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While many college students spend years racking up debt instead of pulling in lucrative salaries, that doesn’t mean they need to forego accruing valuable miles and points. Whether you want to redeem miles for a study abroad trip or simply rake in credit card points that can be used for cash-back, there’s no reason why college students should be missing out on rewards.
One question I get a lot from students looking to build their credit is whether they are actually eligible for the best points-earning credit cards out there, and though the answer varies from person to person based on their credit score, history, finances and other factors, chances are that you can be earning points on your school-related purchases if you keep a few things in mind and with the strategies and ideas I outline below.
1. Know Your Score
As you work through a semester and prepare for finals you keep track of your grades and test scores, right? Well, the same is true of your credit score since it helps determine what cards you’ll qualify for.
There are several factors involved in determining your FICO score (which stands for the Fair Isaac Company) and is the measurement most credit card issuers use to determine your credit worthiness.
Your FICO score is a number between 300-850 that the Fair Isaac Company issues based on your credit, and which is a good way to estimate what your credit score is and whether you’ll be successful when applying for credit cards. “Good” credit is generally over 700, and credit card companies generally don’t differentiate much among scores between 720-850. The threshold for approval with each lender is kept secret and so you’ll generally only find out when you apply, but you can research them on sites like creditboards.com.
According to the FICO website, the five main factors of your credit score are: 35% payment history, 30% amounts owed (so don’t go maxing out your cards every month), 15% length of credit history, 10% new credit, 10% types of credit. To find out your score, you can get a free report here.
Building Credit Responsibly
Many students I talk to worry that their income (or lack thereof) plays a huge roll in their credit score, but that’s not the case, though some issuers do take it (as well as other facts, like your checking and savings account balances) into consideration for some of their products. However, if your credit score is high (or even just fair in some cases), you can still qualify for some great credit cards and start earning those points and miles.
College students can, and should, begin building their credit, but the key is to take a slow and intelligent approach. If your income is low, you need to be careful about running balances, because that will start to lower your score immediately, and it can be nearly impossible to dig yourself out of debt once you start accruing it. A few hundred dollars can easily become a few thousand – and when your income is small, the interest on those balances can start to add up faster than you can keep up.
One easy way for students to build their credit responsibly is for their parents to cosign on a card with them. This strategy is great for many reasons. For one, that card could be a miles-earning card and get you that much closer to a great trip, and second, the parents on the card can put a spending limit on it so their kids don’t overshoot their means. Building credit this way teaches young people how to spend responsibly in a safe way as well as building their credit history.
However, if you want to get right into in the miles and points game – you can absolutely leverage your credit as a college student and you can get cards without having a large annual income. The key for students (and everyone for that matter), is that you keep your score high by spending responsibly within your means, paying off your balances on time every month, and most importantly, staying out of debt. That way, even if you don’t get in on the most lucrative credit card offers right now, your credit score will continue to rise and you can apply for them in the future when you are ready.
So, once you’re ready to start spending, here are some great ways to rack up points and miles for your college expenses.
2. Start with a basic card: Don’t have much of a credit history yet? That’s okay, because many of the major issuers have cards that are geared toward new credit applicants or college students. While they might not be the most lucrative rewards cards out there, if you nurture your credit responsibly, then in the future when you apply for premium cards, your chances of getting approved will improve greatly. The points game isn’t a short-haul earn and burn proposition – you should have a long-term strategy in place, and these kinds of cards are the cornerstone of it.
For young people just starting out with credit and looking to get some benefits from their cards, I’d most recommend the Chase Freedom card because there’s no annual fee and the points you rack up can later be converted into premium Ultimate Rewards if you end up getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus the road, at which point you will be able to transfer them to the program’s travel partners including United, Southwest, British Airways, Hyatt and Marriott, among others. Or you could start with a basic Amex card that still earns Membership Rewards points, like the Blue card from American Express, which earns points that are good for cash back, but which you can use to transfer to the program’s travel partners if you get a premium card like the Premier Rewards Gold or even the Platinum Card (hey, dare to dream!) later down the line.
Citi also has the Forward Card for college students that doesn’t have an annual fee and allows you to rack up 5 points per dollar on books, music, restaurants and movies. The points can’t be transferred to any partners, but if you get a premium ThankYou card in the future, like the Premier or Prestige, you can transfer 1,000 points into 1,500 Hilton points.
Check out this post, written by a college student contributor, on the top college credit cards out there.
3. Go through shopping portals for your school supplies and dorm needs: Online shopping portals are a great way to earn bonus miles and points on every dollar you spend when shopping. Many major airlines and hotel chains have one, so that when you go to them and click on the retailer you’re interested in, a cookie is stored on your computer and you get a number of bonus mile or points per dollar that you spend. Before shopping through a specific portal, I recommend going to EVreward.com and comparing how many points/miles each portal is offering at the merchants you’re interested in, but for instance Staples is offering 4 American miles per $1, 2 Southwest miles per dollar, and 2 points per dollar with Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott, among other points programs at the moment.
