The Young And the Indebted

IN an age when everything from instant oatmeal to instant photo developing makes waiting virtually unnecessary, patience sometimes seems an outmoded virtue. ``I want it NOW!'' has become the rallying cry of an instant-gratification culture. At the same time, instant-credit bankers stand ready with credit cards to satisfy all consumer wants and needs - for a price.

But what a price, especially for college students who may have little or no income and little understanding of the real cost of ``easy'' credit. So seductive is the appeal of plastic that some consumer advocates and parents want to protect young people from what they regard as credit-card exploitation.

This month, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D) of Massachusetts held a congressional hearing to consider the need to protect students from aggressive credit-card marketers. One mother of a college student, testifying about her daughter's mounting debt, charged credit-card issuers with ``preying on the naivete of inexperienced college students.''

Mr. Kennedy notes that credit-card advertisements tell students they don't need a job or a cosigner to apply. Issuers also boost credit limits automatically, adding more temptation.

Credit-card companies defend their actions by pointing out that 9 of 10 college students handle credit cards responsibly. Kennedy counters that parents often must either ``bail out their children or watch them get their financial lives off to a grim start.''

For one family on Cape Cod, easy credit had tragic consequences. Two years ago one son, a 31-year-old college-educated computer specialist, committed suicide after losing control of his finances through what his mother calls ``incredible credit-card debts.''

When collection agencies telephoned the young man's parents about his bills and learned of his death, they invariably told his mother, ``But he had a wonderful credit record. He paid his minimum balance every month.''

Now when banks send unsolicited credit-card offers to his parents, his mother uses the bank's own postage-paid envelope to send back a letter explaining the circumstances contributing to her son's death. Signing herself ``Joe's Mom,'' she appeals to issuers to stop making credit so easily available. She writes:

``What is this credit-card craziness? How many more innocent or ignorant young people are getting caught up in this madness? You people freely send out these cards and encourage our youth to deny themselves nothing that a credit card can provide. Then bingo! - an insurmountable debt that even a good salary cannot cover.''

More than 60 percent of the nation's 8 million college students have at least one credit card in their own name. Neither Congressman Kennedy nor Joe's mother wants to deny these students access to credit cards. They simply want safeguards to prevent credit abuse and help students use cards responsibly.

Kennedy would like banks to tell card holders how long it will take to pay off their debt at the minimum monthly rate. A House banking subcommittee is also exploring whether credit-card issuers should require students to have some ability to pay before getting a card and whether they should require a parent to cosign for a credit limit over $1,500.

In addition, Joe's mother encourages parents to show children the whole credit cycle. In retrospect, she realizes that although her sons saw their parents use credit cards, they never watched them pay the bills - in full - every month. She and her husband have never paid only the minimum balance, she says.

The consumer society tolerates no deferred gratification between the gleam in the eye and the goods in the hand. It teaches terrible habits - to put off payment but never the acquisition. The due date is so far off as to seem a mirage, and besides, how can waving a card, like a magic wand, really cost anybody anything?

With all the real-world lessons being taught in schools, including programs on AIDS and drugs, perhaps the curriculum should make room for a little instruction about financial solvency. The first (and last) wisdom might read: ``Easy credit'' is never easy.

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