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Tonya Rapley says she knew better; she was raised to know how to manage money — and yet when she was in college (and taking out student loans), she maxed out her credit cards and “just tried to ignore it.”

Then she had an opportunity to move to New York City, and she found out quickly that she couldn’t get an apartment, at least not in her own name, and it was because of her credit score. (She still was able to move, but she lived with a roommate). Being an adult who wasn’t deemed financially responsible enough to take out a lease was her awakening. Her parents had taught her what she needed to know, but she concedes she didn’t really understand some of the nuances of how credit scores are calculated.

What she did understand was that three-digit number made a whole lot of difference in the financial options she had. She was starting low — with a score of 585 — when she signed up for a monitoring program through her credit card. Every month, she’d look to see how the number was changing. (You can check two of your credit scores and also see what factors affect them for free at Credit.com.) In August of 2012, she resolved to boost that depressingly low number.

She also pulled copies of her credit report (here’s how you can check yours for free), and she learned how to read it. Then, she disputed any debt she believed was not valid, including some interest and fees that should not have been charged, she said.

Getting rid of inaccurate, negative information helped her score, but she also wanted to add some positive information to boost it. To do that, she became an authorized user on one of her father’s credit cards. That card had a long history — and she had learned that length of credit history helps. She was also able to get a “rebuilder” card from her bank, but the credit limit was low — $300. (Had that not been available, a secured card could have served much the same purpose but would have required a deposit equal to the credit limit.) She has since qualified for a card through her credit union as well, and she makes sure her balances are no more than 10% of her credit limit. She has kept herself accountable on a blog, myfabfinance, which she founded to help other women, and particularly women of color, with money.

As for her credit score, she’s had to accept that slow and steady wins the race. In March, her score was 715. That’s still not where she wants it to be, but it’s a lot higher than it would be if she’d simply thrown up her hands in despair. Her advice to others who find themselves in a similar situation:

  • It’s not hopeless, but you need to begin to understand how credit works.
  • Establish a positive history to balance out the negative. Demonstrate that you can and will repay.
  • Be patient. Your score won’t go up overnight.
  • Do this yourself. You don’t need a credit repair service, and you aren’t likely to learn what you need to, nor will you get into the habit of checking your credit yourself (and that’s good financial hygiene) if you pay someone else to do it for you.

Do you have a credit score or repayment success story to share? We’d love to hear about it. Comment below and we’ll connect with you by email. 

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