New to credit cards? First take a personal inventory

Contact: Tamara Nolen

Many college students find themselves the target for credit card offers that seem too good to be true.

Often specifically targeted by credit card companies, this group may find the "deals" appealing, especially in helping to establish credit. However, a Mississippi State University consumer expert warns that, despite good reasons for having the cards, first-time users should know their limits.

Beverly Howell, a consumer and management specialist, recommends that potential credit card users--especially new ones--analyze their situations before digging a credit hole. To do this:

Take an honest look at your personal finances. Can your budget include credit card debt?

Know your own skills and personal discipline. Identify your consumer weaknesses and strengths. Impulsive buyers may want to leave their credit cards at home when shopping.

Know how you plan to use the card. If the credit card will be used for everyday expenses such as groceries and gasoline, plan to pay off the balance each month.

Think of credit cards as money. With each charge, visualize cash being withdrawn from your bank account.

For those who overload on credit card debt, Howell suggests "power payments."

"Take a look at your total credit balance and living expenses," she says. "First pay off your smallest debt completely. As one debt is paid off, your money can be 'powered up' to pay for the next one, and then the next, until all are paid off."

For those who plan to stop using credit cards, Howell issues this reminder: Be sure to formally close your account with the credit card company.

"Unused credit cards stay on your credit report," she said. Other businesses, such as banks, may view this credit potential as debt potential. If you're not using a card, close it out."