Become Debt-Free

Over a third of college students already have credit card debt

Twenty20

Erza Bobo, a 21-year-old student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, balances classes with serving as a resident assistant and working at two local restaurants. Yet it's not enough to make ends meet.

In addition to the roughly $30,000 in student loans he's taken on, Bobo tells CNBC Make It that he's racked up $2,000 in credit card debt that he's not going to be able to pay off any time soon.

And he's not alone — 36% of U.S. college students say they already have more than $1,000 in credit card debt. That's according to a new report this week from EVERFI and AIG that surveyed over 30,000 college students from more than 440 institutions spread across 45 states.

Ezra Bobo, 21, is attending the Culinary Institute of America and is already juggling both student loans and some credit card debt.
Source: Ezra Bobo
What leads to credit card debt

Bobo, who is working toward a business degree in food business management after earning his associate's degree, says he tries to use his credit card like a debit card. Typically he uses his Discover Miles card for everyday expenses, such as dining out and grocery shopping and then tries to pay down the balance as quickly as possible.

He likes to use his credit card, rather than a debit card, so he can earn miles to fly home to Florida to see his family. "I don't go wild, I'm not one of those people who will put everything on it," Bobo says. But he did start to get behind with payments when he had to put some bigger expenses on his card, including emergency car repairs that cost a few thousand dollars.

Because Bobo didn't have the cash on hand, it went on the credit card. And that's not dissimilar to many Americans. A recent survey shows 23% of Americans say that paying for basic necessities such as rent, utilities and food contributes the most to their credit card debt.

This upcoming semester is going to particularly challenging financially for Bobo. "I'll definitely be putting a little bit more on the credit card this semester because I won't be able to work as much and get that paycheck," he says.

He and his classmates have to plan and execute a charity event as part of a graduation requirement. They voted to make Bobo the general manager, so he's given up his restaurant side jobs in anticipation of the extra hours he'll have to put in at school.

Student credit card usage and debt on the rise

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found earlier this month that credit card delinquency rates are on the rise among younger Americans. Over 8% of balances held by those ages 18 to 29 hit the seriously delinquent territory in the first quarter of 2019, which means they are at least 90 days overdue with no payment. That's an eight-year high.

And the survey from EVERFI and AIG finds that 15% of college students say their credit scores have already taken a hit because they've paid bills late.

"The rate at which credit card balances become delinquent has been rising and that has coincided with an increase in younger borrowers entering the credit card market," Andrew Haughwout, senior vice president at the New York Fed, said in a statement about the research.

Bobo plans on tackling his both his student loans and his debt after he graduates. And he's already asking some of his friends who have already graduated how they juggle their finances between paying off debts and affording living expenses.

"I'm trying to figure out, on my own essentially, what the best plan of attack is to paying off all the debt," Bobo says. "A lot of it is about needing to get educated about the best way to just attack this whole monster."

Prioritize paying off credit card debt

Experts say students like Bobo, who already have credit card debt, should focus on paying that off before tackling their student loan debt.

That's because carrying a balance on a credit card can become a significant expense, especially since the average credit card APR has never been higher: It's currently sitting at 17.73%, according to CreditCards.com. That's more than double the current federal student loan interest rates and even surpassing the highest private loan APRs.

As a result, the interest accrued on monthly credit card balances can quickly add up. Let's say you have $4,293 in credit card debt, which is the national average among those who carry a balance, according to Experian. If your card charges the average APR, and you pay just the minimum each month (3%, which is roughly $129 to start), you'd stay in debt for about 15 years and put more than $3,800 toward interest.

The financial strain of balancing both credit and student loan debt can be a mental and emotional struggle, too, Rob Scheinerman, president of AIG Retirement Services, tells CNBC Make It. "It's sad enough to have a whole lot of student debt, but to have credit card debt piled on top of it can feel quite overwhelming."

For new graduates who are working to pay off credit card debt it can help to make a plan to pay off debt and set a deadline. San Diego resident Guen Garrido managed to pay off $68,600 in about three years after drawing inspiration from Dave Ramsey's "snowball method" and YouTube tutorials.

"I think a lot of people think they're never going to be debt-free, so they don't even try to get out," Garrido told CNBC Make It last year. "But once you set a date, you start to think, 'OK, I can do this,'" she says.

As a general guideline, the nonprofit American Consumer Credit Counseling recommends allocating about 5% of your income towards that goal.

Debt doesn't have to be a life sentence, CreditCards.com industry analyst Ted Rossman says. Though it may require some hard work and planning, he says, "Everybody can get out of debt."

With just a few months left before getting his degree, Bobo remains optimistic about his prospects. He feels his student loan situation could be much worse since he receives free housing and a grant based on his RA assignment.

As for his current credit card debt, "it's definitely manageable," Bobo says.

Don't miss: This 34-year-old just hit over 10 million credit card points. Here's how he does it

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