Have you ever wondered how living in a camper could fuel your financial goals of becoming debt free? I can tell you this: living in a camper is no small decision, but it can change your life.
How would I know? Well, my wife and I lived in a camper for 11 months to reach our dreams of becoming debt free.
I know it sounds crazy, and it is… When we got married in 2014, we had about $50,000 of debt from student loans, cars, and miscellaneous medical expenses.
We decided that it would be worth living in a camper to accelerate reaching our financial goal of becoming debt free.
The crazy thing is, our $50k of debt was less than the average household. The average household has $90,336 of debt.
We did not want to continue living our lives and increasing our debt. That is when the story about living in a camper started for us.
In fact, it began when we returned from our honeymoon as newlyweds. Once we got back, we did the usual things that adults do: unpacked our gifts, sent thank you letters to all our friends and family, and resumed life as usual.
The only difference is that now we were officially adults. In our minds, a part of taking marriage seriously was to take money seriously. So we began discussing our long-term financial goals, hopes, and dreams.
The kicker was that when we started to talk about our money, we got stressed and fought!
So the natural solution? Just don’t talk about money. Not!
You probably know this but we did not at the time… avoiding discussing your finances does not make them any better.
So, we headed to the drawing board and decided to come up with an unconventional plan to relieve our stress about debt.
One of the first things that we knew living in a camper could do for us was to help reduce our largest reoccurring monthly expense, which was rent. At the time we paid $750 a month for a small flat in a friendly neighborhood. With utilities, we were paying somewhere around $850 per month total.
When we started thinking about how to reduce our monthly expenses, it made the most sense to focus on lowering our largest costs first. This aligns with the Pareto Principle that states that 80% of your progress is created by 20% of what you focus on. In line with this, our rent was the first thing that living in a camper would help us cut.
In addition to reducing our rent, we also cut our expenses by:
All in all, living in a camper would help us reduce our largest expense and therefore help us reach our goal faster. While many people move into their parent’s house to accomplish similar goals, we wanted to do something a little crazy. It was a new adventure. Plus, doesn’t like camping, right?
This is the origin story if you will. One night while we were enjoying a date night at a bookstore reading about living simply and looking at books about tiny homes. We had always been interested in building a tiny house and liked the idea of minimalist living.
As we were looking through the book Tiny Homes, Jenna said to me, “Why don’t we just buy a camper and live it to pay off all of our debt?”
At first, I thought she was kidding. We both laughed and smiled nervously at each other. She then told me that we could probably get a camper for a few thousand dollars and focus on putting all the money we save each month towards our debt payments.
I briefly did the math on the back of a napkin…. “Nine months and we could be debt free,” I said. It was BRILLIANT.
We sat quietly smiling for no reason, and she said, “Let’s do it!”
Our debt free plan and adventure just got a little more exciting. I started by searching on Craigslist night and day for a camper that was within our budget, which was about $2,500 at the time because that is what we had in cash.
I had to educate myself on campers because even though I had been camping as a kid growing up, I knew nothing about what type of camper we needed.
After tons of research and talking to a lot of weird people on Craigslist, we found the camper that would be our home for 11 months. We landed on a 31ft Trail Manor.
I did not know it a the time, but TrailManor’s are kinda rare campers. The great thing about this camper was that while it was large enough for us to live in, it was also compact enough for me to pull it behind my 1999 4Runner.
When we were looking at purchasing a camper, we kept running into issues with not being able to pick them behind my 4Runner. So instead of buying a new truck to pull a heavy camper, the TrailManor worked out perfectly because it was a module pop-up style camper that folded down and was lightweight enough to pull with my v-6 Toyota.
We had to drive a couple of hours outside of Oklahoma City where we lived at the time to pick it up. We found it for just under $4,000, (quite a bit over our budget) but in the end, it was a steal because the Camper Blue Book Value was around $6,000. This worked out because I knew that I would want to put some work into and flip it when we were done living in it. Which we did but more about how much we sold it for later!
At the time, we were broke. We had about $2,500 in savings, and so we took a cash advance on our credit card to come up with the rest of the money to buy the camper. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS. Haha.
Here’s where I say, do as I say, not as I do.
My justification for doing this was that within the first month, we could pay back the credit card advance in full so we did not accrue any interest. This was risky, but in the long run, it was going to be worth it because we were eliminating 80% of our expenses and so the risk, in the end, was not as significant as the overall benefit.
With our camper in custody, we knew we needed a safe place to park it, so we convinced some family to let us pop up shop on a beautiful country acre. This was great because we were able to have our privacy but were close to family (without actually living with them!)
We ended up having to set up an actual camper hookup because (who would have known) campers need a 220-volt power supply, not 120 like most regular household items.
Once we got the camper home, we knew we wanted to do some work to it, so we worked late nights and weekends to fix it up.
