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College. Those years provide all kinds of memories. Football games. Late-night study breaks. Endless hours talking with friends in the dorm. I enjoyed those simple pleasures like everyone else. Yet one struggle stole much of the fun and freedom I could have had.

I arrived at a prestigious Baptist university with the future at my fingertips. But things took a dramatic turn my sophomore year. There in my mailbox sat a credit card with an introductory letter promising me the world. And in a school where affluence was mainstream, that piece of plastic gave me the leverage to keep up. Designer clothes. Dining out. Pricey gifts. The latest music. You name it, I bought it. Within a year I'd hit my limit.

It didn't stop there. Junior year I moved off campus. My new roommate was quite wealthy, yet incapable of managing her money. The more she spent, the more she needed. And for whatever reason, I followed suit. I got a second credit card and before long maxed that one out too. That's when I started to worry. Even the minimum payments became tough. But that didn't stop me from spending more. My grades plummeted. My social life dissolved. Such was life until graduation. Sadly, I walked away from college with more than a diploma; I'd managed to max out four credit cards and essentially mortgage my future.

I share my story because it represents a scenario facing a growing number of young people. In 2002, the national student-loan financing corporation Nellie Mae reported that 83 percent of college undergrads have at least one credit card (while 20 percent of 18-year-olds have four or more). A quarter of them carry a balance of between $3,000 and $7,000. People used to be divided into the "haves" and "have nots"; a third category might be "those who have not paid for what they have." As I learned the hard way, it's a recipe for disaster. It took me years to work off my debt.

Talk with your kids about this subject before they fall prey to traps and temptations. We should warn them about the credit crunch just as we caution them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol or premarital sex. The lure of "free money," seemingly low interest rates and minimum payment plans all sound great. But how many young people stop to consider that a $60 pair of shoes can easily end up costing two or three times that once you factor in spiraling interest?

Likewise, it's crucial that teens understand the addictive nature of spending. In a culture that stands to profit from rampant consumerism, we are reluctant to call it a problem. But it is. I missed out on so much at college. I felt sick inside. I was isolated, confused and overwhelmed … yet I kept spending.

Furthermore, teens need help learning how to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible debt. The former can be a necessary investment (student loans, maybe a used car to get them to work) while the latter usually stems from selfish desires, materialism or insecurity, and is symptomatic of spiritual disarray. Encourage them to assess their motivation before making a purchase. Do they need it, or do they just want it? Do they already have the money? If not, forget it! Wait. Save. Re-evaluate. Pray about it.

You can also discuss cultural pressures. Let's face it, we live in a very materialistic, impatient, buy-now-pay-later society. It's a shame, but young people's self-esteem relies heavily on outward appearances and possessions. All too often, we count on "stuff" to make us happy or popular. Point them to the alternative—a simpler, more contented life. One credit card company's slogan is "Some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard." Help teens find the value in the things money can't buy.

The Bible is full of passages pertaining to finances, including 1 Timothy 6:6-10, Matthew 6:24 and Ecclesiastes 5:10. Explore them together. Guide teens to a place of total surrender and contentment. Believe me, it will be worth the investment.

Published August 2004

If you found this helpful, you may also benefit from the article Breaking the Debt Cycle.