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Plastics 101: The 5 Best Credit Cards For College Students

The first credit card to have graced the lining of my wallet was the most terrifying piece of plastic that I've encountered in my entire life. As a fiscally-uneducated 18 year-old freshman with no credit history, simply possessing an item that could seemingly make or break my financial future was absolutely daunting and something that was, initially, a burden. So, in anticipation of my impending departure for university in the fall, I sat down with my dad and asked for his advice on how to best use my new credit card.

Students in the Library Then and NowHis advice was simple and succinct: never purchase anything you can’t pay for out of pocket, pay your monthly bill in full whenever you can, and, if not, at least pay the monthly minimum. Thanks to a credit card plan without a spending minimum I was able to put his advice to use; I would make a point of going out and making a small purchase, be it a pack of gum or a slice of pizza, then paying it off almost immediately. I slowly but steadily built up good credit and confidence in my ability to wisely regulate my spending.

College students are ideally placed to begin developing a fiscally responsible lifestyle and spending habits in order to build a strong credit score, if you haven’t already. The first place for any student to start is by signing up for a credit card that meets your needs and complements your anticipated expenditures. But with the myriad of credit cards available to today’s students, how can you be expected to do the research necessary to find out which card is the best fit for you, especially when you could to be studying and discovering the effects of C2H6O on physiological processes and biological development (remember kids: moderation in all things, especially moderation)?

Well, we loaded up on 5-Hour Energy and sugar-free Red Bull, holed ourselves up in the library, and pulled a few all-nighters in order to find the five best credit cards available to students. For this profile, we focused on cards with minimal fees, opportunities for cash back on regular purchases, and programs that reward responsible spending and money management; all important traits with practical applications that any student looking to build their credit should seek in a credit card.

Note: Thanks to the Fed’s Credit Card Act of 2009, anyone under the age of 21 is required to have a cosigner or proof of steady, reliable income by way of full-time employment, so most students will likely need a parent or guardian with a good credit history to help them acquire any of the following credit cards.

  1. Discover it for Students Credit CardDiscover it for Students: The most lenient credit card on the list, Discover it for Students takes a lot of the stress out of credit card ownership. This Discover card doesn't have an annual fee, you won't be charged any over-limit fees, nor late fees on your first payment, and there's no penalty APR. You'll get a 5% cash-back bonus on select purchases which get switched up from quarter to quarter (5% cash-back at restaurants & movies from January through March, on home improvement purchases from April through June, at gas stations from July through September, and on Holiday shopping from October through December), as well as 1% cash-back on all your other purchases.
  2. Citi Forward for Students Credit CardCiti Forward for Students: Perfect for anyone planning on paying their monthly bill in full and on time, Citi's Forward card rewards your responsibility with Citi's ThankYou Points that you can redeem for gift cards, music, electronics, student loan rebates, and even charitable donations. You can earn 100 ThankYou Points each billing period when pay on time and stay under your credit limit. You'll also earn 5 ThankYou Points for every $1 spent in restaurants and on entertainment (like in bookstores, movie theaters, music stores, and on video rentals), and 1 ThankYou Point for every $1 spent everywhere else. There's no annual fee and you can get a 2% Purchase APR reduction per year if you stay under your credit limit and pay on time for 3 billing periods in a row. Be sure to sign up for paperless statements within your first three months for an additional 1,000 ThankYou Points.
  3. Capital One Journey Student Rewards Credit CardCapital One Journey Student Rewards Card: Another card for students that want to be rewarded for building their credit, the Journey Student Rewards Card from Capital One gives you the tools necessary to monitor your credit and stay on track. With free monthly access to a TransUnion credit score, not to mention text and email alerts to help you keep track of your spending, students should have no problem staying on top of and managing their credit. There are no annual, balance transfer, foreign transaction, or over-the-limit fees. Additionally, you'll receive 1% cash back on all purchases and a 25% cash-back bonus you can earn each month that you pay your bill on time. This is also a great credit card for students planning on studying abroad, as the Journey card offers 24-hour travel assistance services and travel accident insurance.
  4. BankAmericard Cash Rewards Credit Card for StudentsBankAmericard Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students: The ideal card for current Bank of America account holders, you'll earn a 10% cash rewards bonus when you redeem your rewards directly into a BofA checking or savings accounts. The BankAmericard for Students gives users 1% cash-back on all purchases, 2% cash-back on groceries, and 3% cash-back on gas for the first $1500 spent in combined gas and grocery purchases per quarter. Bank of America will also reward you with a $100 cash rewards bonus once you make $500 in purchases in the first 90 days of opening an account. This card is also great for commuter students, students who regularly use a car on and around campus, and even students opting out of a campus meal plan.
  5. Discover Open Road Credit Card for StudentsDiscover Open Road Card for Students: Another card that's great for commuters, the Open Road Card lets you earn 2% Cashback Bonus on your first $250 in combined gas & restaurant purchases for each billing period. And for students who buy in bulk, you'll receive .25% Cashback Bonus on all purchases made at warehouse clubs & wholesale distributors, like Costco, Sam’s Club, as well as at discount stores and their affiliates. You can also earn anywhere from 5% to 20% cash-back bonuses when you shop through Discover's exclusive online mall. And with Discover's Student Center, you'll have access to exclusive resources and tools to help you shape and plan for your financial future.

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About the Author: Connor J. Laughlin

Connor is an amateur food critic (read: he eats and has opinions), self-proclaimed film-buff, & expects to be starting in the NBA or selected to the USMNT's starting XI by the time he's 45 years old. He enjoys fine wine (when told it's fine), international travel, & is passionate about reading, writing, & the Oxford comma.

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