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I’m a College Student With Limited Income — How Do I Pay Off My Credit Card Debt?

Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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paying off credit card debt with limited income

If you’ve ever referred to yourself as a “broke college kid,” you’re not alone. College is a time in your life where it’s socially acceptable to eat Easy Mac every day while sitting on your broken futon trying to decide whether you should put gas in your car or buy an Econ textbook you’ll probably never use.

Add credit card debt into the mix and you may have a hard time paying your bills on time, while simultaneously keeping your grades up, sleeping six hours a night and having some semblance of a social life. Here’s what you should do if you need to pay off credit card debt on a low income.

» MORE: How to pay off debt

Cut your expenses

The majority of students need to live on a tight budget, so examine your monthly spending for any significant leaks. Expenses that are often out of control for college students include food, entertainment and transportation. Try to cut back on eating out, opt for free activities on campus instead of movies and concerts, and look into public transportation to get around town. If your expenses are already pretty bare bones, you may have an income problem.

Get a job, a better job or another job

If you work, you probably have a part-time job that gives you exactly enough money to pay your bills, buy a case of Natural Light once a month and make your minimum credit card payments. That’s a great start. But if you’re having trouble paying your bills, you need to do more while still making school your priority. Adulthood is fun, isn’t it? Here are a few ideas for getting a job, a better job or another job:

  • Look for jobs on campus. While most campus jobs don’t come with great wages or benefits, they do typically offer downtime to study and flexible work hours. Try to find jobs that aren’t very labor intensive — like a receptionist gig in a low-traffic office — if you need the study time. On the other hand, if you have more free time, you can pick up a job that requires more of your attention — like a research assistant.
  • Get a paid internship. Juniors, seniors and grad students may qualify for paid internships, depending on their area of study. Internships are a great option because (a) you’ll gain valuable work experience for your resume and (b) they generally pay more than the typical burger-flipping or shoe-slinging minimum wage job.
  • Start a small business. Say, what? You’re already working hard to get a degree and now you have to become the next Mark Zuckerberg? Not exactly. But you can start doing things you’re already skilled at for pay. For instance, if you’re studying accounting, you can prepare basic tax returns for fellow students. Or if you’re a computer whiz, you can fix problems for the less technologically inclined. Identify something you’re good at that other people need and work for yourself — just don’t forget to report your income and expenses come tax time.
  • Participate in campus studies. Check out the bulletin boards on campus for fliers looking for study participants. They don’t typically pay a lot to participants, but it’s easy money. Make sure the studies are legitimate and safe — a study performed by Dr. Trenton’s Psych 308 class in a university conference room is probably real. Any flier printed in Comic Sans and requesting you to report to a dark alley is likely a scam at best and dangerous at worst.
  • Hustle harder! If you’re already doing one or more of the above, you’ll have to pick up extra hours somewhere. Unless you can cut your expenses further or get financial assistance from a family member, the only thing you can do is work enough hours to cover your expenses plus put extra toward your credit card debt.

Adjust your tax withholdings

You can make the most out of your current paycheck by adjusting your tax withholdings. Most college students don’t make enough to pay much tax-wise, so you’ll receive the deductions taken from your paycheck back in the form of a refund. To get access to that money now, talk to your human resources department about adjusting your tax withholdings so you aren’t paying much or anything to the federal government — depending on your income.

Windfalls need to fall onto your pile of credit card debt

Windfalls, or unexpected influxes of cash, are a great way to pay down chunks of your debt at a time. Windfalls could be things like a tax refund, proceeds from selling your textbooks at the end of the semester, birthday or Christmas gift money, or rebates. Put this money directly toward your debt load — you weren’t counting on it for bills, don’t create a “need” for it in your budget now.

Bottom line: Paying off credit card debt on a college student’s income is difficult, but doable. Look for ways to decrease your expenses and increase your income, and apply all windfalls to your credit card debt. And, in the future, aim to keep credit card spending low so you can pay it off in full each month before the due date to avoid interest.


Broke college student image via Shutterstock.