Young and naive, I didn’t understand how interest charges worked and paid more than necessary for one semester of classes.

4 minute read

College was a confusing time: I took the first steps to figure out who I wanted to be in my adult life but still had no clue how to actually be an adult. Asking my parents didn’t prove to be helpful.

I was two semesters into community college. Feeling good about my progress, I wanted to take a few classes over the summer semester, but financial aid would only cover half the tuition of the three courses I wanted to take.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t go to college straight after high school – because I never graduated. At 23, I was a high school dropout with a GED, working odd jobs with no direction. College seemed like the natural fit to correct my course in life and I was determined to get through by any means necessary.

So I walked into the Fort Lauderdale branch of a Wells Fargo bank where I had a checking and savings account and asked if I could open a credit card. I didn’t think it would work, because up until that day I had been denied every store credit card I’d ever applied for.

I also may have been young – and very dumb – but was self-aware enough that I knew credit wasn’t smart for me at that age. Honestly, the idea of borrowing money I needed to pay back scared the crap out of me (like I said, any means necessary).

The bank teller asked if I was a college student. “Damn, I should’ve gone to school sooner,” I thought. As if I was now a part of society I’d never been invited to before. People trusted me, a high school dropout, with a credit card? I was approved that day, handed an account number on a printed piece of paper, and told my card would arrive in the mail in a week or so.

Making the mistake

So excited by this “accomplishment,” I called my mom. I told her all about my trouble coming up with the money for school. She didn’t have the cash on hand to help and told me how dangerous student loans were but felt I could just charge the semester on the credit card.

The bank was giving me a year of zero percent interest and she swore having a credit card balance would help me build credit. In fact, she said I would always need a credit card balance to let the credit bureaus know I had “active credit.” All I needed to do was make the $25 minimum monthly payment and I’d have what I wanted: One step closer to a college degree and a new life that would guarantee I’d eventually pay it off.

But I wasn’t guaranteed anything.

I hate to blame my parents entirely. My mom was 21 when I was born and I was the second child in my family. My parents raised three kids, both working multiple jobs trying to provide for my siblings and me.

Maybe she really didn’t know the truth about carrying a credit card balance. Or maybe she just denied it so we could live a life that seemed better than my parents could afford.

Either way, a full year passed, and I never paid off that $959. Instead, I was responsible for that balance plus the 18 Annual Percentage Rate tied to it. Years later, that credit card had the highest interest rate of all the debts I had accrued in college including, a car payment and student loans.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I paid that card off entirely.

Find out: College Financial Planning to Minimize Debt

Learning a lesson

I did finish those classes that semester and did well. I aced Intro. to Psychology, Public Speaking, and Statistics. I was winning in school but failing financially.

Looking back, I don’t regret the decision. Eventually, I earned my associate’s degree and transferred to a state college. I chose journalism as my major and began working at the school’s student-run newspaper. That led me to meet this guy who voluntarily advised the paper part-time when he wasn’t working as the editor here at Debt.com.

He started funneling me writing assignments for Debt.com while I was still a junior in college and news editor of the paper. Those $50 assignments on the dangers of credit cards and student loan debt forced me to research the importance of a budget and cutting down my spending. Then they turned into $100 assignments and I wrote more of them more often.

One thing seasoned college students are good at is saving money. Once you’ve made it past the first few years, you prioritize your future over present pleasures like eating and drinking out. You stick to a few close friends or a significant other who doesn’t mind socializing at home with cheap booze and food.

I was also very fortunate to meet a woman who was raised differently than I and who genuinely loved me. Her parents were older and more stable when they decided to have a child. They taught her how to manage money and avoid frivolous things.

Now nine years later, she’s my wife. To give you an idea of how she views money – that 33-year-old woman still drives the 2008 Toyota Matrix her mom gave her as a hand-me-down when she was 17.

Five years after I opened that credit card for tuition, I graduated from school and landed a full-time job here at Debt.com. My salary was far more than I was earning as a freelancer. Between the work I was doing here and the way my wife viewed money, I learned to pay down the debt plus a $5,000 student loan and $16,000 auto loan.

Find out: How Do I Learn About Credit Cards Before it’s Too Late?

Now I give my parents financial advice

We planned out a budget, tracking everything I earned and our monthly bills and expenses. We applied the largest chunk of money in that budget to the college credit card with the highest debt, while applying only the minimum to the other debts.

Once I finally eliminated that debt, I freed up more money in my budget to pay the other debts. It made sense to go after the auto loan with the second-highest interest rate. Took that one down and focused even more of my monthly budget on my student loans.

Today I’m a certified debt management professional who writes about getting out of debt for a living. The only debt I have is on the mortgage on my wife and my condo. We use our credit cards the way many people use their debit cards. We only spend what’s in our budget on shared Visa cards that gives us cash back for spending.

Ironically, now I give my parents financial advice. And I would never tell them to charge a large sum of money on a credit card.

Find out: The 5 Dumbest and Smartest Ways to Pay Off Credit Card Debt

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About the Author

Joe Pye

Joe Pye

Joe Pye started writing about debt and personal finance five years ago while attending Florida Atlantic University, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the student-run newspaper, the University Press. Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism, Pye placed as a finalist for the Mark of Excellence award by the Society of Professional Journalists Region 3 for feature writing and in-depth reporting. In 2021, Pye earned First Place in the Green Eyeshade awards for "Best Blog" for his side-project BrowardBeer.com. Since taking a full-time position as associate editor at Debt.com in 2018, Pye has become a certified debt management professional who's applied what he's learned to his personal life by paying down more than $22,000 worth of combined credit card, student loan, auto and tax debt in less than two years.

Published by Debt.com, LLC