As you can tell, the camper looked like a mid 70’s camper. To convince my wife to live in it — it had to be Pinterest worthy. So, we took to it with bright white paint, tore out the ugly curtains, and removed some of the dark wood cabinet doors. In the end, we modernized it. All in all, we spent about a week working on it night and day and around $500.
We remodeled it just enough to call it home. Here is the after picture below:
One week later, we had moved out of our apartment, sold a ton of our belongings, and put the rest in a storage unit. It was indeed one of the most exciting yet stressful times for us.
At first, the experience was a little bit like camping. Since we both like camping, we loved living in the camper! This is what we call the “honeymoon” phase. This phase didn’t last long…
It was quickly followed by learning how to explain to people why we were living in a camper. We never quite mastered this conversation although everyone we told said that what we were doing was awesome and they wished they thought of that early in their marriage.
While hearing positive affirmations from friends, family, and random people on the internet is cool; it merits do not go far enough to remove all the frustrations associated with living in a 100 camper.
Within four months of starting our new adventure, we were in the “why the heck are we doing this” stage. We knew why we were doing it… but it was the little things like lighting the pilot light for our water heater in the rain, running out of hot water and taking cold showers in the middle of the winter, and emptying our black water tank on a weekly basis that reminded us of the challenges of living in a camper.
In order to make it happen, we really had to remind ourselves of our bigger WHY.
Our “why” was to get out of debt and go against the grain. We had already made a plan as to how much we were going to pay each month and had been doing great. One of the things we learned was that to stick with it, we had to stay inspired. So we continued to talk about our goals and how we were going to get out of debt.
STEP 1: We Wrote All of Our Expenses & Income Down Each Week
We listed everything out each week. What we spend. What we earned (every two weeks). Moreover, how much we could pay on our debt. At the time we were making massive payments, so it felt good to see those numbers go down each week.
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STEP 2: Made As Big of Payments As Humanly Possible
We focused on making as large of payments on the highest interest rate loan as possible, which for us was Jen’s car. It also happened to be the smallest loan we had, so it made sense to pay that off first. We made $2,000 payments each month towards that loan until it was fully paid off. This gave us momentum to stay motivated because we saw progress quickly and it also eliminated the highest interest rate loan, which saved us money over the long run. The key was to put as much money towards our debt as we could.
STEP 3: Save As Much Money Each Month As Possible
As I mentioned above already, we tried to save each month. We got a new phone plan, found a new and cheaper car insurance provider, cut Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (SO hard). Cut out everything. Shopped at Aldi for more affordable groceries. Commuted together to save on gas. We honestly did not leave one splurge item in our budget.
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STEP 4: Kept Our Jobs & Persevered
The most important equation to the whole plan was to continue earning both of our fulltime salaries while living as minimally as possible to become debt free. That does not work if you quit your job or you give up too soon. They key for us in eliminating over $50,000 of debt in such a short amount of time was that we made a solid plan and stuck to it.
While living in the camper has to date been one of the hardest things that we have ever done, it has also been the most rewarding.
Living in a camper for us was one of the most amazing journeys that we have been on together! It is one of those stories that we will forever look back upon and smile because of how crazy it was and how much we accomplished.
That is how big goals in life are. You always look back and say, “I am glad I did that.”
One of the most satisfying parts about finally becoming debt free was selling the camper. I mentioned earlier that it was way undervalued when we bought it. Well, I ended up finding a buyer for just under $10k who was entirely in love with the renovations that we made to it. So, in the end, we made a nice chunk of change on the sale, which made our celebration dinner even sweeter.
The most significant reward for us is that today, we are debt free. This means we can do more of what we love. Traveling, visiting family across the country, and saving for retirement can happen guilt and worry free now. Whereas before? As I said, we avoided those conversations because of the stress they brought.
It has led to me being able to graduate from grad school debt free and start this blog and run it full time.
The single best thing that’s happened since we paid off our debt is that money has now become FUN to talk about!
Money now represents freedom of what we can do instead of representing all the things we cannot do.
The crazy thing about our story is that while it is cool (bias recognized), it is not all that hard to do. Since writing about our story and getting plugged into the personal finance blogging world, we have found that there are a ton of people that have taken extreme steps to destroy their debt.
Whatever you decide to do, make your plan and stick to it. Whether it is paying off debt, learning to invest, or just making a budget; don’t give up when it gets hard.
Much like our story, you will encounter challenges that make you ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”
Just remember that you will always come up with reasons why you should not do something awesome… but the best stories are when you do it anyway!
Also published on Medium.
Hi, I'm Zack. I write for FreeUp. I enjoy writing about investing, personal development, and general life hacks to improve your life. When I'm not working on the blog or running my own business, i'm probably reading something on global affairs, riding my motorcycle or struggling through a trail run in the mountains somewhere.
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