Life is better with plastic. It buys you that sweater you love, a full tank of gas, a night out with your hot new crush ? and could leave you with a lifetime of debt. For most students, college is their first experience with real independence. Students can control who they live with and what they do with their free time. Unfortunately most can?t control their money.

The average undergraduate carries $2,200 in credit card debt, and the average graduate student?s burden leaps to $5,800, according to Nellie Mae, the nation?s largest student loan maker.

Freshman Steve Watkins has one credit card, but hasn?t used it since ?The Incident.? Watkins, who got his card when he was 17, used it to purchase a $4,000 leather La-Z-Boy recliner, and was unable to pay for it all. He found himself $1,500 in debt, and is still in the process of paying it off. ?I just got a final notice in the mail telling me I need to pay them immediately,? Watkins said.

How does this happen? What causes otherwise highly intelligent and able students to allow themselves to fall so deeply in debt?

Studies show that some of problems college students have with money stem from a lack of money guidance and information from their parents. When students enter school unequipped with credit card knowledge, they are open to the pitfalls of credit card shopping.

One of the biggest problems with credit cards is that they are so easy to obtain and to use. The convenience of not having to carry cash, along with the illusion that it?s ?not really money? results in a person spending more than he or she can afford.

Too often, students get enticed into signing up for a card by credit card representatives armed with free T-shirts, water bottles or other gimzos, and end up using the card much more often than they had planned to.

Credit card companies are very interested in snagging college students at this early age, because most people become customers for life. Nellie Mae reported that 78 percent of college students owned a credit card in 2000.

The difficulties college students have with managing credit card debt are well known. Why, then, are there vendors tempting students to sign up for credit cards in Wilson Commons? Director of Student Activities Rob Rouzer explained that credit card companies are considered the same as other vendors in Wilson Commons. Most vendors pay Wilson Commons a percentage of their gross sales, but credit card and phone card companies pay a flat fee.

Rouzer reports that he has very rarely had reports of dissatisfaction with the credit card vendors. ?The only time we?ve had complaints have been when the staff at the tables have been overly aggressive,? Rouzer said.

Other parts of the UR community have very little information on the impact credit cards have on the finances of students. The Bursar?s Office has no knowledge of how many students on campus are struggling with credit card debt. Undergraduates cannot pay their tuition bills by credit card, and while the Bursar?s Office may have the knowledge that a student is in debt, they do not know where that debt is coming from. When paying with a credit card, you are dealing directly with a bank, so UR only has contact with the bank, not with the student?s credit card company.

It is unfair to assume that all college kids can?t handle their money, though. David Sandor, vice president of Visa USA reports that 54 percent of all college students pay their full balance every month.

Junior Remy Gutierrez received his credit card over the summer, and uses for almost every purchase he makes while here at school.?I don?t use cash here, because my bank?s not here. I even use it to buy Starbucks.? Still, Gutierrez pays off his bill every month.

Paying your bills on time every month is a very good idea, because accumulating a bad credit history can haunt you for the rest of your life. People with poor credit ratings often experience trouble when applying for home and car loans.

Shouldering lots of bills is also damaging to your health. An Ohio State University study found that people who report higher levels of stress about their debts also show higher levels of physical impairment and worse health problems than people who had lower levels of debt.

So it?s easy to see that maintaining a good credit rating is a good idea that can have a lasting impact on much of your life. It?s well worth giving up those hot new jeans for a lifetime free of money stresses.

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