June 1, 2018 was a very big day for me. As of that date, I am debt free.
I was a foolish teenager when I first enrolled in college. I enrolled in a for-profit school and took out private student loans to pay my tuition. Because I didn't have pre-existing credit, my interest rates were extremely high. Like many college students, I took out more student loans than I needed. The feeling of getting a refund check felt like free money.
I left the for-profit school after I received my Associates Degree in 2005 and I eventually transferred to Penn State University, where I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in 2008. After that, however, I spent seven years deferring payments... while my debt continued to grow.
I lived paycheck to paycheck for most of my twenties while working in the airline industry. I'd lay in bed at night overcome with anxiety thinking about my debt. It felt like a burden that I'd be lugging around with me for the rest of my life. It's not an overstatement to say that it weighed heavily on me.
I firmly believe that financial literacy is something that our nation struggles with. We over consume and we live lives completely financed on credit. Unfortunately, I see this trait being passed down from one generation to the next.
I more than doubled my annual income when I moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska in 2012. I thought that upon settling in Alaska I'd use that extra money to pay down my debt. What I did instead was save, and spend.
At the time, I subscribed to the belief that success is tied to the amount nestled away in one's savings account. The more I contributed to my savings account the more I felt like I was living a respectable adult life. I contributed a generous portion of each paycheck directly into my savings and it felt good to see that account grow.
As I neared the latter portion of my twenties, I started to reflect a little deeper on certain aspects of my life, such as finances and health. I met with a financial advisor in hopes of figuring out how I could make the best use of the money that sat in my savings account. It only took one meeting with an advisor to change my life.
The financial advisor provided me with eye opening insight. In truth, I'm surprised at how honest he was with me seeing that it was an initial consultation. Essentially, the advisor pointed out the fact that I was costing myself money by focusing on building my savings instead of paying down my debt. He compared the interest I was earning on my savings account to the interest I was accruing on my student loans. The comparison was sobering. The advisor suggested that I only set aside three months living expenses. Everything beyond that should go directly to my student loans.
It was around this same time in 2015 that I read "Walden on Wheels" by Ken Illgunas. I was able to draw a lot of parallels between Illgunas' life and my own. I was from Northwestern Pennsylvania and Illgunas was from Upstate New York, areas that boarder one another. We both graduated college with what felt like crippling levels of student debt and we both eventually found ourselves living and working in Alaska with the intentions of paying off our debts.
Illgunas went on a very unconventional path to pay off his debt. He worked odd jobs in Alaska, first in the kitchen of oilfield camps and then as a guide on river rapid tours. Because he worked jobs that provided him with lodging as part of his employee benefits, he was able to reduce his monthly expenses to only the bare essentials. He contributed absurd chunks of each paycheck to paying down his student loans until he successfully paid them off.
Once Illgunas was debt free he wasn't in any rush to accumulate new debt. However, he also wanted to return to school to pursue his Masters Degree. He continued to work and save up money until he eventually moved back to the Lower 48 to enroll in a graduate program and he paid cash for his classes.
Living in a college town can be expensive. To avoid exorbitant rent, Illgunas bought an old conversion van and started living out of it. He parked on campus and showered at the school's rec center. He managed to graduate with his Masters without taking out any student loans.
Illgunas' story changed my perspective and filled me with hope. I was turning 30 and decided it was now or never. I made a commitment to myself to aggressively pay off my debt.
When reading "Walden on Wheels," I lived in a beautiful semi-dry cabin. My monthly rent was $600, which was modest for Fairbanks. Semi-dry means I didn't have plumbed water but I did have a holding tank that I filled up once every three or four months. I didn't go through water that often because I had an outhouse and I showered at the gym. I also had a wood stove for heat, which kept my fuel costs low.
While my living expenses weren't outrageous, I could have benefited from checking my consumption and spending habits. I had two motorcycles, a daily driver SUV, an antique pickup truck, and a junker SUV that I used for hauling things. I spent most weekends perusing antique stores, second hand stores, and estate sales. I also had a record collection that was continuously growing, a habit that cost me several hundred dollars a week.
