Financial Literacy 2007 - Credit cards
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Credit card tips throughout life's stages

Teens

Are teens too young to carry credit cards? Maybe not, says Robert Manning, author of "Credit Card Nation." This can be the time to teach kids that credit cards are a convenience not an extension of income. Kids who learn to use credit cards responsibly in high school are more likely to avoid getting over their head with debt in college.

According to Jump$tart Coalition, an advocacy group for financial literacy, one in every three high school seniors uses a credit card. Teens who do best use their own cards (co-signed by a parent) with a low credit limit and use their own checking accounts to make payments each month. That way, kids learn the connection between credit cards and cash. Parents should constantly monitor spending and frequently talk about the choices their teens are making.

College students

The average undergraduate is carrying a $2,300 credit card balance, according to a study by Nellie Mae and more than 83 percent of undergraduates have at least one credit card in their wallets. Consumer advocates have long criticized the credit card industry for marketing easy-to-get, high-interest card offers directly to students. Too often credit card balances coupled with student loans means that a young person must spend the first decade of his adult life struggling to pay massive debts.

The best prevention against that scenario? Parents need to constantly monitor their children's finances. One credit card with a very low credit limit that students pay back on time will take care of emergencies and help students begin to establish the good credit rating they'll need when they graduate. After all, you can't get into too much trouble if the most you can charge is $250 or so.

20s and 30s

Now is the time when building a stellar credit rating and earning a top credit score are key. Shop for a card with no annual fee and the lowest interest rate you can qualify for. Then use it to make sensible purchases that you can pay back within a couple of months. That way you'll have the credit score you need to get an affordable mortgage on that first dream house.

Pining for the latest big-screen TV or MP3 player, but can't afford it? Don't be tempted to purchase with your credit card. You still won't be able to afford it, and you'll be paying hefty interest payments on those purchases for months to come. Look for a card with a cash-back offer to take advantage of another credit card plus.

40 - 50 yrs old

This is the time to pay down your debt and pare down your cards. You want to start clearing your financial decks so you can retire debt free and use these high-earning years to fund your retirement accounts. If you're in good credit standing, zero- and low-interest rate offers are for you. Consider consolidating your debts (you've probably accumulated more cards than you need over the years) on one of these choices and get the balance down to zero. Use the money you used to pay to credit cards each month to boost your retirement savings.

Seniors

Retirees are taking on debt faster than any other demographic group. For households with people 65 and older, credit-card debt doubled from 1992 to 2004, to $4,907. For people 75 and older with debt, their average balance shot up 160 percent to $20,234. Much of that credit card spending went toward health care.

If you find you're using your credit cards to make monthly ends meet in retirement, you need to take a hard look at your overall financial picture to find a long-term answer to the crunch. Part-time work or taking out a reverse mortgage may be a better alternative.

Do you have a secret to success with credit cards? Or, are you struggling? Share your story.

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