How to choose and manage your first credit card, according to a Mercer expert

credit cards in a stack
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In just a few days, Mercer University will welcome another class of students to the Bear family. College is a time for new experiences and independence, including when it comes to finances. Many students secure their first credit cards in college, but that plastic comes with great responsibility.

When done right, credit cards can be a great thing, said Dr. Laura Boman, adjunct professor in the School of Business. They allow students to start establishing their credit history, which will help them down the road when they want to make big purchases. But some discipline and planning are required, or students could find themselves with credit card bills that stick around for years.

Dr. Boman offered a few words of advice to help students choose their first credit card and smartly manage it. 

Go for 0% annual fees

Dr. Laura Boman
Dr. Laura Boman

Credit cards with 0% annual fees will be a better fit for most students. Cards with annual fees often have great rewards, but a card that’s free to use makes more sense for people with zero credit history and limited cash flow. Students most likely wouldn’t be making enough purchases to take advantage of rewards like cash back. That being said, they can still make a little money with cash-back cards, as long as they pay them off every month.

The Petal 1 no-annual fee Visa credit card is a newer card that is earning a good reputation for helping people build their credit. Dr. Boman’s personal favorite, though, is Chase. 

Choose a category for your card

Dr. Boman recommended choosing a card with a low limit and dedicating it to a category of smaller, required purchases, such as gas. Make sure the category isn’t something fun that would encourage more spending. Put that category of purchases on your card and pay it off each month, which will establish a trail of good credit.

Keep interest rates in mind

Another reason to pay off your card each month is to avoid interest charges, which are at historical highs. Credit card companies are trying to make up for the money they missed out on at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people didn’t charge as much. Most cards currently have an interest rate that starts at 22% and then jumps up to 30%.

“It’s the highest that credit cards have ever charged interest in the history of credit cards, so it’s a terrible time to run up a bill on your credit card and not pay it off every month. You don’t want to get stuck with paying a bill years from now for something that you’re getting right now,” she said.

Don’t keep opening and closing cards 

Every time you open or close a credit card, your credit score takes a little hit. So resist the temptation to open a credit card to get a discount or reward and then close it right after. 

“The longer you have a card, the better it is for your credit score,” Dr. Boman said. “The credit score is so important for bigger things than the credit card, like when they go to buy a house or a car or something that’s going to matter a lot.”

Avoid store credit cards

Dr. Boman also cautioned, in general, against signing up for credit cards for specific stores. These types of cards have high interest rates but low benefits, since you can’t use them elsewhere. She does, however, like the Target credit card because it offers 5% off of Target purchases. However, steer clear if having this card would make you want to spend more there. 

Look at your statements

“It’s a good idea to establish early looking at your credit card statement,” Dr. Boman said. “Look over your statement every month and look at each charge and say, ‘Is this something that I actually purchased?’”

Dr. Boman recommended getting a paper statement in the mail as well as a digital statement. Studies have shown that the brain looks more closely at paper statements, making it more likely that mistakes will be caught. Keep an eye out for trial subscriptions that you meant to cancel. 

Get in the right mindset

It’s easy to spend too much on credit cards because of how they work. If you were paying $300 cash for something, you would probably give that purchase thorough consideration because that money is immediately coming out of your pocket. However, putting that purchase on your credit card is less emotional because of the delay in payment.

“Just a warning: Thinking of the credit card as an easy way to pay for things can make (it) a very painful way to pay for things if you put too much on the card and can’t pay it off every month. There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Dr. Boman said. 

Want to keep your spending in check? Dr. Boman suggested a free app named Mint for financial budgeting and planning. Users can link all of their accounts, set a budget, and receive notifications when their goal is approaching.


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Andrea is a digital content specialist at Mercer. She creates and maintains written and multimedia content for primary University web pages. She ensures a consistent, University “voice” throughout various forms of online communications platforms. She also plans and executes campaigns for the primary official Mercer University social media accounts.