I came to the realization that if I lived in a smaller space then I'd consume less. As much as I loved my cabin, I started contemplating moving into someplace smaller. Reflecting on Illgunas' unconventional approach, I began considering moving into a camper. I could circumvent paying rent if I bought an affordable camper. If I adopted a small living footprint then I'd have to be more mindful about my consumption habits. The problem was, most campers aren't insulated in a manner that makes them appropriate for Alaska winters.
I started having all these thoughts just as I approached my annual review at work. I received high marks on my review and, inspired by reading Tim Ferriss' "The 4-Hour Work Week," I negotiated for the freedom to work remotely, which I was granted. If I could travel that meant I could leave Alaska for the winters, which made living out of a camper a much more viable option.
It didn't take much nurturing for this idea to grow in my mind. I started looking on Craigslist for passenger vans and campers. Vehicles in Alaska tend to sell at inflated rates. For nearly two months I searched online for an appropriate vehicle. Vans that were 20+ years old and had over 150,000+ miles were listed for several thousand dollars, which seemed absurd to me. It got to the point that I extended my search to cities in the Pacific Northwest because it would be cheaper for me to buy a vehicle there and then drive it back to Fairbanks.
After months of searching, I found a reasonably priced 1989 Ford E150 XLT van in Fairbanks. The buyer was asking $3,000, which was a bit high for the van's age and mileage. I successfully negotiated him down to a price of $1,500. The van came with a new set of high end snow tires, which I turned around and sold for $500.
I had been excited to start the conversion process to transform the van into a camper and I didn't waste any time. Without any prior carpentry experience or proper tools, I started to renovate the van into a mini-camper. I stripped the interior of the van to bare metal. I then insulated the walls and floor before re-constructing the interior.
I kept costs low by utilizing reclaimed materials. A friend had just renovated his kitchen. This included replacing the floors, which were previously bamboo hardwood. I salvaged some of his old flooring, which was still in beautiful condition. I then bought a homemade pine kingsize bed frame on Craigslist that came in two parts. I used one-half for a twin bed and reclaimed the rest of the pine for shelving, counters, and a wardrobe. By being resourceful, I completed all renovations for less than $500 and did so using only a speed square, jigsaw, and drill.
The amenities in the van were limited. There was no bathroom or kitchen. I purchased an alcohol fueled camping stove and would use that to prepare my meals. My decision to limit my amenities in the van wasn’t simply due to a lack of space. I wanted the van to be comfortable but I didn’t want enough comforts of modern living that I would be compelled to squander my free time hiding out inside the van. I reflected on a screen printed poster I once bought from graphic designer Ryan Troy Ford that read, "I'll Never Forgive Myself for Every Pretty Day I've Spent Inside."
The week I completed renovations I took the van on its maiden voyage. Friends of mine in Fairbanks are in a band called The Scurvies and they had a gig 360 miles south in Anchorage. Seven of us piled into the van and we made our way to Anchorage for the weekend. The van handled the roundtrip drive without incident. However, the very next week the transmission went out and needed rebuilt, which cost me $1,200.
The lease on my cabin was up on July 15, 2015. As much as I loved that cabin, I was confident in my decision to move into the van. Now that I was finished with the mini-camper conversion I had to focus my attention on downsizing. As I previously mentioned, I had a large collection of records, books, and art. I also had a couple motorcycles and vehicles. It wouldn’t be economical for me to store these items and taking them with me certainly wasn’t an option since space in the van was limited.
I listed items for sale on Craigslist, everything except my library of books. Those I donated to my friend Nick with the request that he use them to start a community library at his house, which often served as a place that friends gathered. Buyers began contacting me as soon as the ad was live and items sold quickly. Not only did items sell, they sold for much more than I anticipated and I earned roughly $15,000 to put towards paying down my debt.
