Tonya Rapley is a leading millennial money expert that keeps it super funky when it comes to personal finance. This stylish and savvy woman who hails from North Carolina launched MyFabFinance.com in 2013 to provide an educational platform for young men and women to gain insight on how to achieve financial freedom. Rapley studied Public Administration at Florida International University and never saw herself having a career that was strongly aligned with numbers. “I hated math,” Rapley told us in her interview. “[But] growing up I always knew I wanted to be a change agent.”
Years after working as a community engagement specialist and improving her credit score by 130 points in 18 months, Rapley is now a certified financial educator and was recently coined the “New Face of Wealth Building” by Black Enterprise. As part of our “BAUCE Women You Should Know” interview series, Rapley shares step-by-step how she raised her credit score and what you need to give up to start living a financially healthy life today.
Tonya, you’ve learned how to master your money but let’s take it back to when you were younger. How did your childhood or youth impact the way you dealt with money before you became a Certified Financial Educator?
Tonya: I guess I’ll just say my relationship with money was one where I avoided assessing my financial situation. I definitely came through the creme of the “Y.O.L.O” era and I felt like I was here to experience life and that meant not really paying attention to my finances or what my future goals were. I didn’t really have many future goals…it was more so living day-to-day and living life to the fullest at that present time.
When did things turn around for you? When did you realize that personal finances were important?
Tonya: Between 27 and 28. I realized my credit was in shambles, I didn’t have a real plan, and I was determined not to go into my thirties in that manner. It came from that and a conversation I had with my younger sister because I was complaining about having roommates and she was like you’re too grown to have roommates! And at that point I had the realization that I couldn’t get an apartment on my own if I wanted to because my credit was in shambles. That was my turning point.
I have a strong belief in the saying that your twenties are for figuring things out, your thirties are when you start to implement the things that you figured out, and your forties are when you enjoy the things you figured out.
So I wanted to make sure my thirties were setting me up for my forties rather than setting me back.
That’s great life advice to live by. But what about the people who figure it out sooner than later? Are they missing out on something?
Tonya: I meet people in their twenties that think they have things figured out and I think they are discrediting the actuality of getting life experience and not allowing themselves to be free during those wonderful years. There is so much experience in failure. However when I do meet people in their twenties that actually do have it together I’m also impressed because it takes a lot of discipline to focus on the [financial] game plan so early.
You were in a bad relationship in 2007 before creating My Fab Finance. How have those lessons helped you to create and sustain the business that you’ve grown today?
Tonya: I would say one that relationship taught me to believe in myself. When you’re in an abusive relationship you tend to put other people before you and you believe your happiness is intricately linked to another person. And I had to learn that my happiness came from within and it wasn’t linked to this other person; it forced me to start believing in myself in other aspects of my life, not just relationships. It helped me in entrepreneurship and taking the leap to relocate to New York. I was able to believe in myself and gain power by experiencing and walking away from the situation.
Did you see yourself becoming a “money expert” when you were in college?
Tonya: Absolutely not! I hated math. I never thought I was going to end up doing anything that had to deal with math. But I think it a sign that we never really know what’s the bigger plan in store for us. Growing up I always knew I wanted to be a change agent, and I wanted to leave the world better than how it was when I got here…but I didn’t know it would be through the role of finances. That’s something else I had to overcome…realizing that finances wasn’t my strongest suit. By nature I’m a community engagement specialist that likes to produce events. So I had to overcome my own limitations that I was putting myself in because [at the time I started] I felt like I wasn’t innately a “numbers” person.
Talk about determination. You sure have grown into a “numbers” person!
Tonya: I sit on panels with people who are MBAs and financial advisers and one of the things people don’t realize is that you can’t replace purpose and authenticity with education. And I think that’s why I’ve found so much success with My Fab Finance because I’m authentic about it and I understand what it’s like to be in that financial position. I know whats it’s like to feel like you don’t know where to start or your finances seems so overwhelming that you don’t want to deal with them and I think that’s an advantage compared to people who have finance backgrounds.
Walk us through how you improved your credit score in less than two years. What exact steps did you take?
