Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, Rodney knew that he needed a purpose for his life. But unlike many of his peers, instead of getting a job or going to college after graduating high school, Rodney joined the Marine Corps.
“At the time, the Vietnam War was going on, so we were pretty focused on survival. And the instructors were really hard on us because they knew that once we got out of training, we would be possibly going into combat,” Rodney told us.
Returning home, Rodney faced a new challenge: how to effectively manage his money. He was inexperienced when it came to keeping track of his finances, but his low salary made it essential for him to make smart choices.
“When I first went into the Marine Corps, I was only making $134.40 a month and we had to take care of that money and make it last, so managing money became very important to me.”
Beyond preparing Rodney for the realities of war, the Marines also prepared him for the realities of managing his bank account.
“We used to have these classes, financial classes in the Marine Corps. They were mandatory. Writing check skills and so forth,” Rodney said. “They teach you discipline. We called it deferred gratification. Set aside the things that you want to do, to do the things that you have to do.”
Being a Marine meant that Rodney was called on to serve all over the world, and he was stationed on bases in Japan, Korea, Hawaii and North Carolina.
“After Vietnam, I went on a med cruise, which is what we call the Mediterranean cruise. I was on board a Navy ship, the USS Raleigh. We were part of the battalion landing team. What we do is float around the water, and we serve the European nations, and we would work alongside Spanish and Italian marines as a security force.”
His extensive deployments and the demands of Marine life meant that Rodney often didn’t have enough time to oversee his own personal finances. Fortunately, he found a partner who was able to help him manage his money while he was serving his country.
“Because I was always at work during my first years, my wife was pretty much in charge of our money and we didn't have a lot. When I got married, my salary increased a little because I started receiving benefits like a housing allowance. And my wife was pretty savvy with money which was good because I didn't have time to handle the finances.”
Rodney said their lack of money meant it was important to stay disciplined financially in their early years and to be careful not to overextend themselves by making purchases that they couldn’t afford.
“In the beginning, we just had a house payment, which was only $307 a month and my car payment which was around $100. We didn’t have a lot beyond that and that’s how we were able to avoid having too much debt.”
Rodney and his wife worked hard to balance their checkbook, pay their bills and stay on top of their credit. But despite their hard work, Rodney still faced discrimination as a Black man when he was trying to build up his own credit.
Without a credit card to record his spending habits and establish his history of paying his bills on time, it became impossible for Rodney to create the financial record that he needed to secure low interest rates on loans and receive other benefits from having a high credit score.
“I'm an African American male and we weren't given a lot of credit opportunities back in the day. We faced an extra level of scrutiny because a lot of times on the applications they would ask you what your race was, and then they would disapprove of you accordingly. So we were mostly cash people back then because we had to be.”
Despite these setbacks, Rodney and his wife were able to build up a sound financial foundation for their family. His secret was to learn from his early mistakes and, once granted the opportunity, appreciate the importance of always maintaining good credit.
“We had some issues back in the early days where we did a couple of things that were wrong because we didn't really realize how important credit would be in the long run. I paid my bills on time but my score was low because I used too much credit. We didn’t really understand what our credit score meant at first.”
It didn’t take long for Rodney to understand how to make credit work in his favor.
“Eventually I understood that when somebody extends something out to you, it’s your responsibility to do what is required to fulfill your part of the agreement and pay it back and as I told my son, you cannot have anything, or get anything unless you have good credit.”
Rodney was named Marine of the Year for the second division and steadily climbed up the ranks until he became a Gunnery Sergeant, one of the highest ranks he could achieve as a non-commissioned officer. Finally, after 22 years of service, he made the decision to retire after the first Gulf War at the age of 40.
Searching for a new challenge, he took a position as a vice president for a large janitorial services company in St. Louis. The position was demanding, but due to his careful financial planning, he was able to retire a few years later.
Rodney admits that building strong credit and managing his money effectively wasn’t easy, but he used a simple philosophy as a guide that kept him on a strong financial track for decades.
“The bottom line is that if you take somebody's money, you need to pay it back because they're trusting you with something that they don't have to do, but they did it because you were worthy of their trust. And to gain their trust further, you have to do the right thing.”
And that’s a skill that Rodney has worked hard to instill in his children as well.
“My son is in college now and I gave him one of my cards to teach him about credit and he's only got a little limit on his because he’s young. But I gave it to him so that he would learn responsibilities and that this is your limit, you cannot go over it, because American Express is not going to allow you to go over it.”
Now, Rodney is able to savor a comfortable retirement and enjoy the most important perk of his decades of good money management and financial discipline: taking care of the people he loves.
“I’ve got three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and I make sure that they’re well taken care of. They always need something, young babies. So I take the pressure off of my kids and buy them whatever they need.”
Asked for any final words of wisdom as we wrapped up our interview, Rodney shared his last bit of advice for maintaining good credit habits:
“They used to have a saying, pay yourself first, but now I don’t agree with that. I say pay your bills first and then pay yourself. Because if you don’t pay your bills, you’ll mess up your credit.”