NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Whenever you're asked why you had kids, 20 bucks says your response is never, "To breed big spenders for the credit card companies."
But a big spender may be just what your Phi Beta Kappa (or Gut-Course Johnny) has become.
When your child comes home from college for the holidays next week, you might help him out with his laundry, but you should think long and hard about what kind of help you want to give him if he's charged up a storm on his credit card.
There are too many students who have proven easy prey to what economic sociologist Robert Manning -- author of "Credit Card Nation" -- has called a "Just Do It" style of "competitive consumption." And they've been doing it without any real understanding of an old-fashioned concept: You shouldn't buy what you can't afford.
Credit cards were originally designed for people with incomes. And when they first were marketed to college students, parents used to be required to co-sign the application. No more.
Now credit cards are handed out like candy on college campuses. Introductory credit limits may be as low as $500, but they can quickly rise to between $2,000 and $4,000 by the end of an academic year, Manning noted in testimony this summer before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
According to a report published in July by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly three quarters of undergraduates in the academic year 1999-2000 had credit cards in their names; 45 percent carried a balance from month to month; and the average balance due on all of a student's credit cards combined was $3,100.
Another study found that 21 percent of students who applied for a credit-based loan from Nellie Mae in the summer and fall of 2001 had credit card balances ranging between $3,000 and $7,000. That's a 61 percent jump from the prior year in the number of students with such high balances.
So what's a parent to do?
Whether your scholar's latest credit card statement elicits a shriek from you or just a sigh, a little tough love is in order, experts say.
The good news is it can be administered in five easy steps. Or, maybe it's five grueling steps. Either way, you'll be doing your son or daughter a big favor long-term:
Step 1: Figure out if your student's budget is realistic. Sometimes, Manning said, a college or university underrepresents the true cost of attending, once fees, books, trips home and other related costs are thrown in. Or you may have underestimated such costs. In any case, it's time to reassess what your child can truly afford on the money you've given him and/or on the money he earns.
Step 2: Clarify the difference between need and desire. You might do this by asking to see your child's credit card bill and ask him to identify what he deemed "necessary" purchases and why. While listening, try not to bite your tongue so hard it bleeds. There's no convincing others of something until you know where they really stand.
Step 3: Explain what "afford" means. Always a useful concept to review, especially if your offspring think their credit limit is their money to spend or if they're convinced that they'll pay off their debt as soon as they get that high-paying entry-level job that doesn't exist.
Step 4: Review with your child the key signs of overspending. According to the College Parents of America, they include: paying your bills late; only making the minimum payment; exceeding your credit limit; and using one credit card to pay off another. In a survey of students at George Mason University, Manning found that 66 percent of undergrads had used one credit card to pay another.
Step 5: Plan the pay-off. There are two good reasons why you may want to pay off your child's bill if you can afford to. You'll protect his credit and prevent any more interest charges from accruing. But you should only consider that option if you're really certain your child's overspending is a one-time gaffe borne of inexperience and you know he or she learns quickly from mistakes.
That doesn't mean your kids shouldn't pay for their mistakes. Insist they pay you back systematically so they realize their financial actions have consequences, said Richard Flaherty, president of College Parents of America. And, he added, you might also ask your children to turn over their cards to you so there is no temptation to use them.
Other experts, including Manning and Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, advise taking a much harder line with your kids.
Dvorkin thinks parents should NEVER (and by never, he means NEVER EVER) pay off their children's credit cards.
"Cut the umbilical chord," he said. "Bailing them out is not going to do them any good. ... When you don't bail them out, it sends the message not to do it again."
Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money.com. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 7 p.m. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.