[Published on SABEW]How to increase credit scores as an international student

Most international students have this problem – how to build credit in the United States when they are starting from zero?

It was once a problem to me when I first came to the U.S. But luckily, I found an efficient way to increase credit scores within one year.

The three credit agencies, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian begin to calculate a score when you receive a US Social Security Number (SSN). However, many international students, especially those with F-1 visa, could not gain their SSN until they have an on-campus job.

If you have planned for a job, it would be great for you to start your credit journey by applying for basic credit cards with low credit line and very limited benefits. For example, you may apply for credit cards issued by local banks which may have 1% to 2% cashback; or you may apply for Bank of America’s Cash Rewards credit card. Usually, these credit cards are friendly to international students. You may want to check out the Capital One Newcomers Card —  it’s designed specifically for immigrants, and .offers 1% cash back, has no annual fee, and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Another option is a secured card, which means that you tie it to a savings account (as collateral). Secured cards are designed to build credit.

For those who haven’t planned for a job, it would be also helpful to apply for basic credit cards. Such credit cards are also open to international students without any credit score, and help international students earn credits inside the bank system. Although you are not earning credits in the official credit system, you would find it useful once you receive your SSN and start your credit journey.

The next step is to pay monthly on time and in full, which is really helpful to earn credit scores and build credit history in the long term. And starting from the first credit card, you could apply for other advance credit cards with more benefits in the future.

Finally, you may ask: How would I know my current credit scores? You could check your credit score once in a year for free Therefore, the best way to keep an eye on your credit would be using apps or websites, like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma.

[Published on SABEW] Troubled in managing your financial accounts? These mobile apps may help.

An international student may have many accounts. I’ve found it difficult to manage my accounts as well as credit cards. Using an app on your smartphone or tablet is one way to put everything in one place.

I found these which might be helpful:

1. Clarity Money: I started using this app three months ago when my favorite financial management app “Prosper Daily” was disconnected. It supports many banks in the U.S. and provides different features, including overview of all accounts, spending and saving analysis, free transaction between different bank accounts and etc. The app uses card-design layout, which is clear to present each single piece of information. You may choose to keep the features you like on the main page and discard other features. Also, it provides evaluation of your credit scores as well as notifies you to make payments to credit cards. If you would like to explore how you spend your money, “Clarity Money” is one of the best apps you could use.

2. Penny: I found this app interesting because of its style of presenting information. Just like texting with a friend, the app uses texting-style (dialogues) to inform you the financial situation. For example, if you would like to know your spending breakdown by category, you could type “breakdown by category” in the text box, then the app would text you back with the graphic of the information. In addition, each spending would fall into a category automatically, which would be easier for you to review you spending weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly. If you are interested in a fun financial management app, “Penny” would be your go-to choice.

3. Truebill: This app is a little different from the other two. In addition to features of keeping an eye on spending and account activity, it also manages bills and subscription services such as Netflix, Spotify and even Microsoft office. For example, I’m a subscriber to The New York Times, Netflix and Spotify at the same time but always forget when my subscriptions end. Therefore, I could add my accounts of these platforms to this app which would remind of the payment due day and related information. Another helpful feature of the app is that it would detect unwanted charges, such as a late fee, and help you request a refund in only one click instead of making you write long emails to the business. If you would like to save your time on financial management, “Truebill” could be a good option.

"The So Called Music Life"

Another day dawns. Kelvin Walsh walks through the hallway of the State Historical Society of Missouri, where he works as the sole security guard for the art gallery.

Walsh, 62, watches visitors coming in and out of the gallery every day, always wearing a serious look as he works.

“It’s my job,” he says.

As the clock strikes 7 p.m. on Mondays, Walsh is no longer a guard; instead, he becomes the star host of a show called “Jazz+Blue=Soul,” which airs on KOPN, a community radio station in Columbia. The show intends to introduce audiences to jazz musicians.

Although quiet and serious during his day job, Walsh is talkative during his radio show: He laughs a lot, freely sharing his knowledge of music.

Mavis Luo, 23, is one of Walsh’s best friends. She met Walsh first in the art gallery, then found out Walsh’s experiences in music.

“It seems he knows everything about music,” Luo said.


The best and the worst time of music in Columbia

Coming from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Walsh attended graduate school at MU from 1975 to 1977. He then decided to stay in Missouri for its music culture and his loving friends. In 1980, Walsh started his 26-year career at Streetside Records in Columbia.

“Music is really a big thing in Columbia,” Walsh said.

During the first six years in Streetside, he was also an employee in the Blue Note, which also started in 1980.

“Streetside and the Blue Note shared employees at the time,” Walsh said. “We worked together to bring music to the community.”

But Walsh then resigned from the Blue Note when he became the manager of Streetside. Walsh enjoyed his music career at Streetside—he knew a variety of musicians through his record shop and shared his passion for music with customers and the community. He said it was the time when music was open, friendly and accessible, without sales restrictions and strategies. However, Streetside has disappointed him since 2003.

“It was the worst time [in the] music industry,” Walsh said. “Streetside had been bought out three times and the industry was going down after 9/11.”

As the manager at that time, Walsh was required to train his employees repeatedly, telling them to wear uniforms and reach sales targets.

“But I don’t know anything about sales,” Walsh said. “Or taking advantage of customers.”


Giving up is not giving in

Walsh gradually found he was uncomfortable with the rules, especially the idea of considering music as money. He resigned from Streetside in 2006.

According to health insurance policies at the time, without a job, Walsh would be able to avoid paying high health insurance fees for only two years. So he decided to use these two years to open a record shop, promoting music in the community again.

Walsh didn’t intend to make money with his shop; instead, he wanted to create a place that all music lovers in the city could enjoy.

Walsh would frequently hold free jazz concerts and music parties.

“I can’t say ‘No’ to anybody,” Walsh said. “I tried to satisfy everyone’s request in my shop.”


The surrounding music community

Through his past career and radio shows, Walsh has met numerous musicians and music lovers in the city.

“Most musicians know that Kelvin's show is always open for a chat about an upcoming event or album release, and they usually seem flattered by his recollection of their previous deeds,” said Jackie Casteel, one of Walsh’s friends as well as his colleague at KOPN.

But Casteel, a big jazz fan, first knew Walsh by visiting his previous workplace, Streetside Records.

“The first time I met Kelvin was at Streetside,” Casteel said. “I was looking for a James McMurtry CD, and he was the man who helped me find the disc and make the purchase.”

Casteel was fascinated by Walsh’s DJ “magic.”

“There are several moments where Kevin seemed to play just the right song for a certain moment in time for me, usually something I hadn't even heard before,” Casteel said.

Now Casteel and Walsh are working for KOPN together. Casteel said Walsh’s passion for music enables him to consistently bring something interesting to the airwaves, whether new, old, timely or live.

“I spend most of the time listening to Kevin talk about an event coming up or why community radio is an asset to this community and worthy of its support,” Casteel said. “He cares about music and the community around music.”

Walsh even infected his foreign friends like Luo with his music passion.

Coming from China, Luo learnt little about American music at first.

“Kelvin helps me a lot,” Luo said, as she described Walsh’s taste and knowledge of music. “Kevin could tell the history and story of each piece of music, and he often introduces his musician friends to me, and tells me many about upcoming concerts or records in town.”

In his spare time, Walsh continues to cultivate his passion for music. Since 1980, he has served as one of the unpaid hosts on KOPN radio shows. Now, he has two shows on air: one is “Jazz+Blue=Soul” on Mondays and the other is “The So Called Good Life” on Wednesdays.

"Music is available to all kinds of people, black or white, old or young," Walsh said. "That's the most fascinating part."