This is Brandon Weaver’s story, as told to Marianne Hayes.
Like many people, my credit problems can be traced back to very early adulthood.
As a college student at the University of New Mexico, I suffered with sports-related knee and hip pain, and ultimately had to undergo multiple debilitating operations. Although I was enlisted in the Army Reserves and also had a small scholarship, it wasn’t enough to cover my tuition, rent, and other living expenses. So I took out $20,000 in student loans, and used credit cards to fill in the gaps.
It wasn’t like I was living large. On the contrary, I’d pared down my expenses to the bare minimum, cutting my cable and getting rid of my car. But being hit with one surgery after another knocked me off my feet—literally. By the time I reached my senior year in 2008, my credit card balance had reached $15,000, and I could no longer afford the minimum payments.
I didn’t realize that my credit score had plummeted to 590—or what the repercussions of that low number might be—until my girlfriend, Jera, and I decided to move in together that same year. Because of my poor credit, utility companies required more cash upfront to set up our accounts, so we had to make Jera the account holder. (FICO scores range from 300 to 850, but anything under 600 is considered bad by most lenders, according to credit.com.)
That’s when it really hit home that I needed to figure out some way to fix my credit before it got any worse.
With a theater degree in hand, I moved with Jera to Los Angeles after graduation. My physical health was on the mend, so I quickly found a valet job, making about $15 an hour, plus tips. I planned to use the income to start paying off my debt—until I hit a big roadblock. I was being sued by a collections company.
I quickly found a lawyer, who uncovered that the collections company couldn’t actually prove that the years’ old debt was really mine—something that’s required per section 609 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The case was dismissed, and the debt was eliminated from my credit report.
It was a huge, and welcome, surprise.
(Editor’s Note: Credit card issuers typically “write off” a percentage of the total amount they lend to consumers because they aren’t able to collect it. As of fall 2015, the charge-off rate on credit card loans for the top 100 banks was just under 3 percent, according to an analysis from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, meaning for every $100 they leant out to credit cardholders, they expected to have about $97 of it paid back.)
I realize some might say that leveraging section 609 is taking advantage of a credit-repair loophole. But that hadn’t been my intent. I’d hired the lawyer because I didn’t have the money to cover the amount I was being sued for at the time. Sure, I got that delinquency deleted based on a technicality, but I’d been prepared to pay it and I stayed focused on getting out of debt and moving closer to good credit.
Still, the experience got me thinking about all the other things I probably didn’t know about credit repair. So I started researching my options. The most game-changing advice I followed was writing letters to credit-reporting agencies about removing other delinquencies from my report, just as my lawyer and I did. I simply asked them to provide proof—like a contract with my signature—that the debt was indeed mine. If they couldn’t, the black mark was deleted from my report.
Another big win was understanding I could negotiate settlements on outstanding balances, which is how I canceled out my remaining credit card debt. In the case of one $700 balance, we settled on $500. Every time I did this, I confirmed in writing that the creditor would remove the delinquency from my credit report if I paid up.
As for my student loans, a stroke of good luck helped me knock these out for good. I landed a few national commercials, and funneled those big paychecks straight toward my debt until it was gone.
By 2014, I was completely debt-free—and had a pretty clean credit report, too.
Six months after I started my credit-repair journey, my score shot up from 590 to 640. I got another little bump when my student loans were officially behind me, about a year later. Today, it sits at a sweet 771, and it’s the most empowering feeling. (Any score above 750 is considered excellent.)
One of the greatest benefits of my squeaky-clean credit score has been exploring the world of rewards credit cards. In March 2015, we actually had enough travel points and miles to fully cover travel and accommodations for a weeklong vacation to Tokyo. That’s right—we didn’t shell out for airfare or hotels at all. There’s no way I would have gotten approved for these cards had my credit score still been in the 500s.
Of course, this requires us to stay disciplined when it comes to making on-time payments and never carrying a balance, which would totally negate the benefits. Going back into credit card debt isn’t worth any number of points.
I feel so strongly about this new way of financial living that I’ve even started my own credit repair side business, helping others navigate their own financial crisis by sharing tips and insider advice about appealing to credit-reporting agencies. I want to make sure that people know it’s never too late to bounce back from a poor FICO score—if you’re willing to put in the work.