New Law Makes it Harder for Teens to Get a Credit Card Starting February 22, 2010

Good or Bad, The New Law Makes it Harder for Teens to Obtain Credit

You may recall that back in May of 2009 the President signed into law the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, or CARD. This act was packed with all sorts of new credit card rules and regulations that would hopefully lead to more responsible borrowing. While this was big news back when it was introduced in May, it has somewhat fallen off the radar even though it’s scheduled to take effect on February 22nd.

One of the highlights of the new law has to do with teens and credit cards. We’ve known that over the years college students have been prime targets for credit card companies. They would flood college campuses during the first few weeks of school and run all sorts of promotions and give away freebies in order to get kids to sign up for credit cards. While this may not seem like that big of a deal, a lot of these young people soon received cards in the mail and were granted credit limits of a few thousand dollars. Unfortunately, without a steady source of income and understanding the consequences of racking up a credit card balance these students soon found themselves in trouble as they had minimum payments coming due.

Get a Job or a Co-Signer

In the past the only requirement to qualify for a credit card was to be at least 18 years old and to have a heartbeat. Credit card companies would give a card to just about anyone. Today, lending has already tightened up, but it’s going to get even worse (or better?) for teenagers. When the new laws take effect you will need to be at least 21 years old to get a credit card without a co-signer or verifiable income. Teens will still be able to apply for a credit card once they turn 18, but to qualify they will need to either have their parents or guardian co-sign or have a job earning enough income to qualify for a card. Sorry, kids. Looks like the days of accepting every credit card offer that comes through your dorm room mailbox and having the best spring break ever are over.

Good News / Bad News for Parents

The new credit card law is a mixed bag for parents. First, the bad news. Your teen’s credit problems now become your problem. In the past if your teenager got a credit card and racked up an unpayable balance there was no legal obligation for the parents to step in and help out. Not any more. Now that you’ll have to co-sign your teen’s card you’re on the hook for their mistakes. This could be as benign as having to help them out with payments if they can’t afford them to actually having your credit destroyed if they get into serious trouble, make late payments, default, etc.

There’s also some good news. You now have a little bit of control over your teen’s spending and you don’t have to worry as much about whether or not they are racking up thousands in debt that you don’t know about while they are away at college. Now you can make sure they only have a credit card with a low interest rate, an appropriate credit limit, and keep tabs on how much they spend and their ability to pay the bill each month. Parents should use this as a teaching moment to help their teens learn how credit cards work, the importance of establishing credit, and making those payments on time.

Good News / Bad News for Teens

Even though most teens won’t like it, there is a lot of good that will come from these changes. It will now be a lot harder for teens to carelessly rack up substantial debt and ruin their credit at such an early age. I know firsthand how easy it is to get into credit card trouble while in college. Been there and done that! So, now that you’ll need a job that pays enough to afford credit card payments or put your parents on the card with you it’s far less likely that major credit card problems will arise.

That being said, it’s not all good. If a teen’s parents already have bad credit it might be impossible for them to even qualify for a credit card they can co-sign on. That could mean they are out of luck until they turn 21. Most credit card opponents would say this is still good news. But let’s not forget reality. You need to establish a credit history at some point as it plays a very important role in your life. From getting a mortgage, a car, getting a job, or even renting an apartment, your credit score can make or break you. If you can’t get a credit card until you’re 21 that means you have lost three years of potential credit history. As a 21 year old is graduating college and getting ready to set out on their new life it can be that much harder if you’re trying to also establish credit for the first time.

Strategies for Teens and Parents

If you’re under 21 and currently don’t have a credit card but have been thinking about getting one, you may want to apply for a good 0% rewards card before the February deadline. No, this doesn’t mean all teenagers should rush out and just start applying for credit. But, if you were already thinking about getting a card, be it for emergencies or just to establish some credit history, it might make sense to get one before the new restrictions take effect. If you are thinking about getting a card you should treat it as if the new restrictions were already in effect. Talk to your parents about it and let them know you’re going to get a credit card. They can help you make the right decision and share some wisdom so that you can avoid the mistakes they may have made.

Parents, it’s also time for you to start thinking about how these changes will affect you and your teen. If you already have a teenager or have children that will be turning 18 in the coming years, you better be prepared for them to start asking you about credit cards. Decide what your policy regarding credit cards will be and determine how you’re going to teach your kids how to use them responsibly so that you don’t end up in credit trouble yourself. And while you’re thinking about that, you should probably check your credit score and make sure your credit is good enough that you can help your kids out when the time does come. Have credit trouble? Here are some tips to help you improve your credit score.

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Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle

My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.