When Should You Give Your Child a Debit Card?

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I am going to age myself here and say it was easier to teach kids about money when I was growing up. This does not mean it was always taught, but it was easier.

Why was it easier? We had checking accounts with checkbooks, and we had savings accounts. However, debit cards did not yet exist; well, technically they started in 1978, but the version we know today was not offered until the early 1980s

We also did not have online bill pay, mobile apps, or even online banking. We actually had to go into the bank, track our balance, or wait for our bank statement to see our checkbook balance.

Because of this, many from my generation are not familiar with when to teach our kids about these new tools and features. Therefore, I'm frequently asked, "When should my child get a debit card?"

The short answer is: when they get a checking account, which I would recommend doing around the time they enter high school or get a regular job. 

Now for the long answer so you can feel confident in the decision to give your child a debit card.

Stop Looking at It as Something Special

We look at the debit card thing as something different and unique because we did not grow up with them. However, they are not different, unique, or special. They are a regular part of managing your money, and thus need to be treated like that. Your child needs to learn how to manage their money and checking account the way that they will have to when they leave home.

They will not write the number of checks we did; they will use online banking more, and they will use apps more than we ever did. So just like they need to learn to how to drive because they will likely drive for the rest of their life, they need to learn to manage a debit card because they will use it their entire life! 

The sooner they get started, the faster they can master the basic skill of keeping a balanced account record.

Cautions

Some people prefer to use a prepaid card instead of a debit card for their child(ren). 

I highly recommend you skip the prepaid card and only use a debit card tied to your child's checking account, with you as a joint signer. (Most banks require the applicant to be at least 18 to open an account.)

There are two reasons I recommend this:

  1. Prepaid cards are full of fees that you need to monitor; in fact, they sometimes have more fees than a checking account.
  2. You want them to learn the entire process: checks, ATM's, deposits, withdrawals, and everything else that they need to manage their money on a daily basis. You cannot do this with a prepaid card. In fact, you cannot do that with just a checking account and no debit card. At some point, they need to learn how to do it all, and it is better for that to happen under your supervision.

Another thing to keep in mind when setting up their debit card is to ensure that the bank is not allowed to authorize transactions that your child does not have the funds for. You will have to sign off on this when you open the account; so read everything carefully and make sure you are not signing up for overdraft services. If you do not understand what you are signing, make the banker explain it to you in detail.

Ultimately, when deciding when to give your child a debit card, you need to remind yourself that your goal in teaching your kids about money is to help them fully manage their money on their own when they leave your house. This includes debit cards; so make sure you give them one in time for them to learn while you are still helping.