Get The Tea On The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of Your Credit Score

A personal finance advocate shares how to make it work for you.


Didn't know April is Financial Literacy Month? Well, now you do. And what better excuse to get your finances in check or figure out how you'll add to your already lit bank accounts? Let's get into some knowledge about credit. It's an issue we all face as we look for ways to reach financial freedom and the best road to where the money resides. Sadly, the stats reflect harsh realities for many of us. Fifty-four percent of Black adults report having no credit or a poor to fair credit score (below 640).

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Carmen Perez, Varo Bank's personal finance advocate and creator of MakeRealCents.com, a financial fitness platform, shares the good, bad and ugly on credit. Perez, an award-winning professional who's worked for Citi and Morgan Stanley, successfully paid off $57,000 of her own debt in less than three years.

"My finances were a hot mess up until I was able to commit to a plan," she shares. After facing a lawsuit from a private lender, she had to use her last bits of savings to hire a lawyer. She readjusted her budget, completely cut out luxuries like eating out and investing in cable, and reinvested her time into a photography side hustle to bring in more cash. She also kept a close eye on her finances and savings via the cash envelop system, and by the end of 2018, she was debt-free.

It's always good to know where you are before creating a plan to get to where you want to be. So, let's get into some credit 101:

Your Credit Score: The Basics

A credit score, also referred to as your FICO score, is a number that lets lenders know how much of a risk it would be to lend you money. The score ranges from 300 (the lowest) to 850 (the highest). "It is a benchmark that lenders use to gauge how likely a person is to pay back what they owe based on past data. The more you pay things back and on time, the better your credit can be, which can help you borrow money at a lower rate for things you may need," Perez says.

There are three major credit reporting bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian, and each uses different reporting methods, thus you could have up to three different scores.

"The misconception is that we have one credit score, which is inaccurate. We have multiple, and it depends on what we're applying or aiming for," Perez says. "Your bank, for example, could be showing you a FICO score that might be conducive to opening a credit card, but your score might be different when applying for financing for something else."

Also, various things can impact your credit score, from late bill payments or rental debts to outstanding medical bills and tax liens. On the positive side, a long history of maintaining accounts in good standing, or taking on debt that you're able to manage and pay back consistently over time, are all actions that can contribute to a great credit score.

You can access your credit scores for free via AnnualCreditReport.com, and each report will have specifics on the types of accounts you have on record (such as credit card, mortgage, and student or car loans), the date those accounts were opened, information on your credit limits or loan amounts, as well as details about your payment history. Credit reports also have history on where you've lived and sometimes where you've worked. You'll want to make sure all information is up to date and accurate, especially since some information could be from fraudulent activity, a reporting misake, or an old debt of more than several years that should have dropped off.

For more information on your credit reports, look into resources offered by the credit bureaus, including apps that offer weekly updates on your credit score, credit report information, and credit products available to you. Other easy-to-use and super-helpful websites on understanding your reports are CreditKarma.com and USA.gov.

Image via Giphy

Your Credit Score: The Good

The benefits of having a "good" credit score, which is one that falls generally at a 700 or above, is access to more housing options, more confidence when applying for a loan, and lower interest rates when you get approved. "Good credit allows you to secure better housing and, in some cases, will enable you to bypass having to put a deposit down if you rent," Perez adds. "If you plan on owning, good credit can help you secure a mortgage with better financing terms for you in the long-term. The lower your interest rate, the less you'll pay in interest over time."

"You'll feel less worried about getting denied, which can help you focus more on the things that matter, like negotiating a good interest rate."

But what about if you have no credit at all (i.e. no active accounts being reported to the credit bureaus or your credit history is so limited that there's no score)? Perez recommends getting a secured credit card, one that requires a deposit but offers other great benefits for people who haven't built credit.

"Get one at bank or financial institution that you're looking to have a long-term relationship with---one that offers access to other products. You might put up $500, for example, to open the account, and it will give you access to other products later that you might find beneficial such as home and auto loans."

She also urges women to put some serious thought and research into making decisions about what cards might be best for them. Looking to resources like Nerd Wallet or reading up on your current bank's credit card options (along with the fine print) are your best bet. Be sure to get details on annual fees, card closure policies, and payment protocols.

Image via Giphy

Your Credit: The Bad

In some cases, with a credit score that is below 640, a lender sees you as a higher risk for default or nonpayment of a loan. "If you haven't been good at paying back the money you've already borrowed, lenders will be more hesitant to lend you money," Perez says. "Since they are lending you the money, your loan terms, whether it be a mortgage, car loan, or credit card, will be more favorable for the lender than they will be for you. And since the lender is taking on all the risk, their reward is being able to charge you with a higher interest rate. Interest over time can add up and take away money that could be going toward your future self, like investing for retirement."

Though cash is king, when it comes to buying a home or even renting an apartment, you may need a cosigner to vouch for a loan. "Getting someone else to cosign on anything can be pretty tricky, especially when you already have bad credit," she continues. "You may also be subject to paying high deposits, which can deplete you of cash that could be going toward things like your savings or retirement."

Image via Giphy

Your Credit Score: The Ugly

In Perez's case, she was sued for an outstanding debt, and this is a common practice for some lenders as well as medical service providers and property management companies. Accounts that have reached collections stages and wage garnishments can not only deplete your pockets, but they can indeed negatively impact your credit score. A bad credit score can even affect your employment opportunities. "Sometimes employers will run a credit check on you before giving you the job," she says. "If your credit isn't in a good place, they may not extend the offer."

But you can take bad credit and turn your situation around. Perez recommends looking at all your credit reports and disputing anything that might be out of date or inaccurate. Then address the open accounts with balances that are past due. "Get on the phone with your lender. Explain your situation. See if they have a hardship program, and get the information on what that actually looks like. Get those details up front first, and then go from there." Perez also suggests freezing your credit card and pausing on use versus closing them, something that could negatively impact your credit. If possible, remain in communication with companies or lenders you owe to negotiate a plan for resolving your debt. "If you get the no the first time, continue to call to see if you can get yourself on a payment plan. That's better than [the lender] hitting up your credit because you're not making payments."

There are also credit-card debt relief options offered with the understanding that many are facing pandemic-related hardships, and community resources to get help in building budgets or exploring other debt-relief options.

Perez is also a big advocate of finding a way to earn more income via a side hustle and paying down at a pace that takes into account your current lifestyle and necessities. "Make sure you're prioritizing your bills. If you're in a hole and trying to make it out, it's time to put a budget in place and figure out where your money is going."

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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