NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The best time of life to get a credit card is when you're college-aged, but that's not how things are working.
According to CreditCards.com, the average American believes someone should get their first credit card at age 22 — a typical age for college graduates. Some see the issue with more of an open mind, with half of Hispanic respondents to a survey, for example, saying it's OK for people under 21 to own a credit card.
Yet 36% of Americans under 30 have never owned a credit card, in part because "Millennials' financial views were forged during the Great Recession and in the apocalyptic job market that they and their friends have faced," says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior analyst.
That doesn't mean they're not carrying plastic, though. Schulz notes that "skittishness" has steered younger Americans away from credit cards and toward debit and prepaid cards — but not for long. "As their careers advance and the economy continues to improve, expect millennials to transition to credit cards in search of greater rewards and consumer protections," he says.
The 2009 CARD Act built also some roadblocks designed to limit credit card use among young adults. As CreditCards.com notes, Americans 21 and under must show proof of income to repay card loans or have an adult co-signer if they want a credit card in their name.
But the best credit might come from far earlier experiences managed diligently.
"My parents got me a credit card when I was a sophomore in high school," says Phil Zepeda, director of communications at Chicago's Robert R. McCormick Foundation. "I had a $200 limit and the bill went to them."
"I never had a balance of more than $15 to $25 each month, and I could only buy what I knew I'd be able to pay off within one month," Zepeda says of the card, arranged through a program from a now-defunct bank.
Others say the biggest benefit of having a credit card early in life is the opportunity to build up credit. "Parents should be building up their children's credit as soon as possible, by either putting their names on bills or getting them a credit card," says Martin Frer, a 22-year-old social media marketing intern and card holder at FatWallet. "From the whole experience, I have also been able to realize how purchases have had an effect on my credit, and building a responsible spending habit."
That's how a parent sees it too: "When my daughter turned 18 we obtained a secured credit card for her at Bank of America," says Daniel Guerrero, a certified credit counselor at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. "I had her purchase something on the card every month, which we paid in full at the end of the month. She also agreed to leave the card at home when she went out with her friends." That disciplined use of the card has really paid off, Guerrero says. "About six to eight months after that, she obtained a line of credit, and six months ago she was approved though a credit union to finance about $3,000 for a used car." Today, Guerrero's daughter, 20, has a credit score of 780.
Young Americans attending college were particularly affected by The Credit Card Act of 2009. "This law significantly reduced credit card usage by college students, and many college students switched to using debit cards," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at Las Vegas-based Edvisors.com.
"Nevertheless, the best time to obtain a credit card is while you're a college student. Credit card issuers will waive income requirements, making it easier to get a credit card. It's also a good time to start building a good credit history by managing the debt responsibly and making all of the required payments on time," Kantrowitz says.
— Written by Brian O'Connell for MainStreet