Should college students get a credit card? A guide to kids and financial literacy

Author Image
Written by
Liz Hughes
Terms apply; see the online credit card application for full terms and conditions of offers and rewards.

At we discuss the most up-to-date news and trends within the credit card space. Since we first pioneered the concept of online credit card reviews in 1998, our team of financial experts has provided comprehensive and unbiased credit card reviews for more than 175 cards, plus hundreds of additional resource articles to help educate everyday cardholders so they can feel more confident about their card choices. All our content is written and reviewed by industry experts. Though our content may occasionally contain references to products from our partners, we maintain strict editorial integrity and advertiser relationships and compensation never influences ratings, reviews or featured products. The difference between editorial content and advertising must always be clearly stated. Learn more.

If you’re sending your son or daughter off to college soon, you likely already know it’s a time when they will begin to embrace their independence, but what about their financial independence?

We’ve gathered some info to help you prepare your child financially before heading off for his or her first year of college, from what they need to know before heading off to school to how they can best manage expenses and more importantly, how you can help them with all that while empowering them to make good decisions. 

And, in case you’re still years away from the college decisions, we talked to experts about when to teach what as it relates to financial literacy and children. There are many life skills you want to teach your child to make them ready to head out on their own and managing their finances is one of the most important. The earlier you can educate your child on finances, the better.

A recent CardRatings survey found the age you introduce the topics of money and personal finances could have lasting repercussions, for better or worse.

Dr. Edward Horwitz, associate professor of practice at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business and co-author of the book “Money Mammoth: Harness The Power of Financial Psychology to Evolve Your Money Mindset, Avoid Extinction, and Crush Your Financial Goals,” says the more research he does the more he learns that money beliefs are fairly well set between the ages of three and five, making it really important to talk about money at a young age.

Horwitz, along with that his two partners and co-authors, focus their research on the concept of a  money script and how beliefs are formed at a young age and how they manifest at a later age.

He says new research looking at the generational impacts of money beliefs shows that if the money script is left unexplored, undiscussed or unchallenged, that will be passed down generationally for years.

“Very much like a genetic type of a situation, that’s why it’s so important – to be self-aware of our money scripts and money beliefs and fix the parts of them that are bad and rewrite the code to fix those and adapt,” he says.

Even if you didn’t start young, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to get your son or daughter ready to head off to college this fall, as you continue to raise financially strong children.

Horwitz says it’s most important when you’re having these financial discussions with your soon-to-be college freshman that you talk to them as an adult.

“Let them know you’re going to give them help and the benefits of all the mistakes you’ve made and that you are not going to pass judgment because these are their decisions,” he says.

Horwitz suggests beginning by talking about the types of expenses they’ll have and preparing a budget.

“I know it sounds nerdy, but I would sit down with my children and say ‘here are what the expenses are going to be,'” he says.

Discuss things like how student loans should only be used for room and board, tuition and books. Work through what that loan money is going to look like.

Then work on their budget. Find out what they think they’re going to need to live on. How many nights will they eat out? How much would they spend a month on clothing and entertainment?

“You have to go through this stuff because if you have no plan, then the checkbook is out,” Horwitz says.

It’s going to take some time to get a budget where it needs to be, so during the first month as a freshman they need to get that budget figured out. Horwitz suggests giving them an assignment to connect with a future roommate or someone they already know who is in college and ask them what their monthly living expenses are like.

If they’re going to college out of state don’t forget to include trips home for the holidays, spring break, etc. and put them in the budget ahead of time.

“Plan and budget and work for that and set their mindset for the young people early. This is how you get things – you identify them, you research, you cost and you budget,” Horwitz says.

Next, buy your college student a pre-loaded debit card and every month put that amount of money on that card. Horwitz says it’s important to talk to your kids when you check in every month and that includes reviewing their budget to see if they went over or under and then you can compare it until a baseline budget is established.

“Maybe next year it will increase or decrease. You’re involved in your teaching – it’s a review,” he says. “Ask them, not in a condescending way, not in judgment ‘Is that an exception or do you think it will continue?’ Those are discussions you want to have and empower them to not only manage and keep track of their own money but also survive their financial problems by creating income if they need more.

“The most important thing I think parents can do is keep that dialogue open and have an objective discussion with them but not in a condescending way,” he adds.

Horwitz says you want to help your child understand that if you have to earn it and pay for it, you value it because you equate the hard work it took to get it.


That mindset of valuing the work to pay for the things you want and tying those concepts together is one of the most critical, important lessons parents can hand down as your kids go off into a brave new world.

