ROCKVILLE, Maryland (CNN) -- College sophomore Nick Philliou admits he's not in the best financial shape these days.
Nationwide, college students are using credit cards more often.
"I've got about $10,500 worth of debt," Philliou, 21, told CNN in a recent interview. He used to work full time as a sales representative at a gym, but lost his job last summer and says his financial situation went downhill fast.
"My cash flow was gone. ... I didn't want to spend all my savings, so I would put some things on my credit card," Philliou said. "If I had to go shopping, I would put it on there."
Nationwide, college students are using credit cards more and more as a financial crutch, according to student lending giant Sallie Mae. In a report released this month, the lender says students are carrying record-high balances: an average of $3,173 for undergraduates, up 46 percent from 2004; and more than $4,100 for graduating seniors, up 41 percent from 2004.
The study found that freshmen carried an average debt of $939, nearly triple the $373 five years ago. Only 15 percent of freshmen had a zero balance -- a significant drop from 69 percent with a zero balance in 2004.
"Part of that can be due to the rising cost of college," said Kalman Chany, author of "Paying For College Without Going Broke." Watch Elaine Quijano's report on student debt »
"There was some uncertainty about private loans, so in many cases, students resorted to the lender of last resort -- that is, their credit cards -- to finance their college expenses and out-of-pocket costs."
The Sallie Mae study, based on surveys of 1,200 college undergraduates ages 18-24, also found 60 percent of the students were surprised at how high their balances were, and 40 percent had charged items despite knowing they couldn't cover the bill.
As for Philliou, he blames part of his predicament on the recession. Yet his debt also included paying for two luxury cars, and he admits, he hasn't always made the best financial decisions.
"I'm partly a victim of the recession," Philliou said. "And partly ... a victim of lavish lifestyles, you could say."
Now, Philliou is working to turn things around. He's stopped using his two credit cards. He's attending community college to save money. And he's working part-time as a personal trainer. He hopes those steps will get him financially fit -- eventually.
CNN's Larry Lazo contributed to this report.
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