Your money

So your kid wants a credit card. What do you do now?

May 17, 2013 at 10:02 AM ET

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Getting that first credit card is a big step for your child; one that can have serious negative consequences for years to come.

Your high school graduate wants a credit card. Is that good or bad?

Experts say it all depends on the child and how he or she will use the card.

“If they look at the card as a ticket to more spending, you should be worried,” said Laura Levine, executive director of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. “If they know how credit cards work and are responsible, then it can be a good thing.”

Even though they don’t have a credit history yet, college-bound students may find offers that are comparable to what someone with excellent credit might get. The credit limit will be much lower, but the terms – including rewards – may be the same.

“This is because kids headed to college have a much higher earnings potential than those who are not,” explained Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com. “Banks know this and they want to build a relationship with them to get into their wallet as early as possible. “

CardHub.com just published its 2013 list of the Best Credit Cards for High School and College Graduates. None of the cards has an annual fee.

“A card without an annual fee allows the student to start building credit for free – and that is the number one priority,” Papadimitriou told me. “You build credit faster by using the card and paying in full each month, but you still build credit even if you throw it in a drawer or cut it in half. The card company will report to the credit bureaus that you are in good standing.”

Some other options

College kids are a prime target for credit card companies, so they will get offers as they prepare to head off to school.

The law says anyone under 21 who applies for a credit card must have a co-signer on the account or be able to show their ability to pay the bills. A part-time job could be enough to qualify.

“Parents need to remember that a lender may approve their kid for that credit card, even if they don't approve,” said Gerri Detweiler, personal finance expert at Credit.com.

Detweiler and other financial experts encourage parents not to become co-signers because of the potential risk: you put your credit on the line with no real control over how your child uses the card. Legally, you are liable for any debt they incur.

There is a better way.

John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, advises parents to add their age-appropriate children as “authorized users” on the card. He calls it “a credit card with training wheels.”

“This allows your child to have a credit card with their name printed on the front of it, but as the primary cardholder you maintain all the control,” he explained. “You can essentially manage your kid’s use of the card, almost in real time, and kick them off the card if they start to abuse it.”

Of course, as the primary cardholder, you are still responsible for paying the bill.

Go this route and your child gets all the benefit of having their own credit card, but you don’t have the downsides of a cosigner.

“Your child is actually building a credit history by being an authorized user because the account is showing up on their credit reports,” Ulzheimer said.

We need to talk

Getting that first credit card is a big step for your child; one that can have serious negative consequences for years to come.

Credit scores, which are based on a person’s credit history, will determine their ability to get credit in the future and what price they will pay for it.

Someone with a low credit score may not be able to rent an apartment, get a car loan or open a wireless phone account. Credit reports are now used by employers to screen job applicants and some insurance companies to set rates (where allowed by law).

It’s important to have a conversation with your child about the consequences of not managing that card properly. They need to understand that bills are to be paid in full and on time each and every month.

“One late payment can literally drop your credit score 50 to 80 points or more,” Detweiler explained. “A lot of adults don’t realize that, much less kids who are just starting out. So you want to talk to your kids about how this impacts their credit and how important it is to pay those bills on time.”

Where things stand

A new study from Sallie Mae finds that more college students these days “exercise caution with credit cards” and that’s encouraging. A third of student card holders have a zero balance, 42 percent have a balance of $500 or less and just 24 percent have a balance of more than $500.

The survey found the percentage of college kids with credit cards has declined during the last two years, from 42 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2012. Freshman are least likely to have a card in their name (21 percent) compared to 60 percent of seniors.

Sallie Mae reminds students to only charge what they can afford, pay the bill before it’s due to avoid accidental late fees and to remember that a credit card is a convenience, not a source of spending money.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitteror visit The ConsumerMan website.

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