Dr. Edward Horwitz, Creighton University’s Heider College of Business Associate Professor

College kids and credit cards

The topic of credit cards is another important discussion to have before your child heads off to school. Horwitz says you don’t want your kids signing up for a credit card to solve their money problems instead of getting a job. Plus, if they aren’t handled correctly, a credit card can mess up their credit for years to come.

Horwitz recommends ensuring your student knows they don’t have to apply for a credit card.

“If you need money, come and talk to us and we will work it out,'” he says.

You have to be 18 years of age to apply for a credit card on your own, according to the Credit CARD Act of 2009, which raised the minimum age for getting a card, among other things, and was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Barack Obama. Issuers are also required to collect additional proof of financial independence/consistent income from applicants under the age of 21; therefore, it isn’t easy for a person under the age of 21 to qualify for a card on their own.

One of the lessons of the Great Recession was that college freshman often aren’t thinking things through when they apply for credit cards; it used to be that on campuses across the nation credit card companies would offer, say, a free T-shirt or a water bottle as an enticement to apply for a credit card. Plenty of 18-year-olds did and made purchases without thinking things through or understand the implications. They ended up graduating not just with student loan debt but credit card debt as well.

These days, that kind of marketing is prohibited, but it doesn’t mean your college student won’t encounter opportunities to sign up for a card either at the checkout of their favorite stores or even at the recommendation of friends.

Now, if you do want your college student to have a credit card, you can allow them to be an authorized user on your card or you could co-sign for them to have their own.

There are some good student credit cards out there, some even reward college students for good grades, but you really need to think about things if you’re going to be a co-signer. You aren’t just vouching for your kid’s good character – you’re promising that if your student can’t make a payment, you will. If your kid maxes the card out, or anything goes wrong, and there’s a lot of debt, and somebody needs to step in and pay it off, that somebody will be you. It’s a big responsibility and a big financial risk unless you have a few money trees growing in your backyard.

On the other hand, if you make your student an authorized user you are still responsible for what your student puts on the card, but you have more control over that with tools such as setting spending limits. Additionally, if your credit is excellent and you handle your card responsibly, your student’s credit should benefit from being an authorized user on your card. In all, it’s likely safer to set up your student as an authorized user.

But, of course, you know your college kid, and maybe they are extremely responsible and even have a job. There could be plenty of good reasons to co-sign for a credit card. If there aren’t special circumstances in which your kid truly needs a credit card, though, it’s probably best to encourage them to apply for one when they’re 21 or gainfully employed. You know what they say – the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Age-by-age guide to teaching kids about money

If your child is still far from heading off to college and still navigating elementary, middle and high school, we have some tips for them too.

We know your kids probably aren’t listening to you now when you tell them to put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket and do their homework. Are your kids really going to heed your advice, years from now, when they’re buying a car, house or applying for a credit card?

The age in which topics of money and personal finances are introduced could have lasting repercussions. Data from our survey indicates early financial education at home correlates to more satisfaction with that education as well as whether respondents consider themselves financially responsible as adults.

Remember, if you teach your kids about money often and not just spout out a few pearls of financial wisdom occasionally, experts say they will listen. So if you’ve been looking for a way to teach your child the value of money, try these strategies. No matter what your child’s age, you can be teaching them something – just be sure to keep your lessons age-appropriate so you’re introducing concepts they are capable of understanding.

Financial experts and parents we spoke with gave us their thoughts on when you should start giving your child an allowance to how to help your kid apply for a credit card and everything in between.

If your kids are 5 years old or younger (or when to begin talking to kids about money)

As you might guess, most experts don’t suggest spreading out bills in front of a toddler and discussing your money woes with them. So, don’t. Let your kid be a kid. But you still can teach a 3-year-old something about finances.

From ages 3 to 5, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website, this is a good time to start teaching your child about the various coins that wind up in your pants pocket or change purchase. This is definitely a good age where you can give them pretend money, or a toy cash register (some come with play money and plastic credit cards), in case they’d like to pretend they’re going off to the supermarket or a bookstore or wherever.

This is also a good time to discuss your job, and that you get paid for doing your job. In other words, this is the age at which you do what you’d expect: Teach your child the basics of money.

“I would like to see parents teach their children by collecting each day’s coins, discussing how many of the smaller coins make up the others and then start a collection for the month,” says Stephenie Barker, a real estate agent and author of the children’s book, “The Little Copper Penny,” a book that teaches kids the basics of making change and the monetary value of coins.

And it doesn’t take much to impart money lessons to little kids. Barker says that a grandmother recently told her about a game she plays with her grandchildren when they take walks together.

“The game is to see who can find the most pennies. At the end of the walk, the person with the most gets everyone’s pennies. What a great game,” Barker says.

