It's so much more than a piece of plastic. In the hands of a college student, a credit card can be an effective tool—or a terrific temptation. Easy access to pre-approved cards and a lack of understanding about the problems of plastic contribute to many students graduating with credit problems.

How parents can help

As a parent, there are some key things you can do to help your student steer clear of credit difficulties:

Explain the grace period. A credit card statement may tout a 15-25 day grace period to pay your bill. However, this may only apply if students don't have a previous balance on their account. If they do have a balance, chances are that they'll be paying interest on their new purchases right away.

Encourage students to pay up. Paying off credit card balances avoids interest accumulation while helping students prove to creditors that they are a good credit risk. An active, paid up account will make it easier for students to negotiate with loan officers in the future.

Talk about living off your credit card. It may seem convenient for students to use their credit card for everything but the benefit of cash is that it's much easier to keep accurate tabs on spending. Credit card purchases often don't show up on a printed bill for a month and by then, students may have gotten themselves into trouble.

Ease into it. Encourage your student to start with a low credit limit to avoid temptation. Make the card for emergencies only. Their future credit card usage will probably be more prudent as a result.

Start the practice of paying on time. Your student can avoid late fees by paying on time. Encourage them to pay their bill as soon as it arrives so that it's not lost in the shuffle of their busy life.

Don't go overboard. Just because someone offers your student a credit card with low introductory rates doesn't mean they have to apply for it. Too many cards can get confusing and students are bound to have a tough time keeping track of what they've actually spent. The spend now, pay much later temptation associated with credit cards is causing many students to get in over their heads. With your guidance, they can make safer, smarter choices. Does your student know how much spending money is available to him or her this semester? Have you discussed where this money will come from? These are important conversations to have so that assumptions, poor choices and financial troubles don't become the norm.

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