12 Tips to Get Through College Without a Load of Credit Card Debt

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Finally. It’s what you’ve been waiting for. You’re headed off to college and freeing yourself from the yoke of your parents’ demands.

No more chores. No more getting grounded. No more unfair rules.

But here’s something to keep in mind: Whether you’re studying philosophy, mechanical engineering or marine biology, your professors won’t pay your bills.

Oh yeah, your parents are off the hook now, too.

It’s really easy to have a great time in college — and to come out the other side with a diploma and complete disaster of a financial life. Credit card bills, overdrafts and missed payments can have you entering the real world in a rough spot.

Here are a few tips to avoid these financial pitfalls — without taking a bunch of microeconomics courses.

1. Stretch Your Tight Food Budget

Heather Comparetto receives her groceries using Shipt, a grocery delivery service, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

During your college years, you probably won’t have a lot of money for groceries. No one does. That’s why ramen noodles are such a staple of the college diet. But if you’re smart about it, you can stretch your grocery dollars and maybe afford a steak once in a while.

A cool app, Ibotta, will pay you for taking pictures of your grocery store receipts.

Here’s how it works: Before heading to the store, search for items on your shopping list within the Ibotta app. When you get home, snap a photo of your receipt and scan the items’ barcodes.

Bam. Cash back.

Ibotta is free to download. Plus, you’ll get a $5 sign-up bonus after uploading your first receipt.

Some cash-back opportunities we’ve seen include:

  • 25 cents back for any item.
  • 75 cents back on Hillshire Farm cheddarwurst.
  • $1 back of Buddig deli turkey.
  • 80 cents back on Pop Tarts.

Just shop for the staples on your list and earn cash back. Your friends won’t understand how you can afford to eat so well!

2. Play Games… With a Purpose

Emily Vang is seen around downtown Atlanta.
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After long days of taking tests, scribbling notes and flirting with classmates, you need a break. You need to shut down your brain and just play a few games. Hey, we get it.

But don’t let your game time be wasted time. Try these financially savvy game apps on your phone.

Play Slots, and Earn Higher Interest Than at Your Bank

The folks who created Long Game have you covered with a game that’s fun and helps you achieve your financial goals.  

As you save and accomplish missions, you’ll earn coins to play mini games for cash prizes! We’re talking the classics, like slot machines, scratch-offs and spin-to-win wheels.

Once you link your bank account, you’ll earn 300 points, so you can start playing even if you spent your last couple of bucks on peanut butter and jelly.

3. Find Your Fashion for Less

Young Adults Shop For Clothes at Thrift Store
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What’s more fun than taking notes in class or cramming for that next test? Shopping for clothes.

But don’t pay full price! All you need to do to save is download the Shopkick app.

Once you sign up, the app pays you in “kicks” for walking into certain stores (including Walmart, Target, TJMaxx and more). You can redeem them for gift cards to a number of retailers, including Amazon, Target, Walmart, Macy’s and Marshall’s.

Using gift cards to shop for clothes is Shopping 101, folks.

4. Give up Your High School Bank

Savannah Holley organizes money she got from the drive through banking counter at Mount McKinley Bank in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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You probably already have a checking account, but is it a good one? Is it at the bank your parents use, just because it has a branch close to home?

You’re out on your own now. It’s time to break free from that hometown bank and look into a checking account that will pay you just for getting started.

Visit this Chase Total Checking® page* to apply online, or enter your email address to get a unique coupon to take with you to open your account at any Chase branch.

Here are the CliffsNotes:

  • Get a $200 bonus when you open a new Chase Total Checking® account and set up direct deposit.
  • Get a $150 bonus when you open a new Chase Savings℠ account, deposit a total of $10,000 or more in new money within 20 days, and maintain a $10,000 balance for 90 days. You’re not required to open the savings account to earn the $200 Chase checking bonus.
  • This offer is available in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

5. Be the First in Your Class to Start Investing

Photo of a group of friends studying together at home
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Where you stash your money is almost as important as how much you have. Believe it or not, you don’t need to start out with a lot to be a smart investor.

With a free app called Worthy, you can start investing with just $10.

No matter how much, that money is yours. You want to grow it safely, right? Your first thought is a savings account, which will earn you an average of 0.06% interest, according to CNN Money. That’s practically stagnant.

You’ve got to think outside your bank.

Worthy is a microinvesting app that pays out a fixed 5% annual interest rate — around 83 times more than what you’d get from the bank.

It invests in bonds that act like a savings account — you can deposit or withdraw money at any time with no fees or penalties. You can even set up a recurring investment or use Worthy’s round-up program to invest your spare change.

6. Use a Credit Card That Pays You

young man using credit card and smartphone
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Cue ominous music! Credit cards can be a slippery slope that leaves you with a mess of high interest debt after college. But that’s only if you don’t do it right.

If you’re not using a rewards credit card for everyday purchases, you’re missing out on free money.

You just have to be sure you don’t get too carried away with those purchases — and that the card is paid off at the end of each billing period.

Here’s an option we like: It’s the Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Its claim to fame? You’ll earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all your purchases. Plus, if you spend $500 in your first three months of opening the card (hi, groceries), you’ll pocket a $150 bonus.

There’s no annual fee, and the cash-back rewards don’t expire.

Get signed up — and 0% intro APR for 15 months — here.

The information for the Chase Freedom Unlimited card has been collected independently by The Penny Hoarder. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. The Penny Hoarder is a partner of Credible.