If your kids are in elementary school (or when to give kids an allowance)

From ages 6 to 12, the CFPB recommends that you start getting a little more technical and explain what’s going on when you shop, like talking about why you’re making certain purchases and showing them what’s on the receipt.

This is also an appropriate time to give your child an allowance and to discuss what they should do with the money, such as saving some of it. The CFPB also points out that this is a time when your kids may start discussing how much money friends or relatives have, or don’t have, compared to your household, and you should be prepared to have those discussions.

Parent tip: Allowances are a good teaching tool. Rocky Lalvani, a father of two teenagers and a wealth coach based out of Harrisburg, Penn., says that he began giving his kids an allowance at age five.

“In order to help kids learn about money, they need to have their own money,” Lalvani says. “You can’t teach someone to golf without handing them a golf club. Same with money.”

He says that he always had his kids give $1 to charity and then split what was left between spending and saving for the future.

“Every year we increase the allowance to be equal to their age,” Lalvani says.

Parent tip: A fun way to teach kids about money. Karen Hoxmeier, a Denver-based mom who owns and runs, a website that helps people save money, says that when her kids were young – 8, 6 and 4 years old – she instituted “kid chef night.”

“One night a week, they would take turns determining what was for dinner, shopping for the ingredients on a budget, and preparing the meal – with supervision, of course,” Hoxmeier says.

She says that by creating a budget for the meal, her kids learned to be resourceful and to try to use things that they already had in the house, so they’d have more to spend at the store.

At the store, Hoxmeier taught her kids how to look at the unit pricing in small print on the price tags, so they could get the best possible price. “They also learned how to save money by using fresh produce that was in season. If they needed something that was not in season, we would find a substitution or buy frozen instead,” she says.

And as for preparing the meals, well, her kids learned how to cook.

“Today, they are 22, 20 and 18,” she says. “They are very responsible with money and some of the most frugal people I know.”

If your kids are in middle school and high school (or when to talk to kids about credit cards and loans)

If you haven’t yet started having talks about credit cards, car loans, a mortgage… this is the time, most experts say, that you’ll want to start having those conversations about how people buy a house and a car, if you haven’t already. In fact, when it comes to money, there’s almost nothing you can’t talk about at this age, especially as your kids hit high school.

It’s certainly time to discuss how to use and not to use credit cards, says Leslie Tayne, a mom of three teenagers, the author of the book “Life & Debt” and a financial and debt attorney based out of New York City.


It’s important that children are taught the fundamentals of credit cards and that they function similarly to a loan with associated penalties if bills go unpaid. Lessons should be focused on helping them understand that credit cards are not to be regarded as free or infinite money and that every dollar borrowed must be not only repaid but repaid in a timely manner.

Leslie Tayne, Financial and Debt Attorney

Parent tip: A practical way to teach your kids about money. Airto Zamorano, co-founder and CEO of Numana Medical and Numana SEO, says that he and his wife created a Google Sheets document for his son to manage his chores.

“On this document, he has a weekly schedule that needs to be checked off by me or my wife,” Zamorano says.

Every time a chore is checked off, his teen can see the dollar amount that he gets for it.

“His allowance will reflect the work he completes, and he will only get the full allowance should he finish all of his chores for the week,” Zamorano says, adding that the document also has a summary page, “which acts as a ledger for him to show what he has earned, and what he has spent. Believe it or not, he really enjoys using this document. It has taught him to manage his responsibilities and his money.”

Parent tip: Teaching your kid how to manage money. Tammy Johnston, a speaker and author in Calgary, Alberta, and author of “The Financial Guides,” a series of books that teach money concepts to kids, says that she recommends giving children and teenagers an allowance and having them split up their money into six jars.

One jar is for “financial freedom” (investing). The second jar is for education (college). The third is “long-term savings for spending” (maybe your kid wants a computer game, or if you have a high school or college student, a car). The fourth jar is for charity. The fifth is for gifts (you know, birthday and holiday gifts for friends and family). And the sixth is for “play” (candy, comic books, whatever they want as long as it’s, you know, something you allow in your household).

“I also tell people to use the same breakdown for earned money and gifted money. Keeping the rules the same, regardless of the source of the funds, makes it much easier to instill healthy financial habits,” Johnston says.

And as Johnston says, “Money is a fact of life, and what kids and teens don’t know could seriously hurt them.”

When should kids get a credit card?

If your kid is still in high school, even in middle school (even when your child is in diapers, if you want to take this to the extreme), you could make your child an authorized user on your credit card. That means your child can use the credit card when making purchases, and your kid can even start to build a credit history.

