By Jean Chatzky
FORTUNE -- Last week, I wrote about your many, many credit scores, how to know one from the other, and how to move them all in the right direction. That's all well and good, but it will all go much more smoothly if you get off on the right credit foot initially. And unfortunately, that's something many millennials aren't doing right now.
If you're expecting to hear yet another tale of how this generation of irresponsible twentysomethings are blowing their budgets, you're in the wrong place. The data doesn't bear that out.
According to Experian's 2013 State of Credit report, released late last year, baby boomers tip the high end of the scale. They carry an average balance of $5,347 on their (again average) 2.66 credit cards. Millennials carry $2,682 on their 1.57 cards. Generation Xers and members of the Greatest Generation fall somewhere in between. Millennials aren't even highest when it comes to late payments -- that dubious honor goes to the Xers.
And yet, when you look at average credit scores? Millennials, at just 628, have the lowest average on the list. They're more than 100 points lower, on average, than the Greatest Generation at 735. (Boomers average 700 and Xers 653, for those of you looking to see where you measure up.)
So what's the problem? Utilization. This factor -- defined as the percentage of credit you have available to you that you're actually using -- is responsible for about one-third of your credit score. Ideally, you want to keep that percentage under 30%. Millennials are at 37%.
It's a conundrum. As a parent, I don't want my kids too comfortable with credit, loading up their wallets with cards and using them with abandon. But looking at these stats, it's clear that if millennials had more cards in their wallets -- but continued to use them sparingly -- they'd have substantially better scores. And those better scores would help them get better rates on auto loans, mortgages, insurance, and other credit cards going forward. In other words, they'd save them real money.
So as a parent -- or someone in or entering your 20s yourself -- what do you do? A few suggestions:
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