I regret making these credit card mistakes as a teen — here’s the advice I’d give my 17-year-old self now

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Girl sitting outside and surrounded by trees, looking off into the distance
The author, Tessa Campbell, at 17.

  • I got my first credit card when I was 17 years old, and I was so worried about accruing debt, I avoided using my card at all costs.
  • After joining the Personal Finance Insider team, I realized all of the mistakes I made as a teenager and how I could have prevented them.
  • If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, this is the advice I’d give her.
  • Read Insider’s guide to best rewards credit cards.

I got my first credit card when I was 17 years old, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

I didn’t know who to turn to. My high school offered a “practical” math class and I thought it would solve all my problems. Unfortunately, the content was lackluster and I ended up with even more anxiety about the whole situation. 

Luckily, I had supportive parents who were financially savvy enough to compensate for what my public school system lacked. That’s not to say I did everything right in the beginning. In fact, for a long time, I mostly avoided using my card.

After joining the Personal Finance team at Insider three months ago, I learned more about credit cards than I ever thought was possible. It’s clear to me now how avoidable my anxiety was.

There’s a lot I regret not knowing about credit cards as a teenager, and if I could go back in time and chat with my anxiety-ridden 17-year-old self, this is the advice I’d give her:

We’re focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won’t be worth it if you’re paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Take advantage of your resources — credit cards are confusing and you’re not the only one with questions 

You won’t have it all figured out in the beginning, and that’s okay. It’s normal to not be immediately good at something. In fact, that’s expected.

Mom and Dad will teach you credit card basics — like how to pay your balance on time and how not to overspend — which helps a lot in the beginning. But still, you’ll feel lost. 

Credit card terms and conditions are purposely hard for the average Joe to read and are chock-full of convoluted legal language. You’ll have a lot of questions and you won’t know who to turn to. You avoid asking your parents or teachers because you feel embarrassed. You’ll pressure yourself into thinking you have to figure it all out yourself.

Don’t do that.

Learning what all the terms mean (e.g. statement balance, credit limit, APR, credit score) is the key to grasping the content. Credit card lingo is like its own language; you’d be wise to study it. Unfortunately, most of the people around you don’t know how to speak this language either, but there’s an overwhelming amount of online resources and guides to teach you. Use them!

You’ll get so much joy from sharing what you learn with friends and family. Your loved ones will start to turn to you for help (as you’re now the go-to credit card consultant), and you’ll realize how fulfilling it is to give back to the people around you. 

School won’t actually teach you how to use a credit card — you’ll have to take initiative

You end up taking a “practical” math class in high school to try and further understand how to use your new card. It doesn’t work. You fill out a lot of fake tax forms and solve theoretical monthly budgets without a calculator, but you don’t learn much about credit. 

One day, your math teacher will play a YouTube video of a recorded Microsoft PowerPoint presentation explaining what debt looks like, and that it happens by overusing a credit card. It isn’t very helpful and you’ll be worried, but don’t let that get to you.

There are reliable resources out there! You just haven’t found them yet.

It might also be a good idea to talk with your teacher one-on-one about your concerns. People only know what you tell them; your math teacher won’t know that you need help understanding credit cards until you tell her. 

Apply for a credit card specifically designed for students

Unfortunately, you won’t find out about credit cards geared toward students until you’re halfway done with college. If you had known about these cards from the beginning, it would have saved you so much grief.

The actual first credit card you get is with your mom, on the same day you open your first bank account. It’s not a bad card by any means, but to you, it feels like an overpowered piece of plastic with illegible terms and conditions. All you want to do is slide it into your wallet and forget about it. You’ll keep this card until it gets hacked during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Don’t put it off for so long! You wait for a really long time to get another credit card, and there’s no good reason for that. 

Eventually, a college friend will encourage you to get a Discover credit card and it’s the first time you’ve ever heard of cash-back rewards. You’re half convinced it must be a scam (it’s not).

Stop being so suspicious and apply, you need a new card anyway.  

You do end up getting the Discover it® Student Cash Back and downloading the app. The steps are simple, the rewards are decent, and the whole process feels significantly less intimidating than the other card you got from your bank. It’s the first credit card you get that feels like it’s designed for people like you — people who want to learn how to be financially responsible and don’t need all the complicated bells and whistles. 

It’s because of the Discover it® Student Cash Back that you’re able to confidently make purchases, all the while improving your credit score. You even get cash back on all the take-out and delivery you get during finals. Imagine all the cash back you could have earned if you had gotten this card sooner! 

Mistakes will happen — don’t worry, you’ll learn from them

You grow up listening to haunting tales of credit card misuse and lingering debt. It’s drilled into your head that carrying debt brands you as a failure, and you end up knowing more about what you shouldn’t do with a credit card, than what you should. All of that is to say, you won’t exactly start your credit card journey with confidence.  

But the best way for you to learn is by making mistakes and trust me, you make a lot of them. It isn’t until you’re 22 years old that you realize that paying the monthly minimum on your balance doesn’t actually prevent you from incurring interest (the only way to avoid interest is to pay your balance in full each month). Luckily, you figure this out not long after your introductory 0% APR offer on your Discover it® Student Cash Back ends. 

For so many years you hyper-fixated on making sure you paid your balance on time every month and avoiding interest at all, yet here were your worst fears (in terms of credit cards) right before your eyes — and truthfully, it wasn’t all that bad.

The damage was minimal; your credit score barely took a hit, and the following month you pay your balance in full, almost like the previous month never happened. Sometimes bouncing back from a mistake is easier than you think it is. 

Credit cards aren’t as intimidating as you think they are — educate yourself!

You’re going to hear a lot of lectures from teachers and parents alike warning you about credit card misuse. It’s going to freak you out and make you never want to touch a credit card again. You’re already so anxious about the future (college is quickly approaching and you’re finally going to get the freedom you’ve always wanted — and the responsibility you’ve always feared), and managing money feels like the straw breaking your camel’s back.

You need to calm down! Take a deep breath, burn some incense, and educate yourself on how to responsibly use a credit card rather than spiraling down theoretical circles that get you nowhere.

Believe it or not, most feel people feel the same way you do. No one is born a credit card expert; if you want to learn, you need to take action!

Yes, credit is scary and the possibility of collecting debt on your card feels overwhelming, but remember, you’re the one in control. Do some research (you already love research, so it’s a win-win). Trust me, this knowledge will come in handy when you’re older and become a Credit Cards Fellow at Insider. 

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