But you may have to shop around to find a card that will do it. "It's a niche market," says Nessa Feddis, a vice president with the national trade group American Bankers Association.
It also pays to ask a lot of questions. "There are different ways you can have an authorized user, and you want to be careful with these," she says.
Find out what happens if the kid exceeds the balance you set. "That's important," says Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney for Consumers Union. Is there an over-limit or other fee or will the card just stop working? Is there a fee for adding a user or getting an extra card? Can you raise or lower the spending limit to cover cyclical expenses, like books? And what happens if the child pops the card into an ATM?
With a responsible kid and the right card, it can be a safe, effective way for parents to give kids access to plastic for emergencies, says Scott Bilker, CEO and founder of DebtSmart.com. "I think it's probably the best option," he says. The parents are able to oversee the credit card usage."
"And you can review the bill with the child or have them write you a check," he says.
The upside: It's your account, so you know if the bills are paid. You can also see all the charges. Federal law limits your liability to $50 if the card is lost or stolen (and most card companies lower that liability to $0). Plus, if you have a good credit rating, it will help your student build a good credit history.
The downside: You're legally responsible for the charges, no matter who makes them. If you student runs up a bill, and doesn't pay it off, it could hurt your credit score and his. And even if the bill is paid in full every month, adding to the working balance can, in some cases, lower your credit score.
2. Debit cards
These days, the debit card is a check book in plastic form. For college students, swiping debit cards feels more familiar than writing checks. And many older generations remember the days when a debit or even a simple ATM card was their only form of plastic on campus.
"This is what a lot of us started with," says Feddis.
Like any other payment method, the devil's in the details. If your kid can't balance a check book, the debit card can be inconvenient and even downright expensive. Overdraft fees are typically running $35 to $40. One solution: don't opt in to "overdraft protection." The rules are changing to require banks to give you the choice of whether to take their overdraft protection -- and the hefty fees that go with it.
Don't sign up, and that way, the card stops working at $0 and charging that $3 cup of coffee won't cost your kid the equivalent of eight fast-food meals.
The upside: Debit cards are easy to get and they're widely accepted. If you open a joint checking account you can monitor your child's spending and deposit extra money when he needs it.
The downside: Your kid is limited to spending the amount that's actually in the account. So if your student has an emergency, like an ER visit or a car repair, someone might have to make a quick deposit. The cards don't help your student build a credit rating. They also don't offer all the buyer charge-back protections of credit. In case of returns, it often takes a while for the money to be re-credited to the card. If your student uses it at a merchant who authorizes more than the purchase amount (some gas stations, restaurants or hotels), additional funds could be frozen for a period of time. And in cases of theft or fraud, you're working to get missing cash returned rather than getting a credit to the account.
3. Secured cards
How it works: You give the card company a deposit, usually equal to the amount of the credit limit, which it holds as security for the life of the card. Other than that, a secured card works like a regular credit card.
"It's a good option if you want credit in their name," says Bilker.
But secured cards "tend to be a little more expensive and tend to be for a lower [balance] amount," says Feddis.
And watch the interest rates, too. "APRs are going to be high," says Hillebrand.
So if this option appeals, shop around for the best deal. And look for a card that will convert to a regular, non-secured credit card after a period of a year or two of good behavior.
Students will still have to show that they have sufficient income or assets to pay the monthly charges, even with a deposit, says Lynne Strang, vice president of communication for the American Financial Services Association, a trade group for the consumer credit industry. But in many cases it should prove easier for students under 21 to get secured cards than unsecured cards, she says.
The upside: Your student will have all the buyer protections and security of a credit card. It's usually easier to get than an unsecured card. And it will help your student build credit.
The downside: Students still have to meet some income or asset requirements. You or the student will be tying up cash to fund the deposit. Balance limits tend to be low, so if the card is for emergencies, it may not be enough to cover what your student needs. And if your child does't pay the bills on time, he or she will be building a poor credit history, which is worse than no history at all.