Fresh out of college, Mickey DeLay-Helser took off for San Francisco from Seattle, joining a college friend who had convinced her to make the move.
“I thought it would be a great life experience, so I packed a bag and bought a one-way ticket the very next day,” says Mickey, now a division marketing manager for Wells Fargo Regional Banking. “Shortly after arriving, I opened two credit cards to buy the basics, furniture, household supplies, work clothes — not frivolous things.”
Soon, however, the monthly payments became a strain; she got a second job; and took out a debt consolidation loan that took almost two years to pay off. “I wish I had understood the long-term impact of mismanaging credit,” she says.
Mickey is among a number of Wells Fargo leaders who agreed to share their own life lessons about credit as part of Get Smart About Credit, a monthlong effort in October focused on providing credit education and encouraging the responsible use of credit.
Several leaders say that when they were younger, they didn’t think about the effect on their credit at all — until they got a wakeup call. Mickey’s call came from the credit card company.
“That call made me get my finances in order,” she says. “Fast forward eight years — my husband and I were purchasing our first house together. And during the process, I had to write a letter to the lender explaining what had happened with my credit. Thankfully, we were approved for the loan, but we had a few anxious days waiting to hear.”
Shelley Freeman, head of Wells Fargo Consumer Credit Solutions, says she had “terrible credit and financial habits when I was younger. My priority was to spend my paycheck on going out, not on taking care of my credit and other bills.”
Making only $200 a week in her first job at a publishing house, she didn’t have enough money to pay down her student loans. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have paid my student loans and credit cards on time,” she says.
For Shelley, the turning point came when she accepted a job in the financial services industry. “I didn’t want to be like a doctor who smoked. If I was going to give financial advice, I needed to walk the talk. I began cleaning up my finances, budgeting, paying bills on time, saving and investing, and over time I rebuilt my credit,” she says.
The debt cycle
Married and saddled with debt in his late 20s, Hugh Rowden, community outreach manager for the company’s Chief Administrative Office, says he wishes he “knew sooner how to attack my debt.”
He and his wife had a mortgage, car loan, and credit card debt: “Like many people, we were in a debt cycle,” he says. Although they had good credit and paid their bills on time, much of the monthly disposable income went toward making those payments, Hugh says.
They eventually broke the debt cycle after taking a household finance class on paying down debt. “In one afternoon, we went from being caught in a debt cycle to figuring out how to attack it so we could spend our money on other things, like investing for our future,” he says.
Student debt snare
For Franklin Codel, head of Home Lending Production, paying off student loans became a challenge. “When I was going through my college and post-graduate education, I had the opportunity to take on student loan debt,” he says. “Like many students today, I faced a myriad of opportunities — there were many options to consider.”
Even with a part-time job to help with expenses, Franklin graduated with loans that took a long time to pay off. “When I was preparing for college, I took a hard look at the total debt I would incur and what the monthly payments and loan term would be once I graduated. So I took a part-time job and worked hard to be prepared and make informed decisions. Looking back, I wish I would’ve actually found a way to borrow a little less than I did.”
Like Franklin, Lisa Stevens worked part-time jobs to pay for college, but also had to rely on student loans and credit cards for tuition, books, and other necessities. “By the time I graduated, I was in debt,” says Lisa, head of Wells Fargo’s Pacific Midwest region and small business banking.
Lisa says she got her financial house in order by making a plan that included saving for a rainy day and a down payment on a house. “Through the process of making a financial plan, I learned that you have to be very disciplined to pay off debt. Starting small – even if it’s only $10 a month — makes a difference. And I realized that it’s possible to also save money when you have a plan.”
Kim Gershon, Wells Fargo Dealer Services’ Western Regional leader, says it was all about credit cards. “Materialistic items are fun, but planning for your financial future is smarter,” she says. “When I was young and had multiple credit cards, it didn’t occur to me that the material items I was accumulating would be putting me into debt, and that these ‘items’ would not have nearly the importance on how I’d want to live my life in retirement later, such as putting that money towards my 401(k).”
Kim’s solution was a little simpler. “Today, I use one credit card, my Wells Fargo Propel credit card, and pay all charges in full every month. If I can’t pay it in full, I wait until I can to purchase the items I want.”
Even some leaders with good spending habits early in life say there were unknown consequences.
“As an African American couple coming of age amid adversity and civil rights unrest, my parents knew the value of a dollar and the importance of saving — and they instilled that in me and my siblings,” said Craig Coffey, head of Home Lending Marketing and eBusiness. “They imparted a sense of self-discipline and self-reliance that still benefits me today.”
As a young adult, he “tried to pay for whatever I could with cash. I avoided amassing credit card or other debts, and paid off any debt I did have as soon as I could.” While those were responsible habits, what he didn’t know then was that “some of those behaviors were preventing me from building a good credit history. Now I understand that saving combined with the responsible use of credit show that you’re accountable, have integrity, and can be trusted to repay a loan for a mortgage, car, education, and so on.”
Paying it forward
The leaders all say they hope the lessons they learned can benefit others. “What I’ve learned from my journey is that financial health not only allows me to be more effective at my job, it provides me peace of mind,” Shelley says.
Mickey says she has “continued to be a good money manager ever since that terrible call and, today, I’m proud to report that my credit score has been in the 90th percentile for many years.” She added that she grew up in a large family of 10 children, and her parents didn’t believe it was proper to talk about money matters in front of the kids.
But Mickey says she is changing that legacy — sharing her experience and discussing smart money management with her daughters.
Lisa says that today’s customers and team members have an advantage over the previous generation — technology. “Back then we didn’t have the kinds of budgeting and savings tools that Wells Fargo customers and team members enjoy today. What a great opportunity we have now, to have so many tools and resources at our fingertips to help us achieve our own financial goals.”
And Craig , like many others, shares what he learned with his own family. “I am so grateful to my parents for their wisdom and advice. I didn’t think about it then, but as a parent now, I’m passing that knowledge down to our kids, along with the advice I got from mom and dad years ago. It’s all come full circle.”