NEW YORK — The credit card generation is getting younger.
A recent poll of teenagers who participate in the Junior Achievement program found that more than 11 percent are carrying credit cards, and some of them are as young as 13 or 14 years old. In addition, three out of 10 teenagers have checking accounts, and many are likely linked to automated teller machines with debit cards.
“We were a little surprised at the numbers,” said Darrell Luzzo, senior vice president for education at JA Worldwide, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Having a credit card is not necessarily a terrible thing, so long as they're being educated about the appropriate financial principles.”
But while 82 percent of the teen credit card users said they paid their bills in full every month, 18 percent said they carried balances over — a practice that has gotten a lot of their parents in trouble.
“That isn't great,” Luzzo said. “After a little more education, we'd hope that 82 percent would rise.”
Financial experts are concerned about the growing use of credit cards by teens, although they generally must be co-signed by parents until a child is 18 or older.
“I personally think that 13 to 14 (years old) is too young,” said Laura Levine, executive director of the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a nonprofit educational group based in Washington, D.C. “It really depends on the individual kids. ... Kids mature at different rates, so I don't think there's a single, magic age.”
The key, Levine said, is the involvement of parents in teaching children how to use both credit and debit cards — and in monitoring their children's use of plastic.
“You don't give a child a musical instrument and say, ‘Plunk around on this for a while a see if you can learn to play,’” she said. “The act of giving kids a credit card or a debit card isn't going to give them good money management habits. There has to be teaching and practicing.”
Levine suggests parents who do get cards for their children sit down and go over their monthly statements, talking about things like interest rates, the importance of paying on time and spending habits.
That lets them learn from their mistakes while they're still at home, not “when they're 18 and off to college or work and they're eligible for their own cards anyway.”
That's what prompted Lorene Kimble of Corning, N.Y., to help get her 16-year-old daughter Heather a debit card last summer, along with both a checking and a savings account. Kimble said her goal was to teach Heather how to better manage her money, including income from an after-school job at McDonald's.
“We sat down and talked about putting money into savings every week, about shopping with a debit card,” Kimble said. “She sees us doing it, and she's comfortable with it.”
And Kimble believes that giving teenagers debit cards “gets them ready for a credit card.”
Heather, a junior in high school, said few of her friends have cards. But she likes the convenience of using a debit card when she needs cash and sees it as a measure of her maturity.
“The important thing is giving kids the responsibility for themselves,” she said. “It's my money, and I'm careful with it.”
Heather has her accounts at the First Heritage Federal Credit Union in Painted Post, N.Y., which sponsors several programs to help teenagers learn to manage money.
Lindsay Rotsell, a marketing analyst at First Heritage, said that when parents come in with children to open accounts, credit union representatives explain how to maintain check registers, read statements and use debit cards.
“We tell them that when they get their first statement, they can come in and we'll go through it and help them reconcile it,” Rotsell said.
The credit union offers checking and savings accounts for teens as young as 13 but restricts debit and credit cards to those 16 and older.
Myron Pristino, First Heritage's business development officer, said teenagers who handle their accounts responsibility “get a start at building a level of confidence with their parents.” They'll need that, he pointed out, when they're seeking parental help for an auto loan or college financing.
Pristino said most teen customers handle their cards well — and even link them to the credit union's online banking and bill paying site.
Having grown up in a society that depends on cards and computers, “this is a natural for them,” Pristino said.
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