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Teaching Johnny how credit cards work

Written by Geoff Williams
Posted On: October 6, 2011

American Express is a CardRatings.com advertiser.

In recent years, high schools and universities have been trying to teach students how to manage their money, bank accounts and credit cards. Moms and dads, who have been teaching their kids about money for generations, have likely been discussing money more, in recent years, ever since the economy began faltering. And now, credit card companies themselves are getting into the action.

Well, two of them, anyway, have recently dipped their toes into the water.

PULSE, a subsidiary of Discover Financial Services, recently launched DebitSavvy.org, a website aimed at young adults. It's all about teaching the so-called millennial generation how to use their debit card properly.

American Express, meanwhile, has teamed up with LearnVest.com, a personal finance and lifestyle website, to develop and promote a free bootcamp called "Take Control of Your Finances."

American Express promotes financial literacy

I also spoke to Jennie Platt, the director of millennial and household product strategies at American Express, asking if credit card companies teaching young adults how to use credit cards was a product of the recession, and because parents and schools haven't quite stepped up.

She didn't diss parents or schools, but she did say that educating young adults is "a big focus area for us, particularly because this (is) the next generation of customers, and they are the children of our customers--and a third of them (in a new study from American Express) say that they could use help in this area and don't necessarily have the education and grounding that they feel they need."

Leah Gerstner, a spokeswoman for American Express, echoes that. She says that on a recent survey that American Express conducted, parents were asked what they would grade schools on how they taught sex education and financial education. "Most parents gave their schools an A for how they teach sex education and a D for how they teach financial education," Gerstner says.

In any case, if anyone's interested in signing up for "Take Control of Your Finances" (or "Build Your Career," for that matter), Alexa von Tobel, the CEO and founder of LearnVest.com, says that each day, participants receive an email with everything from quizzes to calculators to help young adults learn more about how to manage their money.

"You just sign up with your email address, subscribe, and your program starts tomorrow," von Tobel says.

Discover provides "fact-based resource" for millennials

Cindy Ballard is the executive vice-president of marketing and communications of PULSE. I gave her a ring, and we talked about DebitSavvy.org, which was relaunched last September but existed in another form, at a website called DebitFacts.org, in 2008.

Ballard said that they just felt the Internet needed a "fact-based, basic resource about managing money with a debit card, and there didn't seem to be anything like that out there," but that they revamped it toward millennials recently because "they're super-users, they use debit cards more than any other age group and more than any other form of payment."

Are young people listening to financial advice?

Hopefully some are. I know I could have used something like that when I was younger, although frankly I'm not sure personal finance websites, had they existed when I graduated from college in 1992, would have done me much good.

For instance, DebitSavvy.org offers these chestnuts of credit card wisdom on their site:

  • Always pay your credit card bills and other debts on time.
  • Use your credit card only when you can afford to pay off immediately or within a reasonable time frame.
  • Whenever possible, pay your credit card bill in full each month or pay as much as you can above the minimum amount due.

It's a good solid commonsense advice, but it's advice that I know I pretty much ignored when I was 22 and using my credit card after moving from a small town in Ohio to the big city of Los Angeles. I'd like to think that most young adults, when they're given a credit card, understand that they're required to pay their debts off every month. But knowing the rules to credit cards and actually following them and truly understanding the consequences and math if one doesn't follow them, especially when you're in the midst of your life and still unsure how to budget, are two entirely different things.

Which is why I'm impressed that the American Express / LearnVest bootcamp lasts for 10 days. At least it commits someone to 10 days of thinking about how credit cards and money in general works if (and this is a significant "if") they take the program seriously. But I'm guessing a typical 22-year-old is either already responsible and not in much need of financial education--although I can imagine some young adults signing up because they're drowning in credit card debt and probably wish they had had this sort of financial education sooner. The majority of young adults in between responsible and off the charts in debt, I'm betting, are thinking mainly about finding a job, meeting someone and getting ahead in life.

The savvy ones, however, will be taking advantage of free financial literacy courses such as the ones sponsored by AmEx and Discover.

 

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