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College is a great time for financially responsible students to start learning to use credit cards. Credit cards can enable students to make purchases, build credit and even earn rewards. But credit cards can be a confusing concept for a first-timer.

Here are eleven things all college students should know about their first credit card.

1. It Can Help Build Your Credit …

Credit cards are important credit building tools, as card activity is typically reported to credit bureaus and included on your credit report. Over time, credit cards can help you establish an excellent credit score. Excellent credit can help you secure loans, land better interest rates and even reduce common monthly payments.

2. … If You Use It Correctly

Credit cards only help your credit when they’re used wisely — irresponsible use can severely damage your credit. To successfully build your credit, you’ll need to start and stick to smart credit card practices. These include making payments on time, maintaining a low balance and keeping accounts open over time.

3. It Isn’t Free

The credit limit on your credit card isn’t a budget for your next spending spree. Any purchase you make on your credit card will accrue interest if isn’t paid off in time. Plus, credit cards charge additional fees, which may include annual fees, foreign transaction fees and late payment penalties. Pay close attention to the annual percentage rate (APR) and fees for any credit card you’re considering.

4. Missed Payments Have Consequences

If you miss a payment or make a late payment, your credit card issuer may charge you a late payment fee. You might get slapped with a penalty APR that’s much higher than the interest rate you signed up for. That missed payment could even land on your credit report and bring down your credit score for up to seven years.

5. There Are Options if You Have No Credit

If you have no credit history, you can still qualify for certain types of credit cards. One of the best options is a secured credit card, which requires a security deposit upfront but then works just like a traditional credit card. You could also have a trusted family member add you as an authorized user to their credit card account.

6. You Should Pay More Than the Minimum

While it’s tempting to only pay the bare minimum each month, it’s wise to pay a little more. Minimum payments won’t significantly reduce your balance, and you may wind up paying a lot in interest over time. To completely avoid interest, you should pay off your balance in full each month. This means you shouldn’t charge more than you can afford to pay.

7. Applications Can Harm Your Score

When you apply for a credit card, the ensuing credit check (known as a hard inquiry) may land on your credit report. Hard inquiries can ding your credit score a few points but aren’t damaging in the long term. There is a risk in submitting too many applications over a long period of time, so you should try to limit your credit card shopping to a two-week period.

8. Use Rewards Wisely

Many credit cards earn rewards, such as cash back or travel points, as you spend. These rewards can be extremely valuable, but only if you use your card correctly. For instance, cash back cards are less valuable if you carry a balance month-to-month, as interest will eat into the profitability of your card. The way you redeem rewards also varies from card to card, so you’ll want to pick a card that actually provides rewards you’ll use.

9. Not All Cards Are Created Equal

Some credit cards are specifically designed for college students and offer security features, rewards and programs that benefit the fledgling credit card user. Take a look at student-focused credit cards, as they may be more accessible to you and have student-friendly policies. Some of these cards have certain requirements when it comes to credit scores. Before applying for any new cards, it’s wise to check if you will qualify by reviewing your credit scores. You can check two credit scores for free on Credit.com.

10. It Doesn’t Have to Be Exclusive

Your credit card will help build credit whether or not you use it religiously, so don’t feel obligated to use it for everything. You can keep it in case of emergencies or for the occasional purchase.

11. There Are Security Benefits

Credit cards offer a number of security benefits over cash and debit cards. They aren’t tied to your bank account, and you’ll never be responsible for more than $50 if your credit card is stolen. Plus, credit card companies often offer additional security features and monitor your account for suspicious activity.

Image: GeorgeRudy

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