Bed Bath & Beyond, which is also offering several points and miles bonuses with their travel partners, has a convenient “Shop Here, Pick Up There” option where you shop at your local Bed Bath & Beyond, scan the items you want to buy then have the store arrange them for pickup at the location nearest your college, all boxed up and ready to take back to the dorm with you.
4. Pay tuition using Bluebird: Although it’s possible to pay your tuition with a credit card at many institutions, doing so often incurs 2-3% fees that make doing so expensive and not worth it to earn the points. However, one way you can still earn points or miles on your tuition at a much lower rate is to use Bluebird by American Express, which is a checking account and debit card alternative which you can load with Vanilla Reloads that you purchase at a CVS with a points-earning credit card, and then use the funds to send a check to your college or university using the online bill pay feature (up to $10,000 per month for registered payees, and $5,00 per month for non-registered payees). You pay $3.95 per Vanilla Reload, which you can purchase in amounts up to $500 and use to load up to $5,000 per month onto your Bluebird card, so instead of 2-3%, you’re paying 0.79% to pay via this method. Because Bluebird is a checking account alternative, there’s no credit check or hidden fees, so it’s a great alternative for college students without much of a credit history or the funds to meet minimum balance requirements that many banks now require, as well as to avoid many checking account fees banks charge these days.
Pay your other bills using Bluebird: It’s not just about tuition – though depending on where you go to school, you might max out the Bluebird’s account limits with just your tuition checks – you can use Bluebird’s checking account-like features to issue checks to pretty much any payee, so if you have to pay for transactions that don’t normally accept a credit card, like paying for student health insurance, paying club or fraternity/sorority dues, or even just rent on an apartment if you don’t live in a dorm, you might as well earn points for the funds you put on those checks as well by loading your Bluebird with Vanilla Reloads you purchase with a points-earning credit card.
5. Expense club activities: Are you part of a campus club, organization or fraternity/sorority that throws events or banquets? See if you can put the expenses for them on your credit card and get reimbursed. That way you can rack up thousands of extra points or miles each semester, especially if you are taking advantage of bonus spending categories like the Citi ThankYou Preferred‘s 2X earning on dining and entertainment. Is your club traveling somewhere for a conference, or another event like an away game or other activity? See if you can pay for the travel using a points-earning card that earns bonus points/miles per dollar you spend like the no-annual-fee Barclaycard Arrival, which earns 2X miles per $1 on travel purchases. Or if you’re the social chair of your club and you throw parties, use a card that offers category spending
Just be sure you don’t exceed your credit limit on the card, and that you will get reimbursed in a timely manner so you don’t have to carry a balance and then get hit with high interest fees.
6. Maximize dining purchases: Speaking of dining, many universities now outsource many of their food outlets to restaurant chains, and more campuses offer familiar franchises like Subway or Starbucks, which are categorized as restaurants, so if you have a card like the Sapphire card from Chase, you earn 2X points on dining with it just like you would if you had the higher-level Sapphire Preferred version; the Barclaycard Arrival with no annual fee, which also earns 2 miles per $1 on dining; or the Citi Forward for Students, which earns 5% cash back on dining – not only can you put your normal meals on your card, but if you go out to dinner with friends, put your group meals on it for the bonus points and get your friends to pay you back. Some of these restaurants may even participate in airline or hotel dining rewards networks, meaning you can earn an additional 3-5 points or miles per dollar you spend at them with a credit card you link to your airline/hotel program of choice’s dining page.
7. Maximize book purchases: This might take a little trial and error, but if you have a card like the Citi ThankYou Preferred that has an entertainment category bonus, you could see if your campus bookstore counted as an entertainment merchant since Citi classifies some book purchases as expenses, and with its Citi Forward for Students, books fall under the 5% cash back category – so in addition to buying your own books, see if any of your friends will let you charge theirs and then pay you back so you can earn those points on their purchases as well. If it’s possible (though it might not be for many courses that require specialty books), you could also purchase whatever books you can through a store like Barnes & Noble by going through your airline or hotel program’s online shopping portal and seeing whether it is offering bonus points for book purchases there.
Though some of the more lucrative points-earning credit cards might be out of reach (for now) for many college students because of their typically low income and short credit history, that doesn’t mean you can’t start building your credit now with any of a variety of solid credit card products and then apply for more premium cards later on down the line when you want to use the points balances you’ve built up for travel.
The key – as with anyone in the points game – is to be responsible with your credit and about your spending, avoid carrying balances and debt, and keep your long-term points strategy in mind. It does not all have to be about earning a ton of points immediately – after all, you’re young and you have your life ahead of you – but there’s no reason you can’t start amassing the points you’ll need to travel where you want if you keep your long-term goals in mind and are responsible.