Drowning in debt

John Hult

John Hult

Karla Jonas is apprehensive. As she sits in the break room at her full time job, she is uncertain as to why anyone would want to know about her experiences with credit card debt.

Her story is not necessarily new or unique. She graduated from SDSU in May of 1999 with a degree in Family Consumer Sciences and with a debt record that could have been easily managed, had there been job opportunities in her chosen field.

As it stands, she is one of thousands of college students who works as an unskilled laborer until the job market opens a door. Her advice to students regarding credit card spending is simple:

“Don’t be an emotional spender because you say ‘I’ll have a job when I graduate,’ because it won’t always happen right away,” Jonas said.

Over the past five years, credit card offers for students have increased dramatically. Students are bombarded with phone calls, e-mail offers and face-to-face solicitations.

“When I first started, it wasn’t so prevalent, but towards the end you couldn’t walk through the breezeway without someone there to try and give you a card and a free T-shirt, especially during the first months of the semester,” Jonas said.

Students whose chances of obtaining a credit card were quite slim before are now offered a card at every turn.

According to freshman Cade Lang, it doesn’t take much to get a card.

“I probably average one call a week offering a credit card. I usually just blow it off and tell them I’m not interested,” Lang said.

Lang’s strategy may be the best way to avoid the pitfalls of today’s high-limit, high-interest student credit cards. According to the Nellie Mae Corporation’s website, 78 percent of students applying for loans with the company had credit cards in 2000. Their average debt from the cards was $2,748.

Add that to the national average of $4,345 of student loans the Digest of Educational Statistics reported in 1995-96, and it equals quite a hefty debt to be straddled with after graduation.

Jonas explained how she allowed herself to get into so much debt.

“Sometimes, if I had a bad day or something, I could just say, ‘OK, I deserve this.’ I also got into trouble after I moved off campus with a roommate who couldn’t pay the bills, and I had to put the bills on the credit card,” Jonas said.

Jessica Pikul, a sophomore microbiology student, knows how easy it is to rack up credit card debt.

“I got approved for a credit card with a $1,000 limit,” Pikul said. “I don’t have a thousand dollars to my name, ever.”

Jonas’s story of emotional spending rings true for many students, as Pikul can testify.

“Most college students are out on their own for the first time, and unless they have had a job since they were very young, they may not realize right away that they have to pay for those things when the bill comes,” Pikul said.

Even so, some students are wising up. Credit cards can certainly prove worthwhile in a jam, and choosing the right offer can help to insure that repayment won’t be too big a problem, they say.

Many students have used credit cards when paying for tuition and books.

Senior Cherolyn Hinshaw came back to SDSU after earning a BA in Spanish in 1993. After working full-time for a few years, she has been able to rebuild her credit to the point where credit cards are useful instead of troublesome.

“I actually had to put my tuition this semester and my books on the credit card full boar,” Hinshaw said. “It has been good for me because I work full-time and and can afford to make the payments.”

But Hinshaw’s experience is a little different than most students in that she no longer gets deals geared towards students.

“I do find it amazing that these students who work part time at best or work seven or 10 hours a week with work-study can manage to get $1,000 or $1,500 credit limit when that exceeds their semester’s income,” Hinshaw said.

“I could barely get a $200 credit limit two years ago, and I was working full time.”

Junior pharmacy student Daniel Sneeden said credit cards can be helpful as well.

“If you use it correctly, it can be a convenience,” he said.

“I’m not worried about paying it off, because I have a student card that maxes out at $500. I only used it for an emergency when I needed to buy books,” Sneeden said.