What Teens Need to Know About Credit

Don't bog kids down with details. You'll make a more lasting impression if you start by teaching these six essentials.

When it comes to teaching young people about credit, there's no shortage of ideas on what to tell them.

In its DVD College Credit for Life, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling encourages students to shop for a card based on annual percentage rate, length of the grace period and how the balance is calculated.

The JumpStart Coalition suggests that you let your tweens and teens examine your credit report, and that you and your kids read the terms and conditions on a credit-card statement.

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That's all great stuff, especially for young adults who are actually applying for credit cards. But you don't want to inundate tweens and high school students with so many details that their eyes glaze over. To make a lasting impression, focus on the big picture and the basics.

For instance, let kids know that people who use credit cards spend more compared with those who use cash or checks. One study found that customers at fast-food restaurants spend 50% more when they pay with plastic rather than cash, says Baylor University marketing professor James A. Roberts, who studies credit usage.

Other things that adults understand but kids often don't:

  • Credit cards are not free money. By definition they're "credit" cards, meaning that when you use them you're borrowing money from the issuer.
  • The card issuer charges interest. Kids know that banks pay interest on savings accounts, but they're not always aware that banks charge interest -- at a much higher rate -- when you take out a loan.
  • Don't max out your credit. Young people are more likely than older adults to charge up to their credit limit. But to get a top credit score, it's best to hold your charges to 25% of your credit limit, or even less.
  • Pay your bills on time. Credit issuers are watching how you handle your cards, and paying late is the worst black mark on your record. (Learn more about what impacts your credit history (opens in new tab).)
  • Blots on your credit record can affect your ability to get a job, rent an apartment, buy a car or get a cell phone. See Why Your Credit Score Matters (opens in new tab) for more info.
  • Pay your bill in full each month, if you can, and always pay more than the minimum. Use our online calculator (opens in new tab) to show kids that, for example, if you pay $50 a month on a $2,000 balance at 18%, it will take more than five years to pay off the debt. Pay less than $30 a month and you'll never be out of debt.

Mom and Dad, share your personal experiences with your kids. They'll love to hear how you screwed up and then made things right. If you're still in credit trouble, take the opportunity to clean up your act. See Don't Let Debt Get You Down for help.

LAST WEEK: Best Time for First Credit Card (opens in new tab)

Janet Bodnar
Editor-at-Large, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. While editor, Bodnar was honored by Folio as one of its Top Women in Media. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.