College Students Are Better Money Managers Than You Might Think

March 10, 2016, 3:12 PM UTC
College student using laptop on floor
Photograph by Getty Images/Hero Images

While millennials have a lot to learn about managing money, a new survey shows a rosy picture of college students who are working, paying their bills on time without their parents’ help, avoiding debt and hungry for more knowledge.

The survey released on Thursday by Sallie Mae on how U.S. college students manage their finances found that 77 percent are paying their bills on time and 73 percent of them are doing this on their own. Just over half save money every month.

Sallie Mae, the largest private student loan company, surveyed 800 currently enrolled college students aged 18-24 in December.

A reluctance to rely on credit may be keeping young adults from piling consumer debt on top of their growing student loans. Only 56 percent said they had a credit card, with an average balance of $906. Meanwhile, 85 percent of respondents said they used debit cards.

Many of these debit cards are tied to mobile payment services. The most popular is PayPal, which was used by 58 percent of the students, along with 11 percent who used the company’s Venmo peer-to-peer payment app. Students also favor Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

“If you learn to monitor your balance, you can see the transactions in real time,” said Sallie Mae Chief Marketing Officer Charles Rocha.

Sallie Mae customers, who also can have bank accounts and credit cards with the company, check balances two to three times a day, Rocha said. Students can get their credit scores several times a year from Sallie Mae for free, as they now can from most major banks and financial institutions.

“They are starting to recognize the importance of good credit,” Rocha said.

To that end, millennials are finding out that getting a credit card can help raise their scores, but only if they use the plastic for what they can afford.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for , does not expect mobile payment services or credit card use to interfere with millennials’ learning curve over money.


“Twenty years ago, there was a definite advantage to teaching somebody that pain you feel when you part with cold hard cash,” McBride said. “But now kids understand numbers on the screen. They don’t have to actually see a stack of $100 bills to understand.”

Still, balancing the need to stay out of debt with the need to build credit is a fine line to walk. College students can manage it best if they have part-time jobs, he added.

The biggest problem for young adults who lack a credit history is that this might keep them from buying a car or house on their own.

In Sallie Mae’s survey, 19 percent of those aged 23-24 had a mortgage, and 26 percent had an auto loan. Among those just 18-20, only 9 percent had a mortgage and 13 percent had an auto loan.

Landlords increasingly evaluate tenants based on credit scores, and even some employers check credit before hiring, McBride said.

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