A thoughtful reviewer of one of my books recently scolded me for suggesting that parents should help their teens get credit cards. She was concerned that parents shouldn't be teaching their children to borrow money but to save it instead. I couldn't agree more.
The world is filled with all kinds of challenges and problems. Learning to use credit responsibly is one of those challenges. By helping your teen use a credit card and pay it off each month, you will prepare her for a world of grown up decisions.
It is too much to expect your teen to use a credit card responsibly without real preparation. This starts when your kids are young. Between ages 8 and 12, most kids are ready to understand the concepts required to use a savings account at the bank. You'll have to encourage, supervise and co-sign on the account, but a typical 10-year-old is wise and mature enough to open and use a bank account.
Between ages 12 and 16, your kids should be ready to open a checking account. A checking account requires more care. If you teach your kids how to balance a checkbook and that it can take days or even weeks for checks to clear, you can help them learn to be money-wise.
Similarly, between ages 16 and 18, most teens are ready to handle a credit card on the condition that they have been using a savings account for many years and a checking account for several more without problems. The credit card works like a debit card on the checking account and should not be difficult. The key thing a parent should teach the teen with her first credit card is to pay off the balance each month. If she learns to do this while she's living it at home, she'll be much better prepared when she leaves home.
It may not matter much at this stage of her life, but by learning to use credit responsibly, she also begins to establish a credit rating that will help when it is time to buy a home.
Credit cards also help protect teens by reducing the amount of cash they carry and providing an emergency source of funds. Imagine your teen traveling on a school activity, getting separated from the group and needing a way to get home. A credit card with a limit of a few hundred dollars will likely fund a bus ticket home. Of course, there are lots of ways to solve such problems, but grownups solve them with credit cards. Teaching your teen to be a safe and secure adult is part of the job of a parent.
If your teen has failed to use the checking account responsibly - either ignoring it or overdrawing the balance - she is not a good candidate for a credit card. She probably wants one, but you'll only aggravate problems by helping her get something she's not ready to use. The job of a parent is not to enable your kids' bad behavior but to teach them good behavior. Be wise.