But just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Do you really want your middle schooler using your credit card whenever he or she wants? (Your kid may be an authorized user, but you are responsible for making the payments.) And while you may think that you’re doing your kid a favor by getting him or her an early start in building a credit history, what if you run into financial problems and end up maxing out your credit cards or paying them late? Your credit history problems become your kid’s credit history problems. That’s a very good reason not to make a young child an authorized user of a credit card.

“Instead of a credit card, consider giving your teenager a prepaid debit card or have your teen open a bank account for learning the fundamentals of budgeting money that comes in and out,” Tayne says. “This provides teens with a first-hand look and understanding about the concept of saving and what it means to have to pay for purchases made – presenting authentic lessons in accountability and responsible spending without the worry of potential late payments, accrual of interest or damaging credit.”

Tayne recommends that your teenager wait to get his or her own credit card until at least age 18, and if you do co-sign (more on that in a moment) for a credit card, your kid should have a job.

“A good rule of thumb to follow for knowing when the time is right for giving children a credit card is: If they can’t work, giving them a credit card won’t work,” Tayne says.

Another thing to consider if your teenager doesn’t have a credit card, and you’d like him or her to have one: Open up a bank account and let him or her have a debit card instead, or give them a prepaid debit card, Tayne suggests.

“This provides teens with a first-hand look and understanding about the concept of saving and what it means to have to pay for purchases made – presenting authentic lessons in accountability and responsible spending without the worry of potential late payments, accrual of interest or damaging credit,” she says.

Helping your college kid choose a credit card

You’ll do your child a favor if you volunteer to help choose a credit card, says Kevin Gallegos, senior vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network, a national debt solutions company.

“Help them evaluate options,” Gallegos says. “Lenders, including banks and credit card companies, are very competitive. They want your business. Don’t sign up with a company simply because it sent you an offer in the mail. Help your child compare interest rates, fees and offers.”

Teaching your kids about credit cards

You can and should start by talking about credit cards and how they work in high school, of course, but if nothing else, before your college kid or college graduate applies for a credit card, it would be smart to teach them as much as possible about how credit cards work, Gallegos says. While there is a lot you can tell them, he says, several important points you’ll want to make are:

1) “Never carry a balance,” Gallegos says. “The key is to never charge more than you pay off at the end of each month.”

2) “Live within (or, ideally, below) your means. Easier said than done,” Gallegos admits, adding. “Plenty of people who have the latest fashions and tech toys, or drive the newest cars, do so under a tremendous debt burden.” And, sure, you know that, but make sure your kid does.

3) Teach your kid some of the terms associated with credit cards. “Make sure your child understands ‘percentage utilization’ and ‘credit available,'” Gallegos says, offering up an example of what you might tell your son or daughter: “If you have a credit card with a limit of $10,000, and you owe $3,500 on it, that’s 35% utilization. Anything over 35% is considered high and can impact credit scores. More than 50% will have a definite negative impact on a credit score, and a maxed-out card will very negatively impact the score. Best tip: Charge just a couple of small purchases each month, and then pay off in full and on time.”

4) “Explain to your child the importance of an emergency fund,” Gallegos says. (In other words, your credit card is not the emergency fund.)

“Most people,” he continues, “get into serious credit card debt not because they are frivolous, but because of a major personal or traumatic situation. The top three causes of serious debt hardship are unexpected medical expenses, job loss and divorce. To keep from rushing for the credit card in the event of the unexpected – whether a car repair, job loss, illness or other – set up an emergency fund. Conventional wisdom holds that individuals need to save at least six months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. It’s hard for young adults to understand this, so working with kids can mean a lot here.”

And we’ll let Rocky Lalvani, the aforementioned wealth coach in Harrisburg, Penn., have the last word.

Your kids, Lalvani points out, are modeling their money behavior after you.

So if you’re a reckless spender, your kids are going to pick up on those cues. If you tend to be smart about what you spend your money on, and you save money, and you’re frequently taking the family on trips with rewards points you collected with your credit card, or your kids see you handing over coupons at the supermarket checkout counter, well, your children will pick up on that, too. So, you’re teaching your kids about money and credit cards even if you don’t actively teach them about money and credit cards. Your own behavior may be more important than what you teach your kids.

“They learn by what you do, not what you say, so you have to be sharp,” Lalvani says.


The information in this article is believed to be accurate as of the date it was written. Please keep in mind that credit card offers change frequently. Therefore, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information in this article. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. See the online credit card application for full terms and conditions on offers and rewards. Please verify all terms and conditions of any credit card prior to applying.

This content is not provided by any company mentioned in this article. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such company. does not review every company or every offer available on the market.