Financial Empowerment: Credit? Don’t Forget it

The MSU Spokesman

Panelists at the Black Men Matter Conference II argue for a credit history. (left to right
Johnnie Fielding, Jerry Edwards, Arnold Williams, Calaway Braxton, Omar Mohammed)
Photo credit: Soronia Taylor

This fall leaders of the Black Men Matter Conference returned to Morgan State University for a second year to encourage self-improvement and strategic planning for the issues that affect African American men.

Among the packed workshops offered during the convocation, the financial empowerment session drew a small group of students and visitors. The workshop, facilitated by Omar Muhammad, Morgan State University’s Director of Professional Development, advised the audience on how to manage finances, invest wisely, and start small businesses. But the discussion would be dominated by the importance of credit.

“Credit is an extension of who you are,” Jonnie Fielding, CEO of Leading by Example LLC., told the group. The panel of financial advisors quickly agreed that this principle was the most important aspect of financial empowerment.

Jerry Edwards, Underwriter for Wells Fargo Bank, emphasized that good credit is essential to the loan process. “First thing we’re going to do is look at is your credit,” he said. “What are you doing to improve your credit?”

Calaway Braxton, Vice President of Operations for Advance Bank, offered another perspective. “Credit is the independent voice of who you are,” he said. “As a bank we want to lend to somebody that’s going to pay us back. We want to see a commitment from you.”

Students in the audience immediately wanted to know how to get good credit. PJ Green, a Morgan State student, reflected on the fact that he has always been taught that credit cards are bad. “Why does everyone tell us to not get a credit card?” he asked. “My mom doesn’t want me to get one because she thinks I won’t pay it and end up in debt.”  Students in the audience hummed in agreement.

Daquan Wise, an older man in the audience, offered up his own personal experience. “I used to have fifteen credit cards,” he said. “Then I learned my lesson. It took me twenty years to get out of debt.”

Part of the problem, panelists said, is that people rely on their credit cards when they’re strapped for cash, using them to pay for things like utilities and rent.

Indeed, 39 percent of African Americans and 35 percent of White Americans have used credit cards to pay for basic living expenses since 2008. Meanwhile, interest rates on the cards have continued to rise.

Still, panelists asserted, it’s important to establish a credit history.

Johnnie Fielding offered some sound advice to cool the credit card fears of the audience. “What tends to happen is we over extend ourselves with our budget,” he said. “Two things for certain:  something is going to happen and you are going to try to survive off your credit cards. When your credit card is being used as a functional mechanism it becomes unhealthy.”

Edwards highlighted exactly what it means to have good credit, explaining that people should strive for a score of 640 or higher. “Your credit is based off your payment history, current debt, credit history, credit inquiries, and your type of current credit. Constantly having a high balance on your credit card can lower your credit score,” he said.

Students quickly copied down the list of websites the facilitator wrote on the board to check credit scores.

After an extensive look into credit, the financial advisors wanted to make sure audience members left knowing how to apply that knowledge and become successful entrepreneurs. Fielding advised, “Before you invest anything, have three to six months of your expenses saved. Invest your time into educating yourself. I encourage you to invest your time in self-cultivation. Understand that you are behind. And when you are behind in a race, you can’t run at normal pace. You have to go hard.”


Photo credit: Soronia Taylor