After paying off $169,000 in 20 months, I have a new goal: Reaching financial independence in 2022

"Paying off debt can be as much a mental challenge as it is a monetary one."

Shaquana Watson-Harkness is the founder of Dollars Makes Cents.
Courtesy Shaquana Watson-Harkness

Almost five years ago, I had more than $200,000 of consumer debt, I was broke, and I was focused on living day to day, rather than planning for my future financial security. At the time, I knew I needed to do something drastic to change my financial situation, to believe that I could become financially independent. 

I had long struggled with following through on making those changes and getting the help I needed. But I realized that one of the biggest things that was stopping me was my fear of failure.

In January 2018, I became fully committed to my debt-free journey and created my first budget. I enrolled in a nine-week financial coaching course. And starting from April of that year, I was able to eliminate $169,000 of debt in 20 months. 

I was so excited to achieve this goal in a short period of time. But in order to do it, I had to be laser-focused on following my budget and consistently paying off debt for almost two years.

In December 2019, I decided to launch my side hustle Dollars Makes Cents to help other professional women achieve their financial goals using what I had learned from my experience. 

During the early process of growing Dollars Makes Cents, I decided to hit pause on aggressively eliminating the remainder of my debt in order to focus on investing in myself and my new business. Doing this allowed me to put money toward initial start-up costs such as marketing, business coaching and forming the legal structure for my company. 

As I start the third year of my side hustle, I have a renewed focus on paying off the remaining $65,000 of my consumer debt to claim my financial independence. Achieving this goal in 2022 will allow me to become debt-free for the first time as an adult. I also hope it will show other women of color that it is possible, regardless of your financial background or upbringing. 

Here is my plan for creating financial independence in 2022.

Pick a debt payoff method I feel confident about

In December 2021, I started putting together my debt elimination plan, which includes a car loan and credit card debt. I plan to use the "debt snowball" method which involves paying the minimum payment on all debt obligations and putting any extra money towards the smallest debt balance. 

Once the smallest debt balance is paid in full, you apply the same method to the next highest debt balance until all your debts are eliminated. I really like this method because it's straightforward and it's clear when you make progress on part of your goal. 

This method was the key to paying off $169,000 in 20 months, so I feel confident that it will allow me to eliminate my last $65,000 before the end of 2022.

Find tools to help me stay on track with my budget

One main thing I have learned throughout my financial journey is the importance of having a budget. My budget is key to my wealth building journey because it holds me accountable.

On the first day of every month, I automatically create my monthly budget using an app I'm a fan of called EveryDollar, which populates my monthly estimated expenses and income from the previous month. 

26-year-old paid off $23,000 of debt and built her net worth

Video of Mariam Abdallah

I have added an alert on my phone to check my budgeted expenses every week and compare it to my actual spending in my checking account to identify any discrepancies. 

Having this system in place will help me continue to be intentional about tracking my spending, and I believe it will increase my chances of successfully hitting my debt elimination goal before the end of 2022.

Look for other ways to boost income

Within my budget, I am constantly looking for opportunities to reduce my overall expenses and increase my savings. 

To do this, I create a savings baseline for myself, by identifying the highest expense categories in my budget starting with groceries, dining out and miscellaneous splurges, and then decreasing spending in those areas by at least 15%. Those funds will then go toward my debt-payoff plan.

My best advice is to find a percentage that works for you, so that way you are not depriving yourself but you are cognizant of those categories that can be more of a drain on your resources. 

30-year-old millionaire who started out broke aims to help 'the underdog'

Video by Helen Zhao

Also, with Dollars Makes Cents, I am always looking for additional streams of income that will allow me to achieve my financial goals and continue to grow my overall business. This includes creating more digital products, online courses, and different financial coaching options to drive more revenue within my business.

For 2022, I have a newly created Etsy shop where I am planning to offer budgeting templates. I am developing an online course based around my experience investing in the stock market and building my portfolio. And I am looking for partnerships that will allow me to grow my social media presence.

Stay motivated

One of the biggest reasons why I felt like now was the time to return to my debt payoff plan was because I felt like I could comfortably handle my debt and run my side hustle at the same time. But it can be tough to remain focused and dedicated to eliminating debt.

During those moments when I feel like I want to quit, I take a step back and think about what would happen if I don't take any action. 

I know that the cost of regret would be more financially painful for me than sticking with it. I also know that I don't want to be in the same financial position this time next year.

At this point in my life, I won't allow any limiting beliefs to deter me from hitting this goal, especially since I have already proven that I can do it. 

'Yo Quiero Dinero' host: How I got on track to become a millionaire

Video by Tala Hadavi

Paying off debt can be as much a mental challenge as it is a monetary one, so I know that I need to feed my brain with positive vibes and inspiration. Some of the tools I have used to keep me motivated in the past have been listening to podcasts focused on financial wellness, joining Facebook Groups, and following financial experts that I respect such as Tiffany Aliche, The Budgetnista, Suze Orman and Teri Ijeoma. 

My plan is to continue to use these same tools in 2022 and try something different by publicly documenting my journey along the way on my Instagram page. Sharing my journey will hold me accountable, and I hope to inspire my audience and show them that they can achieve their financial goals if they believe in themselves. 

Give myself grace throughout the debt-payoff process 

I know going into executing this plan to eliminate $65,000 of debt that it's not always going to be easy. I know that there will be distractions and times when I will want to make impulse buys. There is always a chance that I will make a financial decision that doesn't align with my overall debt elimination goal. 

But I am deciding now that I won't get down on myself for those mistakes. I will give myself grace and get back on track.

I have to keep reminding myself that no one is perfect. And as long as I keep trying, I will be able to achieve my financial goals.

Shaquana Watson-Harkness is a wealth literacy expert and personal finance contributor who has been featured within Grow, CNBC Make It, KYW News Radio, TheGrio and Black Enterprise. She is the founder of Dollars Makes Cents and her goal is to help professional millennial women achieve financial independence by shifting their mindset towards wealth.

More from Grow: