There I was, excitedly slicing open the firm envelope and pulling out a shiny, new credit card. It was my first one, and everything about it was groundbreaking.
I was one of the first groups to giddily take part in a special student promotion at my university. The plan was clever: Kids, have you completed one year of college? Then, here—take this credit card. Get to spending!
You can probably guess where things went from there.
“By far, the biggest mistake parents make with their kids and credit cards is co-signing.”
– John Ulzheimer, president of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com
College students and credit cards: Seems like a match made in debt collectors’ heaven, no? Parents—currently being hounded by their college-bound kids to get their very own card—are right to be hesitant about letting them sign on that dotted line. “Credit card debt will likely be the most expensive debt you'll ever carry,” says John Ulzheimer, the president of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com. “The average interest rate on credit cards is 13 to 15 percent. And for retail cards, like Macy’s or The Gap, you’re looking at average interest rates in 20s.”
For young people, getting a credit card isn't like it used to be. No more slick promotions. A new federal law, the CARD Act of 2009, actually prevents anyone under the age of 21 from opening a credit card without a co-signer or proven income from a job. “The good thing here is our kids aren’t leaving college saddled with enormous credit card debt,” says Jean Chatzky, author of Money Rules and finance editor for NBC's Today show.
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Although high interest rates and onerous debt are sobering realities, there’s actually a benefit to young adults getting their own credit cards, says Kimberly Foss, a financial planner and the founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif. “When used responsibly, credit cards help establish a credit history,” she says. And starting early means a young adult’s account has time to age. This becomes very helpful when, after graduating, your child tries to rent an apartment or buy or lease a car. His credit score will likely be higher because of this track record.
Choosing a Card
The “save more when you open a card today” offers at retail stores may sound tempting, but don’t fall for it, Ulzheimer says. “Stick with a general-use credit card: Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express. Interest rates are lower and credit limits are higher on these.” Also, consider a charge card—such as AmEx—where the balance needs to be paid in full every month. “Your kids will have to pay a membership fee,” he says, “but with charge cards they can avoid carrying debt and paying high interest fees.”