Credit cards on campus: their fault or yours? (Point)

If I stacked up all the credit card offers I get in the mail each month, I bet the pile would reach six to eight inches high. But I could probably quadruple that if I added the number of T-shirts and other freebies I’ve picked up from credit card companies on campus over the past five years.

Credit card companies prey on naive, spend-crazy students by sitting outside classroom buildings, bombarding them with free merchandise if they just fill out five simple credit card forms. During my freshman year, I was one of those spend-crazy students with much to learn about debt, budgeting and charging $225 in books that, with credit card charges, cost me close to $400.

By the end of the first quarter of my freshman year, it was a rare night when I wasn’t sleeping in a T-shirt with a Visa or MasterCard logo on it. I had hordes of T-shirts, hats and pens – plenty of useless things to clutter my dorm room. But this was college. I got to make my own decisions, spend what I wanted, splurge when I felt like it and get all the free stuff I could find.

Credit card reps would stop me on my way to class, outside the dining hall, in the student union and on the sidewalk. It seemed harmless enough. Fill out a few forms, tuck another free T-shirt under my arm and continue on to wherever I was headed. I even prided myself when I thought I had tricked them by filling out forms for companies I knew I had already applied to. Little did I know I was the one being duped.

Several months later, a few credit cards showed up in the mail. I already had one: the emergency card Mom and Dad had sent me to college with. It had a limit of $500, and I had only charged about half that amount. Although I didn’t use it for emergencies, I started out trying to use it responsibly. I would charge a $25 sweatshirt, knowing I could pay it off when I got paid the following week. But the money ended up being spent on other things.

Or I would charge a few things with the idea of paying them, forgetting I had charged something else and had already used that future money. Pretty soon, I was using my credit cards to supplement my social life when the cash ran out. Then I charged my textbooks for a couple of semesters, threw on a five-night hotel stay and round-trip airline ticket to London, a handful of Christmas presents and ended up with four credit cards that put me $3,500 in debt.

Am I at fault? Absolutely. If I had truly been responsible, I would not have spent money when I knew I didn’t have it. I would have said no to the trips and shopping sprees I knew I couldn’t afford.

But I would not have had as much opportunity to rack up debt without the credit card companies that lure students on campus. College students are an easy mark for them, especially freshmen. It’s the first time they are paying their own bills and taking charge of their finances. It feels adult to have a credit card. There is no one to tell them they cannot buy what they want. And there is an endless supply of things to spend money on: clothes, textbooks, spring break, University apparel, beer, Christmas presents, McDonald’s, music. The list could go on.

Studies in recent years have reported 61 percent of students obtained credit cards at campus tables, and 79 percent of students have at least one card. The average student has almost $1,000 in credit card debt – which almost always carries high interest rates and sometimes an annual fee. This is in addition to student loan debt. Credit card companies should not be allowed to set up tables on college campuses and reel unsuspecting students into high-interest debt. Although it is the student who actually chooses to use the credit card, without the campus tables most students would have far less opportunity.

 

Erin Ghere’s column appears weekly. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]