My move out date quickly arrived and I said goodbye to my cabin. I have a dog named Opal and the two of us moved into the van. I knew hitting the road was imminent but I wanted to ease my way into van living. My boss at the time held nearly 700 acres of Alaskan farmland nestled in the hills of Fairbanks. This property was only about a mile and a half away from my cabin. I arranged with him to park the van on his property, which he was using to raise cows and start a peony farm, one of the exciting projects that I worked on while living in Alaska. I didn’t have any neighbors other than sandhill cranes and the occasional moose.
With the freedom to work remotely, Opal and I left Fairbanks on July 25, 2016. It wasn't easy saying goodbye to Fairbanks and my friends there. In truth, Fairbanks very much came to feel like home and I loved deeply everyone I met there. But, I felt a calling to travel and I needed to respond to it.
I left Fairbanks and explored southeastern Alaska, including Haines, Juneau, and Skagway. From Alaska we drove south through Canada and then to the Lower 48. Opal and I spent the fall of 2015 exploring western Canada, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
I maintained a now-defunct blog while traveling. Each morning I'd upload a long-format summary of the previous day's events and accompanying photos. Friday's were intended to keep me accountable to my goal. I made posts in which I'd analyze my weekly expenses and share with readers how much I contributed that week towards paying down my debt.
My road trip wasn’t without incident. My van broke down along the way. In fact, it broke down a lot. I had to take the van to a mechanic in nearly every town I stopped.
It’s stressful when your vehicle is in the shop for repairs. It’s exponentially more stressful when that vehicle also serves as your home. There were multiple occasions when I had to resort to pet friendly hotels for several days while my vehicle was being serviced.
Repairs added up quickly. In less than four months of owning the van I had invested nearly $4,000 into vehicle repairs. The problem was, once I would repair one thing something different would break and need repairing.
I knew I couldn’t keep sinking money into the van. If I continued in that fashion I would blow through my budget and not achieve my goal of paying down my student loans. I also knew I wasn’t ready to end my mobile life. I set my intentions to buying a vehicle that was better suited for the road ahead.
I was also in a bicycle accident while in Denver, Colorado. I stopped in Denver to visit friends and only planned to be in the city for a week. On my third day into my visit, I was riding my bicycle alongside a newly met friend, Tracie. She and I were riding legally on the street when a parked van opened its door and obstructed our lane. We didn't have enough time to stop and she and I crashed into the door, with me going head over handlebars.
I remember seeing black upon impact. I immediately jumped to my feet, turned to the driver of the van, and calmly stated, "you need to be more careful." A man came running from across the street and told me I needed to lay down. I didn't know why he was acting in such a concerned manner, but I quickly found out why. I looked down at my t-shirt and saw it was covered in blood. I reached for me teeth to make sure they were still in my mouth, which thankfully they were. I then grabbed my cell phone and took a picture so I could see the extent of the damage.
An ambulance arrived and transported me and Tracie to the hospital. What a way to kindle a friendship! I had a broken nose and received stitches in my forehead, the bridge of my nose, my upper lip, and my chin. I also received a brace for my knee, which was terribly swollen, and was advised to use crutches. Later I found out I also had whiplash that required several months of physical therapy, which I started in Denver and continued in other cities as I traveled.
My stay in Denver was extended as a result of the accident. What was originally only supposed to last a week turned into a month. I want to take a moment and sincerely thank my dear friends in Denver. Tracie, John, Kimberly, Tyson, Matthew, David, Joe, Steph, Aaron, Julia, Toby, Shawn, Leeman, and Paul. Everyone went above and beyond to accommodate me as I healed.
Eventually I healed to the point that I was cleared by the doctor to travel again, still with a focus on finding a replacement camper. While in Montana, I met a man from Texas who was traveling in a 1980’s Toyota Sunrader. Toyota started manufacturing campers in the early 1970s and continued manufacturing them into the 1990s. Through the years, Toyota has offered consumers nearly 30 different models of campers, ranging from 10’ to 23’ in length. All campers are placed on the chassis of four and six cylinder trucks. The four cylinder campers are highly reviewed because of their fuel efficiency and the reliability of Toyota’s 22R engine, which has been called indestructible.
