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A Student Finds Her Calling: Helping Others Spend Responsibly

Mount Pleasant, Mich. — Krystal Penrose has been thinking a lot lately about how Central Michigan University students spend money. Ms. Penrose, a senior, got an internship with a MasterCard program intended to help students learn to manage their money wisely and use credit responsibly. For the program—”Are You Credit Wise?“—a high-powered public-relations firm called Powell Tate flew Ms. Penrose to Washington last summer to learn the basics of peer-to-peer education.

“College doesn’t educate us in the most important thing, our personal finance,” Ms. Penrose said over coffee at Kaya Coffee & Tea Company on South University Avenue. “Me being a person who overdrafts on my debit card almost monthly, I decided to take this on.” She talks to students in residence halls and in a course that all freshmen take, posts to a blog, and looks for other opportunities to get a additional publicity for her cause (such as by approaching visiting reporters). She’s also working with the university’s student-affairs office, which was delighted when she got in touch and said she had been selected for the internship.

It’s not hard, Ms. Penrose said, to tailor the manage-money-responsibly message to the interests of Central Michigan students, in part because her own financial situation isn’t especially comfortable. Her mother just lost her job with a data-systems company after helping the company move her department’s functions to India. Ms. Penrose herself works part-time for Aramark, the campus food-service provider, and like many people in Mount Pleasant she relies on the Bridge Card, the state’s food-stamp program. “Honestly,” she said, “if I didn’t have a bridge card, I would’ve withered away.”

She said Central Michigan students have an average of $27,000 in college-loan debt—$7,000 more than the national average. What bothers her is seeing some students use loan money for spring-break trips or tanning-salon visits—especially if they’re racking up credit-card debt at the same time. The average college student has $4,000 in credit-card debt, she told me. “You spend so much more money with a card than if you use cash”—when you use a card, you don’t see the money leaving your hands.

Students, she said, don’t worry about establishing a good credit history because they don’t understand how important it will be to them in the future, and most students never even bother to check their credit reports. Which is crazy, she said. “How would you like it if you went through school for four years and didn’t know your GPA?”

Teaching others has made Ms. Penrose more responsible with money herself. “I’ve made myself a goal to save,” she told me. By picking up an extra shift at Aramark every Sunday and salting the money away, she expects to have accumulated $900 by the time she graduates in May. And while the internship pays a stipend this semester, she intends to keep working to educate her classmates after the internship ends. She’s making a video with Jason Bentley, director of the first-year-experience program in the Office of Residence Life, and looking into urging the university to include money-management sessions as a required part of freshman orientation.

“I’m not looking down on students—I’m a student like everyone I’m talking to,” she said. “I just wish someone had done this for me three years ago.”

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