All in the family. Unless students attend a college where credit card companies have been banned from campus or with credit education already in place, students and parents must take the responsibility of educating themselves about credit cards and acceptable amounts of debt. "Parents, even when they have done all the right things, may wonder: Why is one child financially responsible and one is financially irresponsible in college?" says Manning. "Those students living away from home, they become more likely to share the more irresponsible spending behavior of their peers."
Ideally, financial education begins long before a student leaves for college. "It would be good for a high school student to have some type of credit card or a debit card to get exposure to the credit card experience while they are still living under the same roof" with their parents, says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of the credit card comparison website LowCards.com. "There is an aura or a freedom that a credit card gives a student, and that can very quickly turn into something financially dangerous. It's better to have that happen when the student is under the same roof than when they are in the dorms with their friends."
While applying for credit or when receiving a monthly statement, parents can talk about paying the bill in full each month to avoid interest, point out what a credit limit is (and discuss overlimit fees charged if you exceed that amount), and encourage students to pay the bill several days ahead of time to avoid late fees.
Pinto recommends, in addition to sitting down with your kids for a formal credit card discussion, looking for opportunities in general family life to talk about credit cards and money management. "If you read it in the newspaper or you see a billboard, teaching moments occur," she says. "Use those opportunities to teach about the benefits and the drawbacks."
If you're not so good with credit cards yourself, but you'd like your kids to be more fiscally responsible, you can encourage them to take a free online financial literacy course offered by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, read a credit card guide for students from the nonprofit Consumers Union, or peruse financial literacy resources at the National Endowment for Financial Education.
And if you're already in credit card debt, get help at a consumer counseling agency in your area from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.