Sunraders are one of the more rare models of Toyota campers. They are constructed with a fiberglass shell, which is ideal because it is lightweight and it does not rot or rust. The limited supply and high demand tends to lead to a higher asking price when Sunraders are listed for sale. The 18’ models can demand a price up to $12,000, depending on their mileage and condition. 4x4 models are especially rare and can fetch up to $25,000 when listed for sale.
I set out to find a Sunrader. I searched all of Craigslist and narrowed my options to two Sunraders, one located in Arizona and another located in South Carolina. Both sellers had 21’ models available for sale and both were asking $5,000.
I asked each seller if they were willing to have the vehicle pre-inspected. The seller in Arizona declined while the seller in South Carolina accepted. He took the vehicle to be inspected and provided me with the mechanic’s report via email. The report showed that the vehicle needed new brakes, but everything else passed inspection. The seller and I negotiated on the price and finally agreed upon $2,700. I left Montana the next day and made my way south east to South Carolina.
A couple days later I arrived at the seller’s apartment. I didn’t intend to be in South Carolina long. A nasty tropical storm was scheduled to hit the eastern coast that week. Weather forecasts showed that South Carolina would receive the brunt of the storm.
The seller and I went to the DMV the following morning to transfer the vehicle’s title. I also applied for temporary tags while at the DMV, which I used until I received my tags from Alaska. I returned to the Sunrader after we finished at the DMV. I cleaned out the van and loaded up the Sunrader.
I had no time to waste trying to sell the van in South Carolina. I didn’t know what it was worth and I knew I had invested far more money into the van than I would get back if I sold it. I called around to local homeless shelters and inquired if any were willing to accept a vehicle donation. United Housing Connections was the first to respond to my inquiry and we arranged to have them pick up the vehicle.
The Sunrader was in livable condition when I bought it. However, if I was going to be living in it I wanted the interior to reflect my personal taste. I drove the Sunrader north to Pennsylvania, where I’m originally from, to completely renovate the interior.
My step-grandfather retired from Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG). He is one of the most handy persons I know and offered me use of his garage and tools to conduct the renovations. He also offered me his assistance and knowledge.
Renovating the Sunrader was extremely rewarding. It was a great opportunity to spend time with members of my family. Not only did I have the help of my step-grandfather but my nephew also joined me after school and during the weekends.
I continued to live and travel in the Sunrader during the winter of 2015 and the spring of 2016. But, in February 2015 I became unemployed when I was laid off by the company that I worked for in Alaska. The price per barrel of oil was extremely low at the time, roughly $30 per barrel, and this caused a lot of unforeseen pains for companies that provided services, either directly or indirectly, to the oil industry. The company conducted three rounds of layoffs in late 2015 and early 2016. I was saved from previous layoffs but that was not the case with the forth round of layoffs.
I forecasted that being laid off was likely. Because of that, months earlier I expanded my savings nest egg beyond my previously established threshold of three month's living expenses. My new threshold was $10,000, which I knew would buy me some time to contemplate my next steps if I was laid off.
In actuality, I was thankful to be laid off. Not because I disliked working but because I didn't feel fulfilled by the work I was doing. I think this was a direct result of the fact that the ethics and values of the oil industry are not necessarily inline with my personal values. Still, a steady paycheck creates a lot of comfort and I wasn't likely to step outside of that comfort. Being laid off was the nudge that I needed to change things up.
I wanted to transition from the for-profit sector to the non-profit sector. I wanted to find employment with a mission-driven organization that could utilize my skillset to improve the quality of life for either children, vulnerable populations, or animals.
I spent time each day looking for employment opportunities using online job boards. I was open to relocating, but ideally I was hoping to find an opportunity that would still grant me the freedom to telecommute. I was attracted to the thought of living in the Pacific Northwest so I focused most of my searched on opportunities in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.
