When Should You Give Your Child a Debit Card?

Debit Cards Are One Way to Teach Kids About Money

Teen boy holds his first credit card and an iphone at a table

Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

It's never too early to begin teaching children the fundamentals of money management. One way of doing so is through hands-on experience with using a debit card. But how old do you have to be to get a debit card? Here's what you need to know. 

Why Give Kids a Debit Card?

Giving your child a debit card can help them develop good financial habits. 

"Within the overall scheme of teaching a child to budget properly, a debit card can be a great tool," says Rob DeLucas, owner and advisor at Afton Advisors, LLC. 

For example, a debit card can be a helpful way for kids to explore the basics of:

  • Tracking expenses with banking apps, online tools, and text alerts
  • Creating a plan for monthly spending using allowance and earnings
  • Understanding wants vs. needs 
  • Making safe debit card payments using a mobile phone 

A debit card offers a tangible way to make the connection between the value of money, spending and and the goods or services received. While the same objective can be accomplished with cash, debit cards and digital payments are quickly becoming a more common payment method.

Debit cards also allow children to spend money on school trips domestically or internationally, or while visiting relatives. 

"At younger ages, it’s important to use actual cash to help children become comfortable with money," says Tom Henske, partner at Lenox Advisors. "As they get older, moving to a more digital world better prepares them for the real world, a Venmo world."

Debit cards also provide an opportunity to tell your children about online debit card safety and risky places to swipe a debit card. Teach them to guard bank information, card numbers and PINs, and to never post photos of a debit card on social media. 

Debit Cards for Kids: What Are the Options?

Generally, parents have two ways to give kids access to a debit card–either helping them to open a checking account or getting them a prepaid debit card

Depending on state statutes and an institution’s rules, some banks, credit unions and financial institutions offer savings and checking accounts for children and teens. The accounts may be jointly owned by the child and parent or legal guardian, owned only by the child, or require the parent to act as a custodian.

Kids 12 and under are often limited to savings accounts with an ATM card. For teens between 13 and 17, teen checking accounts frequently offer debit cards allowing the holder to make purchases. Kids or teens can use their debit card to make a purchase at a store and the money is deducted from their checking account balance.

Prepaid debit cards work like traditional debit cards for the most part—teens or kids can use cards to pay for things. But prepaid cards aren’t linked to a bank account. Instead, money is added to the card, which can then be spent. Once the card balance reaches zero, no new transactions can be completed without adding more money to the card. 

Unlimited transactions doesn't mean unlimited checking account withdrawals. Make sure kids are aware of daily ATM withdrawal limits before attempting to withdraw cash.

Pros and Cons Giving a Child a Debit Card

Giving a kid a debit card has advantages and disadvantages. With a debit card, a child can learn the fundamentals of managing money, better differentiate between wants and needs, and establish a mindful attitude toward future adult spending. 

A debit card can also help kids learn from mistakes, if they have some freedom to make spending decisions. For example, your teen may want to spend all of their summer job earnings on a new video game system, against your better advice. They may end up regretting the purchase later, but that can be a valuable lesson if they learn from it and don't repeat it down the line, Henske says.

On the other hand, a checking-account-linked debit card can be problematic if parents aren't offering helpful card management guidance, DeLucas says. For example, if you're not helping kids to monitor spending, they could easily overdraft their account and rack up hefty fees. 

Some teen checking accounts offer daily withdrawal and spending limits, or can prevent overdrafts through declining charges. Ask if this feature is available when opening an account for your teen. 

Prepaid cards can avoid overdrafts, since kids can only spend the money that's on the card. But it’s still important to help kids limit spending and monitor their card balance. Otherwise, you may find yourself loading frequently cash onto the card to keep up with their purchasing habits.  

As well, FDIC insurance doesn’t cover prepaid card theft or loss, and it may be difficult for children and teens to keep their card in a safe place. Consumer protections for debit cards are rarely extended to prepaid cards. 

If you're considering a prepaid card, make sure to review the card's fees. Some debit cards charge a fee each time you add money to the card, check your balance or a monthly fee to keep the account open. 

What Age to Give Kids a Debit Card

Giving kids a debit card is ultimately a personal decision. Much may come down to a parent’s judgement and the child’s maturity level.

"If I were to pick an average age, I find that around 12 years old is a good time to begin practicing with a debit card, with access to small amounts of money," Henske says. Doing so prepares children for future increases in money sums in high school, college, and adulthood. 

At this age, a prepaid debit card may be more appropriate if a child isn't yet old enough for a teen checking account. You may decide to upgrade them to teen checking once they reach an age where they're able to earn money of their own via a part-time job or side hustle, such as babysitting. 

Henske’s final debit card tips for parents:

  • Thoroughly explain the debit card to your child, including how it works and what it's meant to be used for.
  • Develop a written contract (similar to cell phone usage) spelling out the card’s ground rules.
  • Don’t provide access to more money than you or they are comfortable with, either with a teen checking account or a prepaid debit card. 
  • Monitor spending so you understand what’s going on and can seek out teachable moments.

Article Sources

  1. DeLucas, 2020. 

  2. U.S. Bank. "Digital Payment Platforms Primed to Topple Cash."

  3. Calcite Credit Union. "Reasons to Get a Debit Card for Your Kid."

  4. Henske, 2020. 

  5. Conference of State Bank Supervisors. "Statutory Requirements for Opening Bank Accounts for Minors by State."

  6. Alliant Bank. "Kids Savings Accounts."

  7. BECU. "Teen and Youth Checking."

  8. Consumer.gov. "Using Debit Cards."

  9. Consumer.gov. "Prepaid Cards."

  10. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. "Prepaid Cards and Deposit Insurance Coverage."