Students get lesson on credit, it costs

ST. LOUIS _ Eighty-three percent of undergrads have at least one credit card, a study shows, and experts warn that the easy access to loans can lead students into harmful financial habits.

Amy Askuvich, a sophomore at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo., relies on old-fashioned envelopes to keep her budget in check.

Before she starts each semester, she divides all her money from scholarships, loans and a summer job into labeled envelopes _ school, shopping, vacation, car insurance, etc. She leaves it all with her mother in Creve Coeur, Mo., and calls home when she needs a deposit into her checking account.

The system helps keep her from spending too much, but even with all the controls in place, there have been some breakdowns. She admits that she’s bounced about three checks since she started college. Plus, certain clothes purchases have forced her to raid envelopes other than the one marked “shopping.”

But, despite the minor lapses, Askuvich says she is much more careful with her money than most of her friends, and she has learned from the experiences of her older sister.

“I’m afraid of credit cards,” she said. She recently got a debit card that can be used like a credit card.

She’s an exception among college students. Eighty-three percent of undergrads now have at least one credit card, according to the latest study by Nellie Mae, a student loan company. Other surveys suggest that nearly half of all college students bounce a check during their years at school, and the vast majority have used their parents as backup ATMs.

Credit counselors and bank officials suggest that parents give their children a crash course in Money 101 before sending them far away with their first checking account, debit card and credit line.

“I don’t think a lot of young people understand interest,” said Vicki Jacobson, vice president for Consumer Credit Counseling Services in St. Louis. It’s easy for a freshman to get intoxicated by the low monthly payments required on high-interest cards, she said. Many poor financial habits take root during the college years, she said.

The culture of the poor, starving college student may no longer exist because of easy access to credit cards, loans and debit cards backed up by parents’ accounts, experts say. Nina Prikazsky, vice president of operations at Nellie Mae, said the number of students with credit cards, along with the number of cards per student, had increased since the first student survey in 1998.

“Students are much more comfortable with credit than in the past,” she said. But that comfort may not translate to financial savvy.

Claire Winkler, branch manager of a Commerce Bank location in St. Louis, frequently handles questions from confused students or panicked parents when accounts are overdrawn. The staff reviews the basics of balancing a checkbook with students opening their first accounts. Employees will even show them how to write a check. Many students use Internet banking to keep track of their balances, Winkler said.

The Internet can also lure students into easy online purchases they can make from their dorm rooms. Jacobson said so many transactions took place without students’ actually seeing dollars exchange hands that money in a bank account may seem like an arbitrary number to some. They may not realize how fees charged by some ATMs and late charges add up not to mention the long-term damage to a credit rating that careless accounting can lead to.

Linda Medlock, a therapist in St. Louis, sensed that her daughter wasn’t paying attention when she explained the basics of her new checking account. She gives her a $50 weekly allowance. When that didn’t cover her expenses her freshman year, her daughter picked up and maxed out a credit card that her parents ultimately paid for.

Medlock says they’ve both learned from experience. Now, when her daughter calls from school in Alabama claiming not to have eaten in days for lack of funds, rather than depositing more money, Medlock sends her a care package of microwave popcorn and macaroni and cheese.