you send your child off to pursue a college education, you don’t want them to graduate with a mountain of credit card debt. But that’s often exactly what happens.

A May 2016 Experian study found 30 percent of the 1,000 college students they surveyed had credit card debt, and the amount averaged $2,500.

In some cases, student credit card debt can run much higher.

When Latoya Scott, a freelance personal finance writer in Columbia, South Carolina, graduated in 2006, she had amassed $36,000 in credit card debt spread across 27 cards.

“I might have paid for some of my books and a computer, but most of it was gas, eating out and clothes,” she says. “My mom handled the minimum payments, but she couldn’t keep up with them after I graduated.”

By the time Kayla Sloan earned her college degree, her credit card balances had ballooned to a total of $10,000. Now 25 and living in Colby, Kansas, she is still working to repay her debt.

Sloan applied for her first credit card to build credit. “I got it with good intentions, and I knew you had to pay the balance off every month,” she says on ShoeaholicNoMore.com. “I thought I’m too smart to get into debt.

The biggest issue was not that I didn’t know how to use credit. It’s that I used it for things I didn’t need.

— Kayla Sloan,
Whose credit card debt ballooned to $10,000
during her college years

“The biggest issue was not that I didn’t know how to use credit,” she says now. “It’s that I used it for things I didn’t need.”

While your daughter or son is away at school, here are four warning signs your child is getting in credit card debt:

1. Your child already has debt.
Steven Shagrin, a money coach and trainer with Money Coaching Institute, says, “Students already in debt through student loans are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

“Those that work also have more access to credit,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean they will use it well. If they live off campus, they tend to be more independent and tend to engage in riskier behaviors.” 

2. Watch their spending – and what they’re wearing.
Tai McNeely, one half of the husband-and-wife HisandHerMoney.com team and co-author of “Money Talks,” suggests staying alert for an excessive amount of new purchases.

“Start to notice habits,” she says. “I know if my child is shopping a lot, coming home with new outfits and I didn’t buy it.”

3. Frequent calls asking for money.
If you start to notice that your children “are calling you all the time for money, use that as an opportunity to train your children against the dangers of credit card abuse,” she adds. “We still need to train our children past 18 years old.”   

4. Your college student is shy about talking finances.
Changes in your child’s mood may be a clue that your college student is overburdened with credit card debt, money experts say.

Lauren Greutman, author of “The Recovering Spender,” remembers keeping her $4,000 credit card balance from her parents until the very end. “I came clean to my mom and told her the dangers I’d gotten myself into,” she says. “To have that much debt as a 20-year-old with no way to pay it back crushed me.”

Talaat McNeely, the other half of the HisandHerMoney.com team, says parents should be proactive to help their children avoid sinking in a credit quicksand.

Start to notice habits. I know if my child is shopping a lot, coming home with new outfits and I didn’t buy it.

— Tai McNeely,
Half of the husband-and-wife HisandHerMoney.com

McNeely recommends parents share their own credit lessons with their college students – even if those experiences are less than stellar. “Our kids need to learn from our victories as well as our failures,” he says.

Joe Messinger, a financial planner and college funding expert for Capstone Wealth Partners, says parents should encourage their children to connect with the financial wellness resources available on campus.

Messinger says credit cards are not inherently bad. He says that college students can benefit from using credit cards to build credit if those accounts are managed responsibly.

Above all, parents should proactively monitor their children’s financial activities. After all, if your college student doesn’t have his or her own credit card and is an authorized user on your card, you’re ultimately liable for the charges your child rings up on that card.

Even though they are young adults on a college campus, parental involvement can help young adults avoid costly mistakes with credit cards that can take years to undo, credit and money experts say.  

For Scott, who writes for on LifeandaBudget.com, dealing with that $36,000 in debt spread over 27 cards was a struggle that lasted long after she earned her diploma.

In college, Scott says she thought, “I’ll worry about this when I graduate. I’ll get a job and it will go away.”

Scott, now 32, ended up filing for bankruptcy to get a fresh start.

“I had no clue how long it would take. I never sat down and looked at the credit card statements. I never paid attention to that.” 

See related: 10 ways students can build good credit, Nearly half of college students aren’t checking their credit reports, 4 reasons why college kids need a credit card, Best student credit cards: Fall 2016

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Updated: 01-16-2018