It’s tempting to write off college students as a financially inept bunch barreling towards a debt sinkhole and with personal bankruptcy on the horizon. Yet the vast majority pay their bills on time and most never spend more than they have, among other positive money behaviors, new research shows.
Student loan giant Sallie Mae with research firm Ipsos interviewed college students in December and found that 77% pay their bills in a timely way while 60% always spend within their means and 55% manage to save money every month. Many students want to do even better: 83% say they would like to learn more about specific aspects of money management.
These findings soften the common narrative of Millennials—the most educated generation in history—running up debts and living largely oblivious to the damage. That narrative is not without some justification. In surveys, Millennials can’t answer three basic money questions and college freshman get a D in financial literacy. They’ve also racked up $1.4 trillion in student loans. But at least some seem to be paying attention.
Two-thirds are aware of credit reports and half have looked at their own, Sallie Mae found. That’s not bad for an age group only beginning to qualify for credit. Nearly all use cash (86%) or a debt card (85%), which may be a strategy for staying out of debt. Credit cards with a cash back feature are far more popular than those with a high credit limit, the survey found.
The news is not all encouraging. Just a quarter of college students with debts make an effort to first pay off the one with the highest interest rate, and about the same low percentage have any emergency funds. Less than two-thirds with a credit card pay the balance in full each month. And while most students want to learn more about money, only about a third target more knowledge in the critical areas of saving strategies, how to pay for their education, and general budgeting.
Meanwhile, only a third say they avoid paying fees by never overdrafting their accounts and just a third of students could correctly answer three basic credit card questions. Try them yourself:
1) Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
- A) More than $102
- B) Exactly $102
- C) Less than $102
2) Assuming the following individuals have the same credit card with the same interest rate, which will pay the most in interest on their credit card purchases over time?
- A) Joe, who makes the minimum payment on his credit card bill every month
- B) Jane, who pays the balance on her credit card in full every month
- C) Joyce, who sometimes pays the minimum, sometimes pays less than the minimum, and missed one payment on her credit card bill
- D) All of them will pay the same amount in interest over time
3) Imagine that there are two options when it comes to paying back a loan and both come with the same interest rate. Provided you have the needed funds, which option would you select to minimize your total costs over the life of the loan?
- A) Option 1 allows you to take 10 years to pay back the loan
- B) Option 2 allows you to take 20 years to pay back the loan
- C) Both options have the same out-of-pocket cost over the life of the loan
If you answered A, C, A, you may be ahead of the game.