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Archive for Monday, September 28, 2009

When teens have credit

Personal finance lessons often learned the hard way

Lawrence High School seniors Seth Dirks-Ham, left, and Tim Thompson both use credit cards — and have already learned a few valuable lessons.

Lawrence High School seniors Seth Dirks-Ham, left, and Tim Thompson both use credit cards — and have already learned a few valuable lessons.

September 28, 2009

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The first credit card: a gateway to empowerment and a little fear. It’s a feeling many young adults are familiar with.

Today, it’s not uncommon for young adults to easily obtain $2,000 in credit without any prior credit history. Robert Baker, director of education at Housing and Credit Counseling Inc., knows the story all too well. Baker works to educate young adults, including Kansas University students, about credit cards and the risks associated with them.

“If they’re really mature for their age and very curious, they could probably get a card at 18,” Baker says. “Most students, upon college graduation, or post-graduate students will tell you they didn’t know how to use a credit card at 18.”

The basics about credit cards aren’t widely taught to high school students throughout the state of Kansas, either. Jason Crawford is a business teacher at Lawrence High School and says it’s a catch-22. Students aren’t forced to learn about responsible use of credit, and those are the students credit card companies are targeting with loud marketing gimmicks.

“It’s kind of a fundamental issue here in Kansas that most students can graduate without ever having a personal finance class,” Crawford says. “We have a finance course in our business curriculum, but it’s an elective. It’s not required to graduate, because the attendance numbers are low.”

Crawford says for many of his students, personal finance is taught in the home.

Tim Thompson is an example of that. Thompson is a senior at LHS and is currently working a part-time job. Thompson says his parents are trying to teach him the importance of responsible spending before he begins college.

“For clothes and gas, I use their credit card, and I usually pay cash for my stuff,” Thompson says. “I am going to try to stay away from it, but I may just have to learn the hard way if I get in debt, I am not that great with money.”

It isn’t much of a secret that bank-issued credit cards are big business. Many set up on college campuses all over the nation targeting college freshmen, who are away from home for the first time. If misinformed or drawn in by the attractive headlines on the application, many young adults can easily get started on the wrong foot in no time.

Baker warns many users to only charge what you can easily pay off and don’t use the card for small, everyday purchases.

“Try and avoid charging things like food or drink or minimal clothing items, because you can stack up a lot of small charges that way and have a hard time paying it all back,” Baker says.

That advice would have served LHS senior Seth Dirks-Ham well when he charged nearly $50 on his parents’ card by taking his friends out to eat. The lesson of responsible credit card use is one that Dirks-Ham says was learned quickly and not easily.

“They got mad at me and made me pay them back,” Dirks-Ham says. “I have learned not to abuse it because it will come back and bite you when you have to pay the bill.”

Many of today’s young adults do not yet have credit cards in their own names, and come February 2010, credit cards will become even more difficult to obtain.

The Credit Cardholder’s Bill of Rights is new legislation that will, among other things, require applicants to be at least 21 years of age unless the card is co-signed by a parent or the applicant can provide proof of steady income. Baker is leery whether or not the new legislation will truly affect those it’s targeted to help.

On the LHS campus, business teachers continue teaching their students about the risks associated with credit card use. Crawford says he likes what the new legislation is aimed at doing, but he feels the credit card companies will find their way around it.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Crawford says. “Our fear is that the fine print is going to get even worse, and the gimmicks are going to increase.”

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