Perspectives: Christian Wilkins on Building Credit Early

Professional football player and recent college graduate Christian Wilkins on the importance of building credit early

Financial stress among college students and their families is at a high amidst the uncertainty and change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. But while this year presents a new challenge for all students, there are distinct challenges faced by 1st year, first-generation college students, which have been further intensified by the pandemic. In fact, according to a survey by Capital One, 74% of college student respondents are worried that the coronavirus pandemic will impact their personal growth and preparation for life on their own.

That’s why we’re committed to serving as a helpful steward of financial well-being for students, especially during this challenging time. Our new nationwide program, First-Gen Focus, is available to help 1st year, first-generation college students gain financial confidence. We partnered with Christian Wilkins—recent college graduate, former elementary and high school substitute teacher, and professional football player—to bring awareness to how we're supporting students during this unprecedented year. 

“As a first-generation college student, I’ve always had a passion for mentoring my peers and younger generations and have the opportunity to continue post-college through Capital One’s nationwide program, First-Gen Focus. In addition to understanding finances, the program is designed to support 1st year, first-generation college students develop career readiness skills and assist in their personal wellness,” says Wilkins.

From Substitute Teacher to Pro-Athlete

As a three-time All-American tackle and Freshman All-American in 2015, Wilkins was a star on the football field. He proved time and time again that he was the best player at his position in college, and his hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Wilkins entered the 2019 draft as one of the nation’s most versatile defensive lineman and was drafted 13th overall. 

Wilkins—who lost his grandfather and primary male role model at the age of 15—knows how important it is for young people to have positive figures in their lives. His endeavor to be a remarkable figure opened the door to a unique opportunity: substitute teaching in a school where 88% of the students lived below the poverty line. 

“Working with kids is what I am good at, and it gives me a great opportunity to empower the youth,” he says.

Wilkins, who understands the difficulties of managing finances in school, believes that part of empowering young people is providing money lessons so they can develop a strong financial foundation.

Educate Yourself on Credit

Wilkins learned early on how to use and manage credit wisely. 

“Your credit score is one of the factors that banks use to determine whether they can lend you money,” he says. “This ability to borrow can impact a lot of life's first purchase moments like renting your first apartment and purchasing or leasing your first car.”

Establishing good credit is a marathon, and it's important to understand what influences your credit score. Wilkins recommends using free digital tools like CreditWiseⓇ from Capital One to better understand factors that make up a credit score. 

This tool alerts you when there are meaningful changes to your credit report, and it allows you to explore the potential impact of a financial decision before you make it, he continues. Wilkins encourages paying bills on time, as this shows lenders that you’re trustworthy and responsible. 

You should also pay credit card balances in full every month. Ideally, credit card balances should not exceed 30% of the available credit.

Get Your First Credit Account

Unfortunately, establishing credit is often a catch-22. You need credit to build credit, but it's hard to get credit if you don't have a prior history. 

One way to build credit is by responsibly using a credit card. If you feel like a credit card is the right choice for you, make sure to use it responsibly like making monthly payments on time, because using a credit card irresponsibly could have a long-term negative impact on your credit.  “If you feel ready to sign-up for your first credit card, you may want to consider a simple card like Journey from Capital One, which offers unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases—and students will be rewarded for good payment behavior with a boost to 1.25% cash back for any month when they pay on time,” explains Wilkins.

As a bonus, new cardholders can also receive a $60 streaming subscription statement credit toward more than 25 streaming services of their choice. “This new benefit is great for students who are spending more time at home,” adds Wilkins. 

Save Money While in School

Saving money is important to any financial plan, and when it comes to managing money and a bank account while in school, Wilkins is a proven success story. He’s even been called professional football’s “Biggest Saver” by the Wall Street Journal.

Between student expenses and a low income, many college students find it difficult to save money in school. Wilkins, however, achieved the seemingly insurmountable — saving more than $15,000 upon graduation. 

How did he do it?

While some students might have a single bank account, Wilkins took a different approach and opened multiple bank accounts according to his short-term and long-term goals. 

The first was his Everyday Spending account for normal, everyday expenses. He referred to the second account as his Bigger Bucket Spending, which he used to save for large purchases like a car. The third account was reserved for Savings and Investments, and the last account was his Emergency Fund for unexpected expenses.

Keeping funds in separate accounts helps organize spending, and it becomes easier to track money saved for specific goals.

Life After Football

As any professional athlete knows, there’s an inevitable end to this career. Fortunately, Wilkins knows what he wants to do in the future—give back to the next generation. 

Although he's no longer in the classroom, Capital One’s First-Gen Focus Student Program has afforded him an opportunity to continue his mentorship post-college. 



About Christian Wilkins

Christian is a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins and a recent graduate of Clemson University. He is the first Clemson scholarship athlete to graduate in 2.5 years, earning his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies. After his junior year, he had the choice to leave for the NFL, but after discussing with his family, teammates, and head coach, he decided to come back to Clemson and finish his master’s degree. This led to an opportunity that enabled him to embrace his passion for helping younger kids as a substitute teacher. Although life after football is far away, Christian has already found what he would like to do in the future.

About the Capital One College Student Survey  

This poll was conducted between July 21 and July 27, 2020 among a national sample of 1000 College Students (Age 18-23), 250 Parents of children (Age 18-23), 250 Parents of Students (Age 18-23) and 500 Educators / Administrators in secondary and higher education. Of the 1000 College Students (Age 18-23), 272 respondents identified as First Generation. The interviews were conducted online and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of College Students (Age 18-23), Parents of children (Age 18-23), Parents of College Students (Age 18-23) and Educators based on age, gender, educational attainment, race, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Results from the First Generation subsample have a margin or error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

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