Credit Card Debt: Equal Opportunity For All Ages

AT 6:15 on a weekday evening - telemarketing prime time - the telephone rings. The call is for our college-graduate daughter, who lives 3,000 miles away. When I ask who's calling, the voice on the line grows defensive and says, ``This is a courtesy call from ... Bank.'' Sigh. Another credit-card pitch.

These ``courtesy calls'' mark the latest aggressive tactic by credit card companies and banks to make young people's wallets bulge with plastic. And why not? Teenagers alone spent an estimated $99 billion last year, making them, and other young adults, an enormously appealing and profitable market.

Add to these calls the solicitations that clog mailboxes and the message to youthful consumers is clear: Charge early - and often.

The latest MasterCard mailing to my daughter is typical. It promises a gold card with few strings attached: ``Pre-approved'' acceptance. No annual fee. A ``generous'' $5,000 credit line. Claiming that she is ``one of the select few to receive this invitation,'' the letter states: ``If this sounds like a pretty amazing offer to you, you're right.''

Pretty amazing indeed, considering that most recent graduates don't have a lot of discretionary income. As for those ``select few'' recipients, this come-on bears the marks of a mass mailing.

As one way of helping young people avoid credit overload, the National Endowment for Financial Education in Denver has, for the third time, proclaimed January ``Financial Literacy for Youth Month.'' Through financial-planning programs in 5,100 high schools, the group has introduced nearly half a million students to money management.

``Credit cards are a tremendous problem,'' says Elizabeth Schiever, director of the high school program. ``If students get used to using them at a young age, it's very hard to stop. Once they're in debt, it's hard to get out.'' Financial institutions, she adds, ``will give credit cards to young people knowing they don't have a job. They know parents will probably pay it off.''

One mother of four who did just that explains that her daughter ran up $5,000 in debts while holding an entry-level job after high school. The young woman had to move back home for several years until she repaid her parents.

``It's very frightening to see how credit-card companies lure these kids,'' the mother says. ``The more they spend, the more the banks increase their credit line.''

Nearly 30 years ago, when credit cards were still relatively new, Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. William Proxmire issued a prescient warning: ``Unless we bring credit cards under control,'' he said, ``we are likely to produce a nation of credit drunks.''

Americans recognize the subtle allure of messages that liquor and tobacco companies send to young people. They should also look closely at the way credit card companies bombard young adults with hard-to-resist appeals. Getting ``addicted'' to plastic doesn't endanger students' health or safety. But it does hold the potential for causing long-term damage to their own - and their family's - financial and emotional well-being.

The United States will probably never follow the lead of South Korea, which recently banned banks from issuing credit cards to college students and those under the age of 20. But other, less radical steps could help students avoid red ink.

Education programs like Ms. Schiever's and those offered by credit-card companies themselves represent a good beginning. Yet a general change of attitude is also necessary. It may not be possible or desirable to turn back the clock to a pay-as-you-go economy. But everybody's deficit - right up to the national deficit - tells a horror story of how completely the credit culture has become the norm.

Without taking scissors to all of the plastic, it should be possible to reinstate those supposedly archaic terms, thrift and deferred gratification. What better way to begin than to require credit-card telemarketers and brochure writers to end their spiel with an ancient but applicable warning: There's no free lunch. @QUOTE = It may not be possible to go back to a pay-as-you-go economy. But everybody's deficit tells a horror story of how the credit culture has become the norm.

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