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Debit cards for kids: Can they help teach money management?

debit cards for kids

In a nation where households are awash in debt, it is never too early to teach children the value of hanging on to a dollar.

Millions of Americans simply don’t know how to manage money. Debt levels have skyrocketed in recent decades, and now top a record $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

But our past failures don’t have to condemn today’s children and grandchildren to living paycheck to paycheck. Experts hope teaching kids to be financially responsible from an early age can turn the trend around.

Some even suggest that speciality debit cards for kids could help children learn to spend responsibly. This can make sense for some — but not all — children, says Laura Levine, president and CEO of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, which aims to educate and prepare youth for life-long financial success.

“Parents know their own kids and will have a sense of when they’re ready to handle something like a debit card,” she says.

Each child is different. While one son is sober and responsible with cash, perhaps his brother spends money as quickly as it is available. Because of such differences, there is no “right” age to give all children a debit card, Levine says.

“It might not be the same age for siblings within the same family,” she says.

The right way to use debit cards for kids

It is also a mistake to view debit cards for kids as magic pieces of plastic that can teach children how to be financially responsible.

“Parents need to remember that it’s not the debit card’s job to teach financial responsibility,” Levine says. “It’s the parent’s job – and maybe the teacher’s.”

To help your child, parents should establish a limit on the debit card so the child will not overspend.

“They need to resolve not to add funds every time the kid runs out of money — or the only lesson they’ll be getting is on how to spend,” Levine says.

The key is to instruct children about how to set a budget, and then to live within their means. Such lessons can never come too early in life. Research has found that children who consistently delay gratification are much more likely to succeed later in life.

Most famously, researchers at Stanford University in the 1960s asked children to delay eating a marshmallow in exchange for receiving an even bigger reward – a second marshmallow – 15 minutes later.

The researchers then tracked these kids for decades. The children who successfully resisted the temptation to succumb to immediate gratification went on to succeed in life at much higher rates than children who gave in to the marshmallow’s siren song.

Other ways to teach your kids about money

Teaching your children to spend responsibly requires you to talk openly to them about money, Levine says. Also, strive to set a good example with your own spending habits, so children can mirror your positive financial behavior.

Giving your child a debit card can be part of this process. But doing so is not enough to set them on a course toward a lifetime of smart spending.

“Just handing over a card might not teach them what you want them to learn,” Levine says.

Instead, take a more comprehensive approach to helping your children learn important lessons about money. The Federal Financial Literacy and Education Commission has a Resources for Youth webpage that offers children and teens money-related games and other activities, websites, video games, and information.

“Whether it’s debit cards or any other financial activity, your best investment is the time and attention to help them learn,” Levine says.

Chris Kissell
Chris Kissell has been a writer and editor for more than two decades. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, and on many news and financial websites. He lives in Denver, Colorado.