Credit unions offer finance lessons to children

Friday, October 24, 2003

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Adults' finances are collapsing like a house of credit cards. College students are inundated with offers that get them deep into debt before their first real job, and graduates aren't paying their student loans.

So what's next? Credit union branches in elementary schools, exclusively for students, under a law signed by New York Gov. George Pataki last week.

But rather than providing a new clientele to pile up more debt, schools and credit unions say the banking facilities will provide children credit to learn how to avoid being adult debtors.

Savings accounts have been in schools for decades. But credit unions that offer savings and checking accounts, debit cards, ATM cards, even credit cards and loans have cropped up in recent years.

The goal is for students to learn to build and protect credit and to budget. Students who seek to be the tellers and managers also learn to handle job interviews and others' money, the credit union officials said.

Credit cards are usually restricted to fifth graders and above and only with a co-signing parent. Loans also are co-signed and balances for credit cards and loans are kept low, usually to no more than $200 or $300.

The New York law allows branches in schools and prohibits teachers, administrators, parents and relatives of the students from joining or using the credit union, according to the law sponsored by state Sen. Stephen Saland, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"There has been a 10-fold increase in young adults filing for bankruptcy over the past five years," said Saland, an attorney from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "At times, poor judgment in early life cannot only follow you, but have devastating effects for years to come. My hope was that this legislation would provide rather practical education to avoid financial crisis."

No students have been ensnared in credit debt from the credit unions, according to financial officers in two long-standing programs in other states.

About 1,200 students in 17 schools are members of the credit union. They can apply at 13 or 14 years old for a Visa credit card with parental permission.

"Parents have really been requesting that students get credit cards so they can learn to use them before they go to college, so that allure of having multiple credit cards can be controlled by parents better," said Natalie McLaughlin, education coordinator with the Community Federal Credi Union.

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