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One Alum’s Effort to Improve Financial Results for Minority Students and Young Professionals

Students of color graduating with a bachelor’s degree owe, on average, $7,400 more in student debt than their white peers, according to a 2016 Brookings Institution analysis. This gap continues to widen over time, with these graduates having twice as much in student debt as their white classmates at $53,000, after four years.

“That’s just on student loans; on credit cards, we pay more in interest. We typically have lower credit scores, which makes the average black person in America a subprime credit risk — and we get paid less. So what does that do?” says Castleigh Johnson, an NYU Stern School of Business Consortium alumnus. “It’s the perfect storm.”

Castleigh Johnson

Although he was fortunate to receive a full-ride scholarship for undergrad and a Consortium fellowship to cover the cost of his MBA, Johnson recognizes the financial challenges faced by many minority students. During his time at Stern, he says he became aware of the discrepancy in credit scores between black and white students. “Our peers typically had better credit scores, and their understanding of personal finance was more advanced than ours, even though we were all attending one of the top business schools in the country,” says Johnson of his white classmates.

Following graduation, he had the opportunity to dig deeper into this issue as bank examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the 2008 financial crisis. “I witnessed how black communities were ravished,” he says.

Seeing the disproportionate impact on communities of color as well as a general lack of financial understanding and comprehensive education around financial literacy, Johnson decided to act. “These things are kind of known in silos,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was to take my knowledge, put it in a platform and get it into a couple million people’s hands, because having this knowledge by myself does the community no good.”

Using the insight he gained from his MBA as well as the senior roles he’s held at companies including Goldman Sachs, AIG and Bank of Montreal, Johnson created an app focused on helping people improve their financial decision making. The app, called Trifigo, informs users of their credit score, provides actionable steps to aid them in enhancing their score and offers financial tips to help them better plan for their financial future.

Trifigo is targeted at college students and young working professionals between the ages of 20 and 29, with a focus on individuals of color. Emphasizing the importance of a good credit score as a solid foundation, the app is focused on educating these young people about the importance of making good financial decisions as well as making them smarter consumers.

Financial literacy of this sort, he notes, should begin even before college.

Making smart financial decisions pre-college, like selecting a school you can afford, is important for ensuring solid financial footing for the rest of your life, whereas attending an institution out of your price range can have long-term, detrimental effects.

“If you graduate with $60,000 in debt, a 550 credit score and you’re now paying back that student debt, you’re probably going to be classified on the riskier side because your credit score is low, especially [when it comes to] private loans,” says Johnson.

For those who don’t end up graduating with their degree, the situation is often much worse.

“Now they’re in minimum wage jobs with $30,000 or $15,000 in student debt, plus living expenses,” says Johnson. “So, a lot of those folks end up defaulting on their student loans — and what does that mean? Immediately when you’re delinquent, you lose about 50 points off your credit score. So it’s this cycle [people get] caught in.”

The point of Trifigo is to change behaviors by educating, incentivizing and holding users accountable for their financial decisions. Users enter key information, giving the app insight into their credit history and financial situation, which then allows Trifigo to offer relevant, practical guidance for improving their financial well-being.

“We will analyze your credit report and where you are, and as you enter your goals in the app, we’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re at a 600 credit score right now; the most impactful thing for you to do based on where you are is to take care of a missed payment, if that’s the kind of thing dragging down your credit score,” Johnson says. “Or, if your credit utilization is high, we may recommend you pay between $200 to $300 a month on a specific credit card over the next six months to bring your utilization down.” He adds, however, that specific recommendations vary by each individual circumstance.

Another aspect of the behavioral change Johnson seeks is curbed spending — helping people understanding the difference between fixed versus variable expenses. With Trifigo, he says, improved financial decision making is not about being a “pauper.”

“Variable expenses are behavioral,” says Johnson. “If you’re going out to Starbucks and spending $150 a month, that’s a variable expense. How do we cut that down to say $50 a month? [That’s] not to say that you want to eliminate variable expenses — some of these leisure items or pleasure items — altogether. It’s about being smarter.”

Trifigo is currently available in the Google Play Store and will soon be available on iOS. Johnson, however, is already thinking about a second iteration. He wants the next version to be similar to Mint in that users can track their finances and set budgets. The app would still provide financial tips and guidance but would also ideally offer discounts at partner sites and incentives — such as gift cards — for achieving goals. Furthermore, Johnson says he is currently in discussions with two of the nation’s largest black banks to provide users access to better rates and capital.

While it may seem lofty, Johnson’s overarching goal for Trifigo is explicit — not to mention admirable: to get 15 million people to improve their credit scores by 60 to 70 points. “With that, now you’re looking at improving financial outcomes because, at the end of the day, outcomes are the only thing that matter,” he says. “Your credit score is just a piece that helps you facilitate that.”

When it comes to the potential benefits of using an app like Trifigo to improve your finances, Johnson says the numbers speak for themselves. “If a person who started to use the platform had a 660 credit score, and over the course of six to nine months grew that to the 720s, what does this mean if they’re making $100,000 or $150,000 a year? They’re likely to save anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 in interest over the course of the next 20 years,” he says. “There’s no more powerful way to say that.”

In an effort to get the app in the hands of a larger number of young people, Johnson is seeking outside investors and organizations interested in partnering, such as colleges, universities and nonprofits. To download Trifigo in the Google Play store, click here.

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