Tonya Rapley is a nationally recognized millennial money expert and creator of the award winning site My Fab Finance. Working as a career “change-agent” since 2010, Tonya uses her own story and experiences to empower millennials, women, and girls of all ages with tools to change their relationship with money. Her main mission is to help millennials break the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck – a struggle we know all too well – so that they can become financially free.
She has shared her expertise with major digital outlets such as NY Daily News, BuzzFeed, Essence, The Root, Refinery29, and more. Through My Fab Finance, in addition to being a consultant, speaker, writer, and financial coach, she is the also host and executive producer of her web-series, “Fab Finance with Tonya for Centric.”
Her Agenda spoke with Tonya to learn more about what led her to My Fab Finance, her advice for young female entrepreneurs, the real root of our financial debt, and how her current projects are only the beginning.
Her Agenda: You started My Fab Finance in 2013. Were you already on the path of becoming a financial expert?
Tonya Rapley: My Fab Finance started everything. I was in the nonprofit space, mostly working with low income women. I was the coordinator of community initiatives for the YMCA in Brooklyn so I created programming for approximately 11,000 Brooklyn community members. I started My Fab Finance while I was working for the YMCA full time and then I went to the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. It was there My Fab Finance continued to grow and I was able to establish myself as an expert in the personal finance field and really build my business. I was building my reputation and my expertise in the space while working full-time in another industry.
Her Agenda: Tell us more about your story – how were you personally able to climb out of debt?
Tonya Rapley: It was credit card related and poor relationship debt. It was creating a plan and intentionally deciding I wasn’t going to continue to put myself in a negative financial situation that didn’t allow me to live as freely and authentically as I wanted to. It was choosing to use my money and my resources more wisely. I wasn’t making a lot of money but the money that I did get I started using to pay down debt.
I started educating myself on how credit works instead of just pretending my credit score would take care of itself and that everything would just disappear.
Her Agenda: Why do you think it is so hard for people to stick to a plan – in terms of trying to clear their debt and save money?
Tonya Rapley: I think psychologically we view it as a punishment or denying ourselves the things that we want. As humans we are driven by gratification, so we are going to pursue things that make us happy. Paying off debt is good for you but it doesn’t necessarily make you happier than having a new pair of shoes in your closet or eating at a restaurant. For a lot of us, it’s being void of the gratification that we receive in our purchase. Then we are continuously bombarded with marketing messages about what we should be, how we should be, how successful we can live, what a successful lifestyle is, and what you need to have in order to fit into those parameters.
People want to be successful. There is a reason people go to college and take out debt, and work these jobs because we are driven by success. Yet often times our income doesn’t provide for those certain tools or toys that successful people have. Thus, credit and debt makes it accessible and that’s another reason why people end up getting in trouble with their money. People are bridging the difference between their actual lifestyle and their ideal lifestyle.
Her Agenda: It seems like a lot of financial tools or programs don’t always shine light on the psychological and the well-being aspects of how we view life and the things we think we need to be happy.
Tonya Rapley: Absolutely, they don’t get us and they don’t get millennials. They don’t understand the forces that we are dealing with. One of the reasons I started My Fab Finance is because I felt like a lot of the financial educators were detached from the millennial experience. They didn’t understand that as millennials, we are bombarded with social and marketing messages on our timelines and phones. Then a lot of us have student loan debt and that’s very different. A lot of us accumulated student loan debt graduating at the low point of the economy and so we have different issues that older financial experts who don’t understand that experience.
Her Agenda: You have already done so much across different areas. Do you have an overall goal that you are still trying to accomplish? What is your biggest dream that you would like to achieve with My Fab Finance?
Tonya Rapley: My Fab Finance, I realized for me, is more of a bridge opportunity. I had really ambitious goals for My Fab Finance when I started it. Initially I wanted it to become the place that millennials came when they looked for financial advice but overtime I realized that my professional goals are slightly taking me out of the finance sector and into other growing industries.
Right now for My Fab Finance, my focus is structuring it so that it operates passively and still as a resource for millennials who need honest, authentic, financial information and advice. Then the goal is for it to operate in a manner that it allows me to pursue other interests in other industries.
Her Agenda: A lot of young people are trying to do different things and I love when we can feature women on Her Agenda that are doing various projects successfully. It just shows other people how to do it or how other people can work towards something similar.
