College students who use credit cards now carry 5 on average—here's why experts aren't worried

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Among those who have at least one credit card, college students now have an average of 5.2, a new report shows. That's higher than the 4.4 cards held last year by a typical card-holding American of any age, according to Experian.

That's according to Sallie Mae's 2019 Majoring in Money report, which surveyed 810 college students ages 18 to 24. The lender found that 57% of the students surveyed carry at least one credit card.

The average number of credit cards students hold seems to be increasing. In 2016, college students with at least one credit card only carried an average of three cards, the survey reports, compared to an average of five today.

That doesn't mean that every student has multiple credit cards. Nearly one in five college students only has one.

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The overall increase is due, in part, to the popularity of store cards, Marie O'Malley, senior director of consumer research with Sallie Mae, tells CNBC Make It. "Some of these students don't just have that one safety card," she says. Instead, when they're shopping, they pick up store cards that will save them 10% or offer other promotions.

Students are carrying higher balances than they used to, too: The average is now $1,423, according to the survey, which marks a 32% increase from 2016, when the average was $1,076. The median balance has also increased to $500, up from $400 in 2016.

Although college students are carrying more cards and holding higher balances, Sallie Mae spokesman Rick Castellano says the behavior isn't cause for concern. That's because students generally aren't missing payments. "If you saw a pattern of delinquency, then that would be a different story," he says.

In fact, the proportion of college students who pay their bills in full every month is about the same as it was in 2016, O'Malley says. About 60% of students say they pay off their credit cards in full every month and fewer than 1% say they pay less than the minimum, according to the report.

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Another positive sign: Many college students use their debit cards more frequently than any other payment type. This can keep them from overspending and racking up more credit card debt than they can afford to pay off. "Even students who have credit cards say it's easier to manage their budget when using a debit card," O'Malley says.

Still, the report shows that many parents are helping out with the payments. About 30% of students say their parents pay their credit card bills, compared to 25% in 2016. Another one in four are authorized users on their parents' cards.

"Parents are actually supporting the habit," O'Malley says. That may be, in part, because many students get their credit cards based on their parents' recommendation: Almost one in five students say their parents chose their first card for them.

Overall, however, many college students are practicing good money habits that can support their use of credit cards, the experts say. More than 70% of college students say they pay their bills on time, for example, and just over half track their spending.

"There is a sense of confidence and responsibility that young adults are taking when it comes to managing money," Castellano says.

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