Getting her credit card stolen was Mandi Woodruff-Santos' 'wake-up call'

Woodruff-Santos chatted with Easy Money about protecting your financial identity and getting comfortable with what's in your wallet.

Myelle Lansat


Myelle Lansat

Myelle Lansat

News Editor

Myelle Lansat is a news editor at Policygenius, where she writes the Easy Money newsletter and covers insurance and personal finance. Previously, she was a personal finance writer at CNBC and Acorns, and a reporter for Business Insider.

Published July 15, 2021 | 7 min read

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Mandi Woodruff-Santos

Identity theft can make it difficult to to secure a loan, credit card, or mortgage, something Mandi Woodruff-Santos experienced in 2010 when she first moved to New York City. 

“Someone had taken out a credit card in my name, wracked up $12,000 of credit card debt and never paid it off. When I applied to my first apartment, I was turned down for the lease because my credit check didn't clear,” she said. “I had just graduated college and didn't think about checking my credit report. It was a big wake-up call.”

After that experience, Woodruff-Santos dove head first into the financial space. She became a financial journalist and advocate. For the past six years, she’s been co-hosting Brown Ambition, a personal finance podcast empowering women of color. 

We caught up with Woodruff-Santos this week and asked for her top tips on protecting your financial identity, the biggest financial strain people face, and how to get comfortable with what’s in your wallet. 

This interview was slightly edited for style and clarity.

Why is it important to understand what’s in our wallet?

Your wallet is the first place you can look to for symptoms of financial dysfunction. If you’re going to look at your money, you have to go where it lives. For a lot of people, it's easy to think of your wallet like a junk drawer in your house. There could be things in there that you need or that you're missing, and you'll never find it until you throw everything in the middle of the floor and start working your way through it. The longer you wait to do it, the scarier it becomes and you end up avoiding it. The same thing is true for your finances. 

Instead of the junk drawer, you could have accounts that you haven't looked at in a while. For example, if you have several credit cards or several bank accounts. If you've been in your career for a long time, you might have several 401(k) accounts. It's hard to get all that in one place. The first thing you need to do if you want to get a handle on your finances is finding out what’s in your wallet. How much do you have? What are your assets? Do you have any debt? I recommend using an app that will track your finances. That way you only have to remember one login when you're ultimately ready to take a look at the monster hiding in your closet. 

Why is it important to build a good relationship with our money? 

I have been the person who has a junk drawer. I had many accounts and didn't know what was in them. I’d go through phases where I’d know everything, and then phases where I just didn’t want to look. Everyone's human. 

Knowing where you stand financially will let you figure out where you want to go. I'm big on measuring change over time and tracking success. It's exciting and gets addicting too. To see those numbers hopefully go in the right direction — whether it's paying down debt or increasing your savings and investments. For me that's where the real change starts to happen. When you start making those changes, you get over the fear and can actually look at where you're at. Then you can make a plan, see that plan in action and start to see results. The scary part for a lot of people is the time that it's going to take to get there.

What was in your ‘junk drawer’ that you had to work through?

At the same time my [financial identity was stolen], I didn’t really have any money, but I did have a couple of credit cards with low limits and I was maxing them out. Every time my credit limit went up, I would spend more money. I had about $3,000 worth of credit card debt, and then about $8,000 of student loans that I needed to tackle. It took me a few years after college to finally get on top of it, make a plan and start paying it all off.

How can people protect themselves from identity theft?

If you have been the victim of identity theft, which is so common these days, call the credit card company and let them know a purchase was fraud. The good thing about a lot of credit cards if they have fraud liability. If you're going to shop online, use your credit card, not your debit card, because of fraud liability. Some debit cards have it, but it’s not as generous. If you have an old fraudulent account on my credit, like in my case, go to each bureau and dispute it. When I did that, they were able to take it off my credit report, which was great. Sometimes it's not that easy, but it worked out for me. 

It's also much easier today to track your finances with apps.Y ou can set up alerts to possible fraudulent activity. The credit bureaus have also rolled out different free tools to the public where you can request things like a credit report freeze, where no one can open a new line of credit under your name without answering specific questions and proving their identity. You can also set up payment alerts with your bank. I’m a paranoid person, and anytime I spend more than $1, which is every time, I get an email alert with the purchase. 

What's the biggest financial strain you see other people face? 

The cost of housing. There's a lot of people out there on social media making it look like it's so easy and such a great investment, but home prices are out of control right now in a lot of areas. One of the challenges now is seeing people buy homes and make these big choices in their lives, especially throughout the pandemic. A lot of people are just packing up and leaving expensive cities for more affordable, suburban places and driving up home prices. When you combine that with the low inventory of homes there, you have a big mess for prospective home buyers. 

If you're in the market for a home, you don't have to rush into it. There's nothing wrong with renting somewhere and testing out an area before you buy, even if you're going to relocate. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people realized they could work from anywhere. Why spend a lot of money in a big city apartment when you could move somewhere more affordable and have more leftover from each paycheck? You can always wait for the market to cool down a little bit and get in when you're ready.

What is your current financial goal?

I'm growing Brown Ambition. It's all about empowering women of color and helping people find the most fulfilling combination of career and financial happiness. Don’t wait until you and your spouse are in your golden years to finally start enjoying your money and your life. Start taking steps that you need to today to build wealth, to enjoy your life now and later — and that's my focus right now, financially. I'm a new solopreneur. I sat down with my financial adviser in May and we came up with my minimum monthly income requirement. My goal now is just to hit that so I can keep that $2,000 daycare bill, which is finally starting next month. My goal right now is to get my business up and running and keep my same quality of life.

What’s something you’re financially proud of? 

During a call last month with my financial planner, I was treating myself like a problem. I said, ‘Hey Helen, I’m not going back to work and I want to start my own business. We have to figure out how to do this.’ She said, ‘You're going to be fine. In the five years since I've known you, you've increased your net worth 10 times over.’ When she said that, I was like, wait, really? I’m so goal-oriented and have had so many different milestones in the past five years, but I finally was able to take a step back and appreciate it.  

Being a Black woman in America, you don't necessarily grow up with a ton of knowledge or resources. That's what I mean by brown ambition. It's a different type of drive that makes you want to succeed because it feels like you're making up for lost time.

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko; photo courtesy of Mandi Woodruff-Santos