Tonya Rapley: My Fab Finance has forced me to hone certain skill sets that were not required of me at my 9 to 5. That goes from negotiation, not for a salary level, but negotiating projects and what you’re willing to do to generate income for yourself. The understanding of building a business and creating systems. I don’t think enough people understand what it means to create systems so that you can replicate them and increase your capacity. I’ve learned those things from My Fab Finance along with what it takes to build a business, along with becoming a better public speaker, and landing speaking gigs.
Those are all tools that are transferable and that’s important for the Her Agenda audience to know. Anyone who’s in business for themselves needs to figure out what tools and assets that you have that can be transferable to other industries so that as something happens with the existing industry you’re in you can make a pivot easily. You have to be flexible. You never know! It’s important to be flexible so you can navigate any landscape.
Her Agenda: In terms of how you go about decision making as an entrepreneur, I love that My Fab Finance offers great resources. You offer many freebies and free resources but are still able to succeed and profit from your business. How did you decide how much you wanted to give away for free, while still making money and valuing your worth?
Tonya Rapley: I think initially when I still had my 9-5 it gave me the flexibility to create things I was able to give away for free. When I first got started I was just focused on helping people and creating value. I still am focused on that, but once I became a full-time entrepreneur we had to look at what is profit generating and what we will do for good will. I found ways to offer things for free and then eventually charge down the line for some of them or offer them at a severely discounted rate. Then once it’s older, offering that for free. I can do a podcast and send it to my assistant and say, ‘Pull out the main talking points and then let’s create a freebie for this.’ It’s a process – I can’t say it was as intentional initially as it was now.
Her Agenda: So it’s seeing opportunities within opportunities and revaluing what you are already putting work into?
Tonya Rapley: It really is repurposing content. Anything that doesn’t take me a lot to do can be a freebie but if it is something that takes a lot of work out of me, then I shouldn’t be offering that for free. That’s what I’ve learned as a business woman – if it takes a lot out of you, you shouldn’t be doing it for free.
Her Agenda: Everyone knows, especially women, what “takes a lot out of you means.” It sounds like a lot of what you are doing is teaching people to value their skills.
Tonya Rapley: You do! I have a statement that time management is money management. How you manage your time, impacts your money. It impacts what you generate, impacts what you can demand, it impacts you in so many different ways. You have to get a grasp on how you are managing your time and allowing others to utilize your time.
Her Agenda: Regarding your team and your support system, how did you go about forming your team?
Tonya Rapley: I would say, trial and error. You can onboard someone you think is going to be a perfect fit and everything works out initially, and then fizzles out. One of the things I’ve learned is not to hire people who want to be in the same position as you or who want to do the same work as you. Because eventually their projects might take over your projects and your projects may fall by the wayside and then you can’t depend on them as much because they are busy building their brand that is similar to yours. It’s not about competition, it’s just about respecting their capacity to do the two things, and everybody can’t do that.
Her Agenda: From what you’ve observed, do you think you’ve learned over time as an entrepreneur how to set aside time to accomplish different tasks?
Tonya Rapley: Yes, it is something I’m still working on. I still do struggle with how I break down my day. Only recently have I started taking every Wednesday off, so that I can focus on personal projects and focus on me. That took me saying, ‘You know what I’m not scheduling anything.’ For the most part it helps me create parameters around when I’m available, managing my time a bit better, and being respectful to Tonya, not the business owner, so that I can make sure I’m nourishing myself outside of my business.
Her Agenda: That’s so great to hear! Hard work is important but if we don’t actually take care of ourselves – we are not going to be as successful.
Tonya Rapley: It’s so important because if you don’t work, you’re business doesn’t work. If you don’t take the time to nourish yourself, you’ll resent your business. You are one of the most important aspects of your business.
Her Agenda: What is your favorite personal mantra or quote that leads you?
Tonya Rapley: Assata Shakur’s quote, “Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do.” That is my guiding quote, because freedom is so important to me. My family is African American, my great-great-grandparents were sharecroppers and former slaves and so it’s not taking for granted the freedom that I have. That manifests itself in everything like how I conduct my business, the relationships I want to be apart of, the thoughts that I have, and where I live.
[Editor's note: This interview published on May 15th, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]