Howard was flying high.
At nineteen he became a union carpenter in New York City and spent his days hundreds of feet above the city’s bustling streets, building the skyscrapers that define Manhattan’s iconic skyline.
It was a good job with a good salary. He made well over six figures and his union health benefits were enough to take care of him and his entire family.
“The job was great, the money was great. I really didn’t have too many problems,” Howard says.
Eventually, he ran into some roadblocks. “It was when I wanted to get car loans. My credit wasn’t that good because of a couple of things I did when I was fifteen or sixteen years old and I still owed about $6,000.”
Howard’s debt problems had pulled his credit score way down, so he reached out to a friend to help him rebuild it.
“I knew a finance guy at a car dealership, and I asked him what I could do to improve my credit score. He told me to pay off my debt,” says Howard.
“So I called everybody I owed money to and made deals to pay it all off. I thought I was all set, but then my friend said ‘ok, that's not the end of it. Now you don’t have any debt, but you still don’t have any credit.’”
Howard’s friend explained that having good credit means more than just not having debt.
Creditors want to know you’re able to handle debt when you have it, which means that in order to grow your credit, you have to actually use your credit.
And use it he did.
While Howard’s spending is far from typical, his method of growing his credit worked for him.
“First I bought a motorcycle that I took out a $3,000 loan for. I paid that back in twelve payments. Then I bought a Corvette. I put down $15,000 for that just so I could get the loan. And after paying the loan back in twelve months, my credit score shot up to over eight hundred.”
But Howard’s credit building wasn’t done.
“Once my credit was as high as I could get it, I walked into a dealership and bought two Lexus cars on the same day. One payment was for $549 and the other was $800. And that’s when I realized that you have to earn credit. They don’t just give it to you.”
In other words, Howard saw that by using his credit, he was able to grow his credit.
His method of taking out and paying off large loans isn't the right path for everyone of course— we all need to make choices that work best for us — but Howard was able to strengthen his credit score by demonstrating consistent financial habits as he paid off his loans.
Now, with a good job and strong credit, Howard thought all he had to do was make it to retirement, collect his pension and he would be set.
Unfortunately, life had other plans.
“I had been feeling bad for a couple of months. I didn’t know what was wrong but I thought that I could work through it. Then one day I passed out. The ambulance came and I had to get an emergency blood transfusion.”
Howard was rushed to the hospital and after undergoing a battery of tests, his doctor gave him a devastating diagnosis: Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s can be a debilitating medical condition, and for Howard, it was impossible for him to continue working as a carpenter.
Overnight, the job that had given him so much was taken away and he quickly learned that even when your salary is gone, your bills stay the same.
“I couldn’t keep up so I pretty much lost everything. The cars, the house, it felt like everyone was coming after me. Once I couldn’t work, there was no way for me to keep up with my bills.”
Then, while still battling his Crohn’s disease, he lost his union health benefits as well.
“The problem is that after a year of not working in the union, you lose the benefits. So I had to apply for state benefits and now that’s taking forever and at the same time I’m hemorrhaging cash just trying to keep up with my medical bills.”
His job loss had a major impact on his family. His wife returned to work after seventeen years as a stay-at-home mom.
“My wife had a nice career but I was doing well enough that we decided she could stay home with the kids and we wouldn’t send them to daycare. But once I got sick she went back to work.”
Despite his wife’s hard work and Howard’s attempts to work with their creditors, it became impossible for them to keep up with the bills they were facing.
“I was trying to work out payment plans with everyone but they wouldn’t take them. I was like, ‘I’ll give you $50 or $100 dollars a month’ and they were like ‘nope, come up with twenty grand right now or we’re taking your furniture.’ They wanted to clear out my entire house and take everything I owned. They even had the sheriff at my door. The only way around it was bankruptcy. That was the only way I could stop them from coming into my house.”
Howard’s high salary and consistent financial habits had given him sterling credit, but the moment he declared bankruptcy, everything he’d spent a lifetime building was gone.
Howard was desperate to get back on the right financial track, but his medical condition kept him from getting work.
“What people don’t understand is that with Crohn’s you can barely leave your house. You can’t do anything. I wanted to just go for a walk around my neighborhood but sometimes even that was too much.”
After trying a number of different medications and natural therapies, he was finally able to get a grip on his disease enough to return to a version of his normal life.
“After around two years, I was able to get out of bed. I can’t really work in New York City now, but I can’t afford to retire yet. Social Security said that I wasn’t sick enough to qualify for benefits. I got turned down three different times for that. And that holds up my pension because they can’t give me my pension without disability approval.”
As a carpenter, Howard once helped to build some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Now he was determined to do the same thing with his credit.
“I knew I had to get my credit up. So I applied to everybody to get a card. My score used to be over eight hundred and I know that credit is built around revolving debt, so I knew that as long as I could get somebody to lend me money, I would be ok.”
But his bankruptcy had put him back to financial square one, and all his years of perfect credit and payment history no longer mattered when he was trying to get new cards.
“I got turned down by everyone. Every card I applied for. I even had millionaire friends that wouldn’t loan me $5,000 just to help me get started. And then I tried Mission Lane and you were the only ones who would approve me. My credit was at 400 before I got the Mission Lane card and now I have it up to 640.”
Howard isn’t scared of hard work. Building skyscrapers isn’t easy, and neither is rebuilding your credit. But he’s set a goal for himself and he’s determined to achieve it no matter how much work it takes.
“I’m hungry again. I used to own three houses. And that’s what I really want now. I’m saving up for a downpayment and I’m rebuilding my credit and one day I’m going to own a house again.”
“You know, my father used to say, your credit is the most important thing in your life. You don’t think about that when you’re young; it doesn’t sink in until you get older. That's everything. That's your lifeline. Credit’s your lifeline.”
Howard lost his lifeline when he was faced with an illness out of his control. But with patience, dedication and a commitment to proving his financial responsibility, he’s determined to earn it back.
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