March 2016 arrived and I was still looking for new employment. A few opportunities presented themselves that resulted in interviews, and even a couple that turned into offers, but none of those options felt like they embodied what I was looking for in a career. A friend in Jacksonville, Florida encouraged me to travel down to Northeast Florida. I decided that visiting Jacksonville was as good as option as any because I had friends in the region and the cost of living was relatively low. I was also starting to miss the sense of community.
I arrived in Jacksonville during the last week of March in 2016. My friend Darius, who encouraged me to come down, was buying a house and he said that I could rent a room from him. However, the house he was closing on wouldn't be ready to move into until early July. Thankfully, my friend Dan had a roommate moving out just as I arrived and he offered to let me rent the room on a month-to-month basis.
I didn't want to burn through my savings so I secured a job at an architectural salvage company in Jacksonville. The job only offered $12 per hour, which was a major decrease in pay from what I was making in Alaska. But, it was something to tide me over while I looked for something more long term.
The job was grueling. The majority of my work took place inside an old massive warehouse that wasn't equipped with A/C. I would sweat through my t-shirt and work pants before 10:00 AM. By the time 6:00 PM rolled around I'd be covered in filth. On the average day my fitness tracker calculated that I had walked 10-15 miles throughout the workday.
All that considered, I still showed up to work every day eager to serve. I was quick to volunteer for the jobs that others avoided. I was also fascinated by all the items that the warehouse accumulated over the years.
It didn't make sense for me to drive a 21' camper around Jacksonville. I parked the Sunrader and became a full-time cyclist. I equipped my bicycle with saddlebags and used it to not just commute to work but also to go grocery shopping and run errands.
On my days off, I'd spend several hours at a coffee shop searching online for jobs. While I would cast a wide net through my searches, I only applied to jobs that I felt a) qualified for, and b) were something I could see myself doing longterm. I was starting to feel dejected though after applying for what felt like hundreds of jobs to no avail.
July arrived and Darius and I moved into his new house. It was also in July that I saw a listing for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville on a local non-profit job board. The agency was hiring an Office Manager, which I knew I wouldn't find gratifying longterm. The hiring salary was only $34,000. However, I applied with the hopes that there would be opportunities for advancement.
Shortly after applying, I was scheduled for an interview. My interview was with the Executive Director. It went very well and I was essentially hired on the spot.
During my interview I asked the Director if there were opportunities for advancement, which he replied there was. I also asked him how much initiative I could take so longs as I met all denoted responsibilities of the position. I'm thankful that he gave me the green light to take all the initiative that I wanted. I started as the Office Manager during the last week of July. I've worked at the Cultural Council for less than two years and I can honestly say I have created a position for myself that allows me to directly serve my community in a big way.
I used to attend a weekly meditation group when I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. I remember we once had a group conversation around attachment and someone said, "when you cross the river, sink the boat." More than a decade later, that statement continues to resonate with me. The Sunrader was parked in my driveway and not getting any use, so I sold it in the late fall of 2016.
I know this narrative has veered off on a bit of a tangent. But, everything I've included above plays an important piece in the bigger picture. It outlines the road I traveled to become debt free.
I'll be frank, our education system and financial system need major reform. We are punishing those who choose to pursue higher education by burdening them with excessive levels of student debt. What's worse is companies that cary the debt have a tendency to reduce their borrowers to a revenue stream and look for any opportunity to penalize them or earn the maximum amount possible off their debts.
When I was living paycheck to paycheck, there were moments when I'd have an unexpected expense arise and I knew that I wouldn't be able to make my monthly payment on time. Trying to be a responsible borrower, I'd contact my loan provider and request an extension of two weeks. I'd be told that my request couldn't be granted. I could, however, pay a certain amount and have my loan deferred for a specific period of time. Though I wouldn't have to make payments while deferred, the loan would continue to accrue interest. The other option was to be delinquent with my payment and then be penalized with a late fee.
When paying down debt, it's important to pay above your monthly minimums. Often times, minimum payments only cover the accrued interest and don't actually chip away