June 17, 2011 at 3:34 AM ET
The average college student is stuck with about $3,200 in credit card debt while in school, a burden which can be heavier than a backpack full of science texts. So what's the best way for parents to keep kids' debt down before they reach age 21? The advice runs the spectrum from "just say no" to "get them a card as young as possible," and everywhere in between.
But there's little disagreement about this: Parents need to talk more to their kids about money, and about credit. A new study published in April by the Junior Achievement Foundation found that 57 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds said their parents had never discussed money management with them. That's a recipe for disaster.
I hope this story will help eat into that terrible number. When do you think kids should get a credit card? Before you have your say, here's what some experts think.
Financial guru Dave Ramsey offers one popular view: Credit cards are the root of all financial evil, and it's a terrible idea to give them to kids.
"By giving a teenager a credit card, the parent — the one with supposed credibility — introduces a financially harmful substance and endorses its use, which is dumb but unfortunately very normal in today's families," Ramsey writes. "Parents must instead teach the teenager to just say NO."
Plenty of personal finance experts disagree, however.
"I view credit card usage as any other young adult's rite of passage, like driving,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. “We all know eventually young people are going to use credit cards so instead of shying away from the issue I suggest hitting it head on. I think rather than waiting for your kid to get a card on their own, with little to no teaching on how to manage it, parents should consider giving them a card at 18, with strict usage rules and consequences for abuse. It's a lot more painless when your parents take corrective action than it is when a credit card issuer does the same."
Bill Hardekopf, who runs credit advice site LowCards.com, made sure all three of his children had credit cards before their senior year of high school.
"That way, we could sit down and talk to them about the ins and outs of the credit card industry … how the APR works, why paying by the due date is critical, how using a card correctly can help you build your credit score and how that can be beneficial down the road ... how you can use a credit card without paying any interest," he said. "In short, we wanted to observe them and train them on credit cards for a year while they were under our roof."
The argument against giving teenagers credit cards is obvious: If they don't have cards, they can't run up credit card debt. Today’s college graduates are saddled with devastating debt -- an average of $23,000 in student debt along with an average of $4,200 in credit card debt by the time they graduate.
Until recently, it was hard to keep cards out of college kids' hands, as many school allowed banks onto campus, where they would pitch young students hard on the benefits of plastic. The pitch usually included free pizza or some other enticing freebie.
But Congress heard the arguments against credit cards for kids during the financial reform debate, and now bans cards for those under 21 unless they prove a source of income or get an adult co-signer.
Ulzheimer thinks parents should seriously think about doing so, calling it a "credit card with training wheels." Putting off the inevitable -- nearly all kids will grow up to be adults with credit cards -- will only makes things worse, he believes.
"Some people believe it's best to teach someone how to properly use something that they'll inevitably use rather than vilify it and force avoidance, which simply doesn't work," he said.
Many will find keeping their kids plastic-free is nearly impossible in the Internet age, where teen-agers increasing need credit, debit or gift cards to purchase clothes and music online.
Liz Weston, author of “The 10 Commandments of Money,” gave a more measured response, saying, "As with all things parental, it depends on the kid." But she thought it was important for parents to let their children start using a credit card while they still live at home, so parents can talk about all the important stuff: "How carrying a balance is idiotic, how much interest charges set you back, what a credit score is and how quickly you can trash it, that kind of stuff."
Weston also favored a co-signed card, which gives parents control over how it's used and can be withdrawn at any time.
One thing all these experts agreed on: so-called "stored value" cards aimed at teenagers are a bad idea. Products like VisaBuxx merely teach a kid the bad habit of swiping plastic to buy things without the corresponding pain of paying monthly bills. And these cards tend to have oppressive fees. The fee schedule for Wachovia's version of VisaBuxx, for example, (you'll have to click three times to get to the fees declaration) includes a 14-point service charge area describing $2 fees for each deposit onto the card, a $5 reissue fee every time the card expires, a $2 monthly inactivity fee and more. The card is marketed to kids 13 and older.
The only thing stored value cards accomplish is putting a hard stop on kids spending when the account runs out, something that parents should be able to enforce with a co-signed debit card.
"Prepaid debit cards stink," Weston said. "If they teach anything, it's how to get fleeced."
Hardekopf thinks the credit card discussion is part of a larger discussion that families need to have to help their kids become responsible adults.
"I think we do a great job training our kids,” he said. “We potty train them. We teach them how to ride a bike, to drive a car. But we do a bad job as parents training them how to handle money. And when you look at society, we don’t do a good job of talking about sex and money, two of biggest problems we all face."
What do you think is the right age to give a kid a credit card?
For a nice chart explaining the various plastic card options parents have, see this BankRate story.
Comments begin below. Comment anonymously by sending an e-mail to BobSullivan@feedback.msnbc.com.