Getting your first credit card is an exciting proposition. But taking on too much debt with it is all too easy. For college students with lots of expenses but little income, getting out of debt can be a challenge. Here are some steps that can help.

Key Takeaways

  • More than 36% of students reported having credit card debt of $1,000 or more in one recent study.
  • Getting out of credit card debt can take more time than getting into it in the first place.
  • Making the largest payment you can afford each month can help bring your debt down over time.
  • You may also be able to negotiate with your credit card issuer for a lower interest rate or other assistance.

Establish a Personal Repayment Plan

Your credit card debt doesn't have to stick around into your post-collegiate life. While you may have racked up charges that now seem insurmountable, what you need now is a plan of action. By considering the current state of your finances and adjusting accordingly, you can begin chipping away at what you owe.

Take Stock of Your Debt

No one likes to read their billing statements, especially if they relate to a loan, credit card, or some other form of debt. Unfortunately, you can't just toss your statements aside. You're going to need to take stock of the damage before you can formulate a repayment plan.

To begin with, make a note of the important figures: your outstanding balance, the card's annual percentage rate (APR), and your minimum monthly payment. Those figures tell you exactly how much you owe, how much you'll be charged in added interest if you leave an active balance on the card, and how much you need to pay each month to at least stay current. You may also want to mark down the estimated payoff date, which shows you how long it would take to pay off the debt if you only paid the monthly minimum—typically a very long time. If you have more than one credit card, do this for all of them.

Nail Down Your Monthly Cash Flow

As a college student, you may not have a steady income, or much of one. That could mean it will take months or years, rather than days or weeks, to pay off your debt. Don't let that discourage you.

To help stay on track, make a rudimentary budget for yourself. Consider where your money goes in any given month, such as gas, rent, groceries, or other musts. Then account for the things you do for fun. Ask yourself if there are expenses you could do without in order to have more money to apply to your debts.

Ask Your Credit Card Issuer for Help

Depending on your situation, you may be able to negotiate with your credit card issuer. You won't be able to talk down your balance, but you could possibly work out a more favorable interest rate or have your late fees waived. This isn't necessarily a slam dunk, but a 2014 study found that 90% of cardholders polled were able to get their late fees forgiven, while 63% said they were able to get their interest rates reduced, just by picking up the phone and explaining their situation. It never hurts to ask.

Consider a Balance Transfer Card

It may seem counterintuitive to apply for yet another card to tackle your debt, but credit cards with good balance transfer offers allow you to move your existing balance over to a card with low or even 0% interest for a certain period of time. By doing that, you eliminate some or all of the interest you'd be incurring with the other card, allowing you to pay the debt off more quickly. Unfortunately, if you're in serious debt trouble, the new issuer may turn down your application.

Ways to Reduce Your Credit Card Debt

Even as a college student, you may have more options than you realize for trimming your debt.

  1. Curb your spending. While creating your initial budget, you may have noticed small costs here and there that you could live without. A media subscription here, a gym membership you never use there—all of these costs add up. Start trimming the excess from your spending and applying that money to your monthly credit card payments.
  2. Find additional income. A part-time job, either in the summer months or during school, will produce additional income, at least some of which you may be able to use to pay off debts.
  3. Pay more than the minimum. Making your required minimum monthly payment will keep you in good standing with the credit card company, but it will do very little to reduce your debt. Plan to pay at least a little extra when you can each month—and a lot extra when you can afford to.
  4. Always pay on time. If there's one thing you should take away from having a credit card, it's that you should never miss a payment. That can wreak havoc with your credit score, since late payments are a major factor in how your score is calculated.
  5. Target smaller balances first. If you have more than one credit card, a repayment technique known as the Snowball Method could be of help. It calls for paying off the card with the smallest balance first, while making just the minimum payment on the others. Once that card is paid off, you move on to the one with the next-lowest balance, and so on down the list. Some people find that this method also keeps them motivated, since paying off smaller debts gives them victories to celebrate.
  6. Or target the card with the highest interest rate. An alternative to the Snowball Method is the Debt Avalanche, where you start with the card with the highest interest rate. Once that card is paid off, you move on to the one with the next highest interest rate. This technique can save you a substantial amount of interest if you have the discipline to stick with it.
  7. Be patient. At times, it may seem like you're not making fast enough progress on reducing your debt. Remember that while you may have run up your current debt quickly, repaying it can take a while.

Know That You're Not Alone

Whether your credit card balances total in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, bear in mind that your situation is far from unique. If you look at the recent cohort of college students and graduates, credit card debt plays a major role in their lives as well.

One 2019 study of more than 30,000 college students found that 36% reported having $1,000 or more in credit card debt. Another study found that approximately 49% of Gen Z respondents and 51% of millennials said they've maxed out their credit cards at least once.

All of this is to say that while your current predicament may feel bad right now, you're not the only person staring down credit card debt. Most people will get themselves out of the hole they're in, and you can too with the right plan and sufficient motivation.