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Updated on Thursday, September 11, 2014
This may sound ludicrous to most, but I spent a huge chunk of my life “unbanked”. Every transaction I made was with cash or money orders; and when it came to savings, let’s just say it wasn’t a frequently practiced habit of mine. Fast forward a couple years later, at 24 years old I finally opened up my very first bank account equipped with a checking account. I also have two credit cards that are great for everyday purchases, and even better for building credit. Not to mention, I’m already contributing to a 401(k).
To think, two years ago I didn’t even know what credit was or why it was so important. Now, I wouldn’t say that I’m a financial guru, but I know enough to live a financially healthy lifestyle. However, I my time living off the financial grid forced me take initiative and take control of my money.
Growing up, my father never discussed money with me. I naturally assumed that it was something that I didn’t need to worry about, and would probably tackle in my later years. When I started college, I realized my peers seemed to have a different relationship with money than I did. While I paid for tuition, books, and miscellaneous college expenses with cash, my peers paid with credit cards and checks. I always felt very uncomfortable heading to school with three thousand dollars in my bag. But, at the time, it was the only way I knew how to pay off my tuition.
College made me aware that carrying thousands of dollars in cash isn’t how other parents teach their children to handle money.
During an economics class, a good friend of mine shared a financial lesson from his parents. He said they encouraged him to invest in mutual funds, and to make sure the benefits package from his first job after graduation would be up to par. My father never even mentioned a lick of financial gibberish to me. So, all that valuable financial information that my friend shared, pretty much went in one ear and out the other. If I needed money, my father would simply hand it to me in cash. And saving for him consisted of stashing money in a safe in his closet.
The turning point
Intimidated, yet curious about the mainstream financial community, I felt compelled to sit in on a financial literacy workshop hosted by the business department of my college. During this hour-long seminar, I was enlightened about the Do’s and Don’ts of consumer banking. Then, it hit me, my father an immigrant from Trinidad who’s accustomed to handling cash, and only wanted to stick with what he knew. He always cashed his checks at the cash-checking store for a fee, while the majority of people have their income directly deposited into their checking or savings accounts for free.
Little did I know, my father’s financial behavior was rubbing off on me. If I were never exposed to the vast amount of financial information available in college, I probably wouldn’t have transitioned to using mainstream financial products.
An immigrant myself, I understood my father’s inability to deal with banks but refused to be left behind.
My first bank account
After much deliberation and a pep talk, I finally found the courage to walk into a Bank of America branch. Undocumented at the time, my hopes of opening an account were very low, but to my surprise BofA didn’t require you to have certain documents to open up an account. With just my passport, college ID, and a recent tuition bill, I opened up my very first checking account, no hassle. I walked out of the bank with three complimentary checks, a temporary debit card to use until my permanent piece of plastic came in the mail, and a folder filled with information on how to manage my new checking account.
I used the overdraft horror stories from my peers to discipline myself. It felt great to enter this new world of banking, and to take full advantage of the range of financial products that were out there.
Today, I put my tuition money in the bank and pay from the comfort of my home, which is a lot safer than carrying a stash of cash to the Bursar office. Instead of traveling to stores, I now shop online. Every transaction has become a breeze, and living off the mainstream financial grid became a relic of my past.
Building my credit score
After spending close to a year with Bank of America, and with the new changes made to my immigration status, I decided to switch banks. Equipped with the necessary documents that made me eligible to open up accounts with a range of banks outside of BofA, I switched to Chase Bank and also signed up for the Chase Freedom credit card.
My new credit card enabled me to start building credit. My score at the time was in the 400 bracket. Apparently, I didn’t have a long enough credit history. After a year of paying off my balances in full every month, my credit limit was raised and my credit score slowly increased.
Overtime, the rewards program connected to my Chase Freedom card started to make more sense. I learned fairly quickly that if I purchased certain items I would be rewarded with one percent cash back. I realized that I should have a credit card with a cash-back program that maximizes rewards for my spending habits. After doing some research, I learned that American Express- Blue Cash Card was the right card for me. Now I was improving my credit score, earning cash back on daily purchases and being fiscally responsible.
Living off the financial grid gave me ample time to observe how those around me handled money and learn how to best move into using mainstream financial products. Though my father still uses cash for all of his transactions, I’m eager to introduce him to a more convenient, safe and rewarding way of handling money. By switching to a checking and savings account, my Dad can protect his money and earn interest. I also plan to find him a fee-free banking experience. While I teach my Dad how to change his banking habits, I’m going to continue expanding my financial knowledge and finding the best financial products for me.