What Teens Need to Know About Credit Cards

There was a time when I wanted more free stuff. In college when they ran a coupon in the school newspaper for a free bottle of soda, my roommate and I picked up ten copies. When they offered a free t-shirt in exchange for filling out a credit card application, I got the shirt.

Now I’m more likely to pass on the free stuff; I don’t need it. But the idea that I signed up for a credit card I didn’t want just to get a shirt I never wore makes me want to share advice with teenagers about finances and especially credit cards.

At Alpha Mom: What teens should know about credit cards before they go off to college. (1. It’s not extra money.)

What would you tell teenagers from your experience? Share your advice in the comments there.

More I’ve recently written at Alpha Mom:

Why I don’t spend precious babysitting hours on cleaning the house.

Crafts: what you can make with sculpey clay (it’s gluten-free!)

I don’t think I will buy more overly-posed school portraits. How you can take photos that really capture your kids.

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Thanks again for yet another post, just when I needed it. I am home alone on a rare day that the kids are in school. (I’m taking some quiet introvert time after a death in my family). I was telling myself to work on the stinky laundry drain, but now I am going to sew pillows…Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Jessica says:

    I had one from the time I was 14 or so. You had to also open an account and keep money in it equal to the credit limit- which was like $200 or something- and have a cosigner. In High School and college, when I wanted a higher credit limit for doing things like picking up groceries for my parents paying for doctor’s appointments I had driven myself to, they were willing to expand my credit limit despite having little or no income, based on my payment history. I got used to making full payments on time under supervision, had a backup in case of emergency, and now have better credit than most of my friends, because of having such a long credit history. I’m sure that program isn’t still around, but I’d want to do something similar with my kids.

  3. I love hearing that someone else doesn’t like free stuff!
    Sometimes it feels so abnormal – well it kind of is….but in my opinion it’s smart.

  4. 1. I love all your posts on Alphamom! Thanks for sharing.

    2. I wish someone had taught ME that credit cards aren’t free money! It would have saved me a lot of headache. In fact, I’m still learning it…

    3. I also understand about the free stuff. Today there was a free piece of pie with my meal. My sister made me order one, but I didn’t want it; I don’t need free food when I’m full, and I don’t need free stuff when I’m fulfilled.
    Jennie´s last post…Simple Projects to Make Your Life Easier

  5. Great topic. I’m a high school teacher and I went back to basic with my class when I taught Commerce. I taught them about what it means when a bank says ’30 days interest free’. They were stunned by how it all works. I taught them about credit cards, debit cards and now the debit credit card. I agree that the most important thing is to pay your credit card bill in full on time. This stuff will stay with them for life.

  6. vermontmommy says:

    Advice I wish I had when I was a teenager.

    I am amazed at how easily I was able to obtain credit cards. At college they always had vendors set up giving away this and that if you signed up. It took me and my hubby 10 years to pay them off. I was bright but goodness I have no idea what I was thinking as I acquired so many and used so many. Lesson learned but it was a hard lesson.

  7. I would have loved this post when I was a kid. I learned the hard way and $50 k later, and now at 40 am only just getting it. Terrific posting. Thank you.
    Tasmanian Minimalist´s last post…Urban Homestead Link Love

  8. This is such an important topic! My father lived through the depression and he had a simple philosophy he instilled in me, if you don’t have the cash for it, you don’t need it!