Tonya: Credit scores aren’t really different from a lot of other challenges we encounter in life. The biggest asset to improving my credit score was learning how credit works. Once you understand how credit works you can make it work in your favor. The next step was going through my credit report and reporting and disputing any inaccurate information. Some of that information could have been as simple as me never signing a contract with a particular collections agency. I started understanding how credit and utilization works (paying my credit on time each month) because when I used the card was just as important as how I used the card.
After that was actually opening credit accounts because you can’t build credit without credit. It doesn’t mean you have to go into debt but it means you actually have to have some type of credit to rebuild your credit score. That’s how I was able to improve my credit: by disputing inaccurate information on credit reports, opening lines of credit and responsibly using those lines of credits.
But what about student loan debt or payments you have to make for school. Is that considered good or bad debt?
Tonya: Good debt is any debt that is made with the purpose of advancing your finances or with the purpose of investment. Some people don’t know if a car payment is good debt or bad debt because you need a car to get to work everyday, however if you think about you don’t need a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley [to get to work]. If [something] is outside of your finance ability and your stressing yourself to make that payment then it’s bad debt.
There’s also a fine line between whether a school loan is considered good debt or bad debt. If you are attending an institution with low-hire rate or the school is notoriously expensive but the graduating class is notoriously underemployed, then that’s bad debt.
What things did you have to give up to maintain a healthy financial status in your life, especially while improving your credit?
Tonya: There were a few things I had to give up. I was just challenged with buying Beyoncé tickets but it’s not part of my financial plan right now! Seriously, I didn’t do a lot of shopping and didn’t hang out with friends as much, because it’s really expensive to socialize, especially if you’re not taking advantage of happy hours. I wasn’t going to as many events; while building my business I had to pare down and realize my time is valuable and I have to find time to focus on building my business because no one else is going to do it. But I definitely had to cut down on social activities, especially while living in New York. I was very social in my twenties.
It’s hard not to be social when you’re young. What alternative ways did you socialize that didn’t cut into your wallet?
Tonya: Free events! Tell your girl to eat before you head to a free event together instead of dining out all the time. Have a girls nights in or a potluck. Find ways to split travel together. Oh, and swapping. I had friends that would clean out their closet and I’d ask them if they would let me look at their handbags before taking them to a consignment shop. Trading with people or bartering services was another way I saved money. I used to barter with my nail tech all the time; I would do her social media or offer credit help in return for her giving me free nail services.
Moderation is key. People have finance issues because moderation is not part of their plan.
BAUCE women are used to dealing with struggles and strife in life but always find a way to surpass them. How do you personally deal with setbacks?
Tonya: Prayer and meditation. I don’t pray for a solution, I pray for clarity. And the people around me. I’m very close to my family. I trust my very close friends when I have to bounce things off of them. Friends and family are able to see you better than you see yourself. They are the people who are there to remind you of what you’ve accomplished especially when your going down a rabbit hole.
Tonya, what would be your advice for a young woman who aspires to be a money expert or become a leading authority in the finance world? What’s your “come up clause”?
Tonya: Tell your story, not someone else’s. There are tons of experts and its easy to be tempted to say that you want to be the next Sabrina Lamb or Tiffany “Budgetnista” or Tonya Rapley but your experience is going to be the strongest asset in financial education. You’re not going to appeal to everybody but you’re going to appeal to the people you need to appeal to.
That and consistency. 70% of the american public is living paycheck to paycheck, but that doesn’t mean 70% of the american public is actively seeking solutions or doing the things they need to do to break that cycle. So you have to be consistent [with your work] so that when people are ready to make the change, they can come to you. You have to have a proven track record of providing resources and tools.
Lastly, education won’t do it alone. [This industry] is about people skills, it’s about marketing, it’s about being able to create tangible results in other people’s lives. You have to approach it the same way other people would approach their craft.
You can find Tonya sharing a wealthy amount of information on her blog, on The Root, or also through her new financial preparation courses. Say hello to her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Don’t know what your credit score is? Check out Cafe Credit to get the most up-to-date information about your credit and personal finances!