How a Women Took Her Credit Score from Terrible to Awesome
In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.
Today, one woman shares how her credit has evolved over the past 20 years—and why, at 41, she’s especially proud of her healthy 784 FICO® ranking.
If someone told my 20-year-old self that I’d someday have a near-perfect credit score, there’s no way I would have believed them.
Back then I was a college student who was living way beyond my means, juggling multiple credit cards—and charging anything I wanted without a second thought.
The concept of delayed gratification was completely foreign to me.
My parents, who emigrated from the Philippines to California in 1972, came from a culture where borrowing from friends, family and neighbors was a normal part of life. As far as they were concerned, racking up debt was just another form of borrowing.
By the time I started high school, I’d watched them take out a mortgage, two car loans, and several lines of credit to furnish our new house. So it’s no surprise that just a few years later, my parents found themselves in way over their heads, with tanked credit scores—an unfortunate foreshadowing of what would happen in my own future.
But this isn’t a tale of financial ruin. It’s a success story.
With hard work and discipline, I learned from my mistakes, clawed my way out of the red, and built a financially healthy life—and credit score—that I’m incredibly proud of.
My 20s: A Decade of Making Money Mistakes
When I enrolled at Cal State University, Fullerton in the early ’90s, one of the first things I noticed was the barrage of credit card promotions being offered on campus. It seemed like everywhere I turned, a representative was encouraging me to apply.
At that point, my parents’ financial troubles hadn’t totally caught up to them yet, but they did make it clear to me that I was on my own for education costs.
So during my first semester, they suggested I take out the first $5,000 of $15,000 in undergrad student loans, and use credit cards to pay for living expenses. So I opened several cards—and proceeded to swipe them to the tune of $10,000 in just two years.
By 20, I was working three part-time gigs just to make the minimum payments, and seriously regretting my choices to spend so frivolously. I was overwhelmed, and even contemplated dropping out of school in order to find a full-time job to pay off my debt.
Instead, I filed for bankruptcy just before my 21st birthday. Between my credit card balances and the $8,400 I still had left on a car loan I’d taken out around the same time, I just couldn’t keep up with it all as a student.
Looking back, I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret about opting for the bankruptcy route. But, at the time, I truly felt like I had no other alternatives if I wanted to stay in school full-time.
In the process, I followed some other unfortunate parental advice—and left three credit cards, with balances totaling $2,500, out of the bankruptcy. My parents insisted that paying them off would help me rebuild my credit faster—except it didn’t. My score didn’t creep up any faster, thanks to “making good” on some of my debt.
As fate would have it, they claimed bankruptcy just a few months later.
It was a tough year to say the least, and I felt like I’d hit rock bottom. I knew that if I didn’t get it together, I’d end up just like my parents—middle-aged and still financially unstable.
The wake-up call prompted me to seek out help from a financial adviser. Following her advice I started rebuilding my credit worthiness using a secured card—an account that requires cash as collateral for the line of credit—with a $200 limit, and made sure to pay it off in full every month. I also continued working one part-time office job in order to pay for my living expenses in cash.
As for the $2,500 debt, I used the “snowball method” and aggressively paid off the card with the smallest balance, while paying the minimums on the others. Turns out, when I wasn’t charging new clothes and food on my credit cards all of the time, there was more than enough cash in my budget to live within my means.
Two years later, at 23, I was officially consumer-debt-free. And by the time I graduated in 1997, my credit score was in the 300s. Believe it or not, this was an improvement!
I was proud of the progress I’d made, but I knew there was still more work to do. So I spent the next several years building up a savings account—and making a plan to get as financially fit as possible.
My 30s: Changing My Personal—and Financial—Life for the Better
By the time I turned 31, I had a master’s degree in public administration, a full-time gig as an associate director at a university, and a $45,000 salary. I was living at home to help my parents pay their rent—and for the first time, I felt financial security.
I was still hacking away at my student loans, which were then around $7,000, including a couple thousand I’d taken out for my graduate degree.
Watching that balance decrease over time not only made me feel more in control but it was also boosting my credit score. Despite the bankruptcy still being on my credit report, my FICO score was sitting in the mid-500s.
To make sure I was continually inching it up, I created automatic payment schedules for my bills, and stuck to a detailed budget.
Unlike my college days, I planned ahead for all types of transactions—from ordering takeout to contributing to my savings account. I’d even started kicking in about $250 a month toward retirement.
Keeping close tabs on my money kept my credit top of mind. My 20s had scared me straight—and my future was too important to mess up.
At 32 I met my husband, Robert, a sales guy, and we hit it off immediately. Robert and I had similar values, shared the same financial views—and he was just plain charming. A year later we tied the knot, and our two sons, now 5 and 6, were born not long after.
It was around this time that my bankruptcy, which had stayed on my credit report for 10 years, had officially disappeared. At that point I no longer needed to use a secured credit card. So I marched down to the credit union, where I qualified for a new, low-interest credit card.
That was the confirmation I’d been waiting for to prove that my finances were finally in order.
My 40s: Reaping the Benefits of a Top-Notch Credit Score
Something happened about two years ago, when I was 39, that felt amazing. After deciding it was time to invest in a second car, I was told by the auto finance manager that my credit score—780—was excellent.
The result? We scored an exceptionally low annual percentage rate on a new Toyota Camry LE that was 0.5% less than what my credit union offered me.
This shouldn’t have come as a shock—I’d been actively working on my credit score for decades—but it still pleasantly surprised me. I guess I sometimes forget that I’m no longer that bankrupt 20-something struggling to get by.
Actually, I’m far from it.
These days I’m earning about $70,000 as a midlevel university administrator, have $50,000 in a 401(k), and a few thousand saved in an emergency fund—even after dipping into it recently to pay some medical bills.
Robert and I have an ongoing discussion about whether we should stay in our current city or try out a new corner of the country, so for now we’re still renting. But it feels great to know that if we do decide to become homeowners one day, we’re very likely to get approved for a mortgage.
Robert and I also kick about $400 a month into our boys’ college funds, so they’ll have a better cushion one day than I did.
In fact, we teach our kids a lot of lessons I wish I’d learned sooner. A big one right now is the importance of saving.
If there’s something they’d like to buy—like Matchbox cars or Legos—the first thing we ask them to do is check their piggy banks. If there isn’t enough, that means they have to continue saving before buying it. Borrowing from someone isn’t an option.
That continues to be the mantra Robert and I aim to live by, as well. Aside from my student loans—which now ring in at around $14,000 due to some doctoral classes I took a few years ago—we remain debt-free.
We typically pay for such day-to-day purchases as groceries in cash, and never charge more on credit cards than we can afford to pay off at the end of the month. We also habitually check our credit reports to ensure damaging inaccuracies, such as a credit card that doesn’t belong to us, don’t slip under the radar.
As a result, I’m happy to report that my credit score is holding steady at 784. Those three little digits have provided me with financial security and opportunities I once only dreamed of.
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