    We have four grown children and three were in college at the same time, 2 of them living at home during school. We’ve always tried to give them good sound financial advice but at 18, 19, 20, credit card temptation is always there and so easy. I was floored at the number of credit card applications that came to our home almost daily for the kids, sometimes two and three at a time. And being how I was the one during this time who always got the mail, and I know some of you may say “wow” (and maybe not in a good way)but I would see these offers and promptly shred them. This was a few years ago when the economy wasn’t bad like it is now, but still, these teenagers didn’t need the temptation and future debt. They never knew I did this and I would do it again. We’ve always told our kids, you really need just one good major credit card and to try your best to keep it open, we’ve all had to use them in emergencies, car repairs, etc. We’ve also told all four of our kids as they’ve left the nest, live as if you only have yourself to depend on, don’t think in the back of your mind, oh, mom and dad will help if I need it. Make wise choices and learn to be independent. No, my kids aren’t perfect, they’ve made mistakes, we all have. But it’s like my father always said, learn from those mistakes and don’t make them again. And you know, our kids have turned out okay. Our oldest son and his wife have taken some great trips that they’ve planned and saved for, one son paid off a car in 18 months, the list goes on. And I know that me shredding those “ooh, let’s get you in debt” offers when they were younger didn’t make them who they are today but I like to think I contributed just a little in doing that! So people, communicate and prepare your kids, it’s one of the best gifts you can give to them!

  9. I wish I had learned more about credit cards and money before college! We’re determined to start teaching our baby early!
    Kait Palmer´s last post…Mobility, Mamas and Mud

  10. I did sign up for a credit card in college from a vendor with a table set up in the student union, and I did get a free, very ugly, t-shirt, but I don’t regret my decision. I ended up with a substantially higher credit limit than either my (now) husband or my twin sister, who both got their first credit card through their home bank, and this came in handy when I was traveling with either or both of them until they got “real” jobs and their limit was raised. But I made the decision to accept that high credit limit because I knew I could handle it: I was lucky enough to be on a sound financial footing early in college (I had a substantial scholarship), and well, I’m pretty square and conservative financially and I was committed to paying my balance in full. My folks had taught me what I needed to know by that point and since I wanted to travel, a credit card was very useful. The marketing for credit cards on my campus was fairly subdued, but I went to school in Canada and I suspect that the regulation in this area (as in other areas of banking) is more stringent.
    Bronwen´s last post…The Homesick Texan’s Green Chile Posole with Black Beans

  11. You know, I have to chime in on the school pictures article. My kids, 7th grade and 4th grade now, have never bought the school pictures. We can afford it, honestly. I just don’t think it’s worth spending the money on. We purchase the yearbook for each kid, I think that is an important rite of passage… signing those little yearbooks at the end, but they do NOT care about the school photos. I take photos of the several (oh boy so many) times per year and send those photos (prints) to the grandparents to fit in frames I bought them years ago. My kids think that school photos are a scam. It’s all a part of our teaching our kids to value money appropriately and to question the “need” for everything, even the sentimental “traditions” that are costly. Thanks for making me think, Rachel. Your blog posts are insightful and useful.

  12. Mom and Dad are not the gov’t. You will NOT be bailed out.

  13. Not only do they need to know nothing is for free, they need to know how to take care of themselves, do their own laundry, why asking their parents to mortgage their retirements to pay for college isn’t a good idea, manage their own lives, and so on. At some point, responsibility stopped being a sought-after and expected character trait, and parents began believing they should be best friends with their kids, willing to bail them out of anything. My kids have enough friends – but only two parents.

  14. It really is so irresponsible of credit companies to offer incentives like this. I agree that it is so important to teach teens about money, but unfortunately it seems to be something that people only learn from (bad) experience. I remember how hard it was for me to pay off a $5,000 loan when I was in my mid twenties, but it put me off credit cards for life.
    Stephanie´s last post…A black & white party.

  15. It is a terrible idea – there are so many companies trying to market to the young, sure some responsible political party can put a ban on this kind of marketing? Credit cards, cigarettes, alcohol… so much that can give young people the worse possible start in life… thanks for giving sound advice Rachel!

  16. I so so so wish someone would have told me this before I headed off for college. When I didn’t have enough money for books, I put it on a credit card. When I wanted to go out with friends – all on the credit card. Movies? You guessed it! All on the card. For the first few months I was fine making at least half the payments on the total bills, but after awhile, I started to look at the cards as though they WERE extra money and that’s when it got out of control. A year out of college, I’m still dealing with the repercussions, but I’m glad. Now I have something to work back from and a story to share in order to make sure my kids don’t make the same mistake.