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How can I get my son to care about credit?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

December 9, 2013

QHi Eva,

My son is 24, and he doesn't want to get a credit card. I understand that, but, besides his student loans (which I believe he pays on time), he doesn't really have anything that's working toward his credit score and that worries me. Is he hurting himself in the long run? Also, I've heard I can get a credit card for him that's attached to his name, so that it can build credit for him. How would that work? Thanks for your help. — Camilla

AHi Camilla,

On one hand, it's a good sign that your son is not interested in getting a credit card; it indicates that he is not a spender and has a conservative approach to money.

On the other hand, you are correct that he could be hurting his financial future if he doesn't take steps to establish a solid credit history. With just a student loan, he has a very thin credit file now. Even if he's paying that loan off on time, it may not be enough to convince a lender to extend him credit in the future.Ask Eva

It sounds like the real problem is that your son doesn't know enough about credit cards and credit building to appreciate the value of having a credit card. It is true that you can make him an authorized user on one of your credit cards. He'll get a card with his name on it (and the ability to charge), but you'll have full responsibility for paying the balance. Assuming you make payments on the account on time, your son's credit will improve. However, my concern is that because your son doesn't actually have to actively participate in this arrangement, he won't actually learn anything from it. If you ever remove him from the account, it will eventually fall off his credit reports, and he'll be back where he started.

So your best approach is to focus on teaching your son more about the value of credit and credit scores. For example, sit down with him and talk through what kind of lifestyle he would like to have in the future. Does he want to be able to finance a car? Well, he'll need good credit to get the best interest rate. Does he want to have a family and live in a home he owns, instead of renting? Does he want to live in a good neighborhood? Having excellent credit is essential for these things as well.

Not all young adults are into getting lectures from mom and dad on how to live their lives, and if your son falls into that category, here are a few online resources and games you could direct him to to make the process more enjoyable.

  • Jump$tart's Reality Check: While not specifically about credit building, the online Reality Check game from the nonprofit financial literacy organization Jump$tart gets your kid focusing on the bigger picture. What kind of life does he want? Will he be buying a car? Where will he live? It's easy to imagine the possibilities, but what will his dream life cost?
  • Celebrity Calamity: This game from the website Financialentertainment.org lets players learn about managing income, debt and credit cards by helping clueless celebrities live it up in a glam lifestyle on a budget. Other games to check out on the site include Bite Club, which lets players save for retirement while running a vampire nightclub, and the award-winning Farm Blitz, which teaches players about managing limited resources, building savings and surviving unexpected events and financial emergencies.
  • Financial Football: This online game from Visa and the NFL gives players a financial workout. To move down the field or score a touchdown, players have to answer financial questions, including many related to credit building and credit scores. Not being able to score a touchdown because of a lack of financial savvy can be a humbling experience indeed.

Your son may be a little old to take your game suggestions seriously. If you're still eager to motivate him, nothing works as well as the good old-fashioned carrot approach. Whenever your son is in the market for a new car a year or two down the road, offer to contribute a small down payment toward the car if he builds his credit sufficiently to get an auto loan at a low interest rate.

If none of these tactics work, rest assured that life can be an excellent teacher. As soon as your son has his eye on his dream house, or sits down with the salesperson at a car dealership, he'll realize how much his lack of credit history is costing him. Those moments could very well teach him the relevance of credit cards and credit scores better and more quickly than your well-intentioned suggestions and pep talks.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.