7. Get a Grip on Your Credit Score

Alexa Vincent, in various scenes showing credit card debt, consolidation and bankruptcy on August 14, 2018.
Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

If you think, “Huh?” anytime someone mentions your credit score, it’s time to do some serious learning. Your credit score can affect your ability to buy a car, get a mortgage or even land an apartment lease. You need to keep an eye on yours.

You can get a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus.

If you want to keep a closer eye on your credit, get your credit score and “credit report card” for free from Credit Sesame. This website breaks down exactly what’s on your credit report in layman’s terms, how it affects your score and how you might address it.

8. Love Your Phone Bill as Much as You Love Your Phone

Juergen Dawes walks to class on the University of South Florida Campus, Tampa Fla, on November 13th, 2017.
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Your phone is your everything. You use it all the time. Between classes, during class, after class. But are you paying entirely too much for your service plan?

Try switching over to a discount prepaid phone carrier like US Mobile, where the average user’s monthly phone bill is $15. This can save folks, on average, more than $670 a year.

Want to see if the switch could be worth it? Run a hypothetical.

Create your own custom plan by entering the number of minutes you talk, the number of texts you send and the amount of data you consume each month. You’ll get a free estimate within seconds. Or you can opt for one of US Mobile’s unlimited plans starting at $35 a month.

Once you choose your plan, order a SIM card. If you’re a student, it’s free; otherwise, it’s a $3.99 one-time fee with the starter kit. If at any point you decide you need more or less data, you can adjust accordingly through the US Mobile dashboard.

Plus: US Mobile operates on two of the largest cellular LTE networks — T-Mobile and Verizon (heard of them?) — and covers more than 320 million Americans.

9. Get Your Gadgets at a Discount

Michaela Estes uses the Duolingo app to study Japanese in her free time.
Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder

You need a computer to do your schoolwork, right? And everyone could use a tablet. But why pay full price?

Here’s a tip: Look for refurbished electronics. You can get the laptop, tablet or other device you need in new condition without paying the new price. You may even be able to afford more computer than you’d get if you just bought it new.

10. Add $225 to Your Wallet While Watching Movie Previews

Young woman relaxing at home watching movie on laptop
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If we told you that you could get paid while watching videos on your computer, you’d probably laugh.

It’s too good to be true, right?

But we’re serious. By signing up for a free account with InboxDollars, you could add up to $225 a month to your pocket. They’ll send you short surveys every day, which you can fill out while you watch someone bake brownies or catch up on the latest Kardashian drama.

No, InboxDollars won’t replace your full-time job, but it’s something easy you can do while you’re already on the couch tonight, wasting time on your phone.

Unlike other sites, InboxDollars pays you in cash — no points or gift cards. It’s already paid its users more than $56 million.

Signing up takes about one minute, and you’ll immediately receive a $5 bonus to get you started.

11. Learn the Art of Negotiating — Without Speaking

man paying bills online with credit card
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Now that you’re not living with your parents, it’s amazing how many bills are showing up, right? Your phone service, cable, even utilities. Who knew you had to pay for all of that?

Here’s a lesson in adulting: Negotiate. Everything. If you don’t like to haggle or don’t want to call and ask for refunds you actually deserve, let a bot do it for you.

Download TrueBill, an app that’ll negotiate your bills, cancel unwanted subscriptions and refund your bank fees. On average, Truebill customers get $12 in credits off their cable bills each month.

It’s a free service, and it could save you a bundle. Why not?

12. Get Paid to Lose the Freshman 15

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Your freshman year, you will gain new friends, oodles of knowledge and, legend has it, about 15 pounds. Spring break promises to be fun, but are you ready for all those photos in your swimsuit and on the dance floor? Yikes!

Don’t just shed your freshman 15, get paid to do it.

HealthyWage will literally pay you for losing weight.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Read our full HealthyWage review and sign up.
  2. Define a goal weight and the amount of time you’ll give yourself to achieve it.
  3. Place a bet on yourself of at least $200 a month.

Depending on how much you have to lose, how long you give yourself to do it and how much money you put on the table, you could win up to $10,000!

Wondering if it can really work? We talked to one woman, Teresa Suarez, who lost 68 pounds — and made over $2,400.

Go ahead and use that extra income to grab some extra spring break souvenirs.

13. Get $110 This Year in Passive Income

group of university students working in class while sitting in a lecture
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Passive income is the best income. Why? Because it’s paying you while you do nothing. How cool is that?

This company called Smart Panel will literally pay you to download its free app onto all your devices.

The app collects anonymous statistics from your phone to help your favorite websites, apps, tech companies and mobile carriers give you better services and more features.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You can’t download this from the App Store. Here’s the promo link. It’s free to download.
  2. Once you’ve qualified and downloaded the app, the company will give you a $5 sign-up bonus.

Then you’ll earn $5 a month for every month you keep the app installed. Plus, you’ll get periodic “loyalty bonuses” for keeping the app installed. In total, you can earn up to $110 for the first year and another $120 in the second year!

Be the Smartest in Your Class

Hey, you probably won’t be the only kid in your high school class to graduate college. But you can do it better. You’re not just going to graduate; you’re going to graduate with no credit card debt, a great credit score and an understanding of how to get the best deals once you reach the “real world.”

Be smart. Be on time. And enjoy college without having to beg Mom and Dad for money. It’s more fun that way.

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. His college major was English, but his minor could have been “Wasting Money.” Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.