Brittney Thames grew up in the Park Hill area of Denver, Colo., a largely middle class neighborhood known for its tree-lined streets, excellent schools, and a short commute to downtown. She and her three siblings were raised comfortably, and money never seemed to be a concern to her family. But like many Americans, her family’s success was not all that it appeared, and their world started crumbling when the Great Recession of 2008 began.
Growing Up “Rich”
As Brittney recalls, “Growing up, we went on lots of nice vacations and I thought that we were rich. My dad bought nice cars — BMWs and Audis — at auction, so he never had a car payment.” And when she and her siblings wanted something, her father never hesitated to buy it for them. So in Brittney’s mind, all of her family’s purchases were paid for as there was never any mention of credit or debt. As she remembers, “We never talked about credit in my family. I thought that my dad had a magic card, and I actually expected that I might be supported by my parents based on my upbringing.”
Now as Brittney looks back on her childhood, she sees the impact credit had on her family. “I didn’t know that many of these purchases were financed with credit cards.” After high school, her father bought her an older used Mercedes, and she moved out of her parents’ house while going to school to be a pharmacy technician. She was able to rent her own apartment after qualifying for a low-income housing program offered by her county.
On Her Own
Living on her own, she opened a checking account at a major retail bank, which offered cash advances when she didn’t have enough money to pay her bills. After getting a good job as a pharmacy technician, it was almost as if Brittney became a victim of her own success. At 21 years old, she remembers being single, partying, and traveling, but not building credit.
I got into a whole bunch of trouble when I took out these cash advances and then had problems paying the bank back. I wasn’t managing my money
As she remembers, “I got into a whole bunch of trouble when I took out these cash advances and then had problems paying the bank back. I wasn’t managing my money.” It was then that she started to notice the high interest charges she was incurring on these cash advances. She laments, “I didn’t feel the need to build good credit and there was no one who told me to.” Then she started making too much money to qualify for the low-income housing program that allowed her to rent her apartment.
Brittney was forced to move back in with her parents, only to find out that their house was in foreclosure.
“My mom had medical bills, and [my parents] ended up borrowing against the house to pay for her treatments.” In addition, her father lost money in the stock market when it crashed in 2008. Her family then lost the house they had owned for more than 25 years.
It was only now, as an adult, that she started to learn how money and credit truly work. Her parents losing the house made her understand, in her words, “When you buy stuff, you always have to pay for it.”
The loss of her family home took a huge emotional toll on Brittney and her brother and sisters. “I didn’t break down until we had to pack up my childhood drawings. My three siblings and I each all had our own meltdown. I was the strong one for the longest time, until it was time to go.”
The Time to Talk About Credit
Once the discussion was unavoidable, only then did her dad start to talk about credit with her. As she remembers, “I was like, ‘Really!?’ I would probably be in a whole different place in life, as far as my finances, if I had known about my family’s credit problems. This is a vicious cycle that no one wants to talk about, and I would rather have learned about credit without having our family go through this ordeal.”
Brittney then moved in with her boyfriend, only to learn that he wasn’t responsibly paying the bills either. “We were both bad finance people in a relationship.” When they broke up, she couldn’t afford to pay rent by herself and was forced to move in with a family member.
All this time, Brittney remembers never bothering to check her credit report. She just ignored it, but knew that the consequences of her bad credit would eventually catch up to her. When it came time to replace her car last year and she couldn’t rely on her parents, she found herself being turned down by every car financing company she applied to. Only the car dealership where her cousin worked was willing to finance her car as a favor to a family member. Despite their generosity, she found she was going to have to pay 21% interest, and that was the only way she could buy a car.
Turning Over a New Leaf
Brittney now sees the world differently and is determined to get her credit in order. She’s proud to say she has been paying her auto loan on time. She is working two jobs, but still feels as if she is struggling. “I wish that I had been taught more about finances growing up. I touched a lot of money, but I didn’t make wise choices and didn’t pay my bills when I had the chance.”
I hate having to tell my kids no, but I know it’s important to do so, and that I am building responsible, productive members of society
Brittney is now a parent herself. She plans on teaching her own children about how to build credit and use it responsibly. “I plan on teaching them about credit. My father said that credit was not important, but it is!” she concludes. But she doesn’t blame her father, as she knows her grandparents only used cash and never talked about credit either. Brittney now realizes that her father never learned about credit from his parents, so he was never able to teach her.
“My credit score is still low,” Brittney says, “but it’s improving. It used to be non-existent, around 400, but now it is in the 500 range and going up.” She’s never had a credit card, and her only experience with credit before her auto loan was with payday loans and bank cash advances.
Now that she has a bank account again, it makes everything easier. As she puts it, “I can see where my money is and create a budget.” Her attitude towards spending has changed too. “Now that I am a mom,” she says, “I hate having to tell my kids no, but I know it’s important to do so, and that I am building responsible, productive members of society.”
Brittney says she’s learned several important lessons from her struggles. “You can’t let people get you into situations that get you into financial trouble,” she realizes. “You have to draw a line with your personal relationships, because when you get into financial trouble, you are alone.” In addition, she now has a remarkably positive outlook. “It feels really good to have my wings clipped and grow back,” she states. “I’m thankful that I’ve been through this and am now learning to manage my finances responsibly, and can teach my children to do the same.”