Credit Card Debt or Student Loans: Which Should You Pay Off First?

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Last updated on June 16th, 2022

Credit Card Debt vs Student Loans. When you owe money to multiple lenders how do you decide what to pay off first? (Spoiler alert: credit card debt is the winner) Wrangling debt is a huge factor when it comes to whipping your credit score into shape – but having multiple payments can make it difficult to prioritize which bill you should pay off first. If you’re trying to decide between aggressively paying off your credit card debt or your student loans, picking which payments to target requires big-picture thinking and a bit of credit know-how.

Credit Card Debt vs Student Loans

Lenders have historically viewed credit card balances as bad debt, which is debt that doesn’t increase your net worth. If you plan on applying for a major loan in the near future, you’ll definitely want to reduce your credit card debt to become more appealing to credit issuers. Displaying responsible repayment habits can also result in a better credit score in the long run. In direct contrast, student loans are traditionally considered to be good debt, since they’re an investment in your future which typically result in a higher income. These loans usually have lower interest rates and longer payoff periods. It’s not uncommon to find school loans with repayment terms of 25 years or more. Banks and other lenders won’t be frightened of student loans on your record – so there’s no real rush to pay them off.

Why Prioritize Your Credit Card Debt?

Naturally, we’re huge advocates of always paying off your credit card debt (and keeping it down), but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Avoid Interest from High APRs

Credit cards are notorious for having unforgiving APRs. It’s not uncommon to see cards with interest rates over 25% – that’s one-fourth of your entire monthly balance in interest! One of the main reasons to pay off your credit card debt vs. student loans is simply that credit card APRs are usually higher than the interest rates of student loans. For example, say you owe $1000 on your credit card and in student loans. If your credit card has an APR of 25% but your student loans have an interest rate of 5%, you will end up being charged $250 in interest for your credit card compared to only $50 for your loans. Simply put: paying the bill with the highest interest rate will keep money in your pocket in the long run.

Improve Your Credit Score

Credit lenders like to see credit utilization percentages below 30%—the lower, the better. As the second most crucial factor that affects how credit scores are determined, improving this ratio can lead to long-term benefits for the health of your credit. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to accomplish this, which don’t require paying down a significant amount of debt. The key is expanding your credit limit, which you can do by opening a new credit card or asking your credit card issuer for a credit limit increase. In either circumstance, your existing debt percentage will be smaller due to an increase your buying power (a $1000 balance on a card with a $1000 credit limit is a 100% utilization rate and a giant red flag to creditors, whereas a $1000 balance on a card with a $10,000 credit limit is only a 10% utilization rate and potential lenders to breathe easy).

But don’t submit that application for a new card or credit increase request just yet. They could result in a hard inquiry being added to your credit report—something that could end up being very costly if you’re in the market to make a large purchase, like a house or a car, that would require financing. If you find yourself in this camp, the best route would be to go the credit limit increase route and check with your card issuer whether they conduct a hard or a soft pull. If the former, you’ll need to go the slow and steady route of paying down your debt. This method isn’t without its perks, however, as consistently paying off your credit card debt can eventually lead to a credit limit increase – which is great for shopping and your credit score.

The Drawback of Focusing on Credit Card Debt

The cyclical nature of revolving credit can make the benefits of paying off your credit card balance short-lived. Running a large monthly balance every now and again will raise your credit utilization, causing your credit score to drop just as quickly as it rose. While a constantly fluctuating credit score won’t cause long-term damage to your credit score, the act of paying off your credit card balance alone won’t provide long-term gains.

Student Loans are Actually Helping Your Credit Score

Believe it or not, your student loans are actually a good thing. While they may not be included in the credit utilization ratio, each loan is a separate account that can contribute towards:

  • The total number of your accounts
  • The average age of your credit
  • Improving your debt diversity
  • Your payment history

Paying off your student loans prematurely would affect your debt diversity, lower the overall age of your credit history (if they were your oldest accounts), and reduce the total number of accounts in your credit history. If you want to use student loans to improve your credit score, instead of rushing to pay them off, focus on making on-time payments that are above the minimum amount due. Let your student loans run their course while you reap the credit benefits.

About: Allan
Allan Guzman Chinchilla

Allan is the Managing Editor at BestCards.com. In addition to leading a robust team of writers in the pursuit of thorough credit cards expertise, he is an avid fan of films, food, traveling, and Star Wars.

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