He Raised His Credit Score 277 Points — Now He Teaches Kids How It’s Done

Credit Sesame
James Cooper is a motivational speaker who talks to high school students about bullying, teenage pregnancy, gangs — and the importance of having good credit. Matt Odom for The Penny Hoarder


James Cooper is all about changing kids’ lives. So he talks the talk, and he walks the walk.

Every year, Cooper gets invited to dozens of high schools to speak to thousands of students about bullying, violence, teen pregnancy and gangs through the nonprofit he founded called Fedup-4U.

He relates to the students; he doesn’t talk down to them. His school assemblies reach out to students with a passionate mix of music, dance and motivational speaking.

Now he’s adding another subject to the group’s repertoire: The importance of good credit.

Cooper feels strongly about this topic because of his own experience with having bad credit and climbing his way out of it — raising his score nearly 300 points, in fact. It was a long climb for him, and he got ripped off by three different so-called credit-repair companies along the way.

He’s lived it, and he wants to prevent today’s 18-year-olds from going through the same thing.

His message: Know how credit works, and don’t run away from your financial problems.

“Because when you try to buy a house 10 years later, that’s gonna kick you in the butt,” says Cooper, 50, of Atlanta.

‘We Got Burned’

James Cooper speaks to students about the importance of credit awareness at a high school in Macon, Georgia on April 20, 2018.
Cooper speaks to students about the importance of credit awareness at a high school in Macon, Georgia, on April 20, 2018. Matt Odom for The Penny Hoarder

Cooper knows all about having bad credit. As recently as 2017, his credit score was a lousy 524.

“I never had a credit card,” he says. “I had $6,000 worth of unpaid bills.”

He vowed to sort out his financial situation and fix his credit. He and a Fedup-4U partner did it together.

They learned the hard way not to deal with fly-by-night credit repair services.

“We got burned by a lot of companies,” Cooper says. “They took our money and disappeared with it. We both got burned for about $4,500 altogether.”

Although there are legitimate credit repair services, there are also shady ones that demand money upfront and promise way more than they can deliver. Then they’ll milk you for money until you wise up.

Cooper and his friend went through this ordeal with three companies.

Then they found Credit Sesame, a free credit monitoring service that helped them learn how to fix their credit for free.

‘They Showed Me the Ins and Outs’

A sign with a credit score on a desk
Cooper used Credit Sesame and raised his credit score 277 points. Matt Odom for The Penny Hoarder

In Credit Sesame, Cooper and his partner finally found a legitimate option for really improving their credit.

For one thing, you can use it 100% for free.

The app started by sending Cooper a free credit report card — including his TransUnion credit score — and provided him with personal recommendations.

It showed him a quick view of his total debt, plus all the factors contributing to his low score: credit usage, credit age, inquiries, account mix and payment history.

Cooper’s favorite part about Credit Sesame is its personalization. It suggested concrete steps, based on his situation, to better manage his credit score.

“They showed me the ins and outs — how to dot the I’s and cross the T’s,” Cooper says. “I applied for my first credit card ever.”

So long, 524 credit score.

Credit Sesame recommended he:

  1. Get a credit card.
  2. Ask for a credit increase on that card.
  3. Keep his monthly balance on the card below 5% of his credit limit. That affected his credit utilization, which is the percentage of your available credit you’re using.

That raised his score.

“The highest I went was an 801,” he says. He raised his score by 277 points over the six months from June to November 2017.

“Then I purposely took my score back down,” he says, to see how quickly it could drop. He’s been watching his score go up and down ever since. “We’re experimenting with my credit score as I speak,” he say, to learn more about credit scores so they can teach students about them.

He lowered his credit score by raising his monthly balance on his credit cards. Again, that affected his credit utilization.

‘You’re Missing One of the Most Important Pieces’

James Cooper poses in a high school auditorium
Cooper uses what he’s learned through Credit Sesame as a blueprint for his lessons, because that’s what worked for him.
Matt Odom for The Penny Hoarder

Cooper founded Fedup-4U in New Jersey in 2009 and expanded it to Atlanta when he moved there in 2012. He does a lot of the group’s motivational speaking.

The organization says it hosts about 75 school assemblies and reaches more than 65,000 youths and young adults each year throughout the Southeast and the Northeast.

Now they’re putting together a school-approved curriculum on credit, to be launched in August 2018. The idea is to introduce it as part of the financial literacy programs that many high schools already teach.

“How can we talk about banking and checking without talking about credit?” Cooper asks. “I’m speaking to these kids, finding out what they know and what they don’t know.”

As he travels throughout the Southeast speaking in schools, Cooper has been floored by what he’s found.

“Too many of these kids are living on their own18 years old, seniors in high school, living in their own apartment and working a part-time job for tips,” he said. “But they don’t know anything about credit.

“I’m saying to them, ‘You’re already living in adulthood, but you’re missing one of the most important pieces.’”

Getting the Message out

Cooper and others at Fedup-4U are learning all they can about credit because the organization is preparing to take its new message into schools in Georgia, Alabama, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“We want to touch the Z Generation,” Cooper says “We’re not in the business of fixing credit. We want to get to you before you have to fix your credit.”

The new program will be called CREDUP, short for “Career Ready Education Development on a student’s way UP.” Cooper says teaching kids about credit is especially important now that Americans owe a collective $1 trillion in credit card debt. Yikes!

Cooper values the lessons about credit he’s learning by monitoring his credit score.

“We’re taking so much of the blueprint from Credit Sesame,” he says.

If your credit isn’t as good as you’d like, check out Credit Sesame for yourself to see what you could do differently.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. His credit could be better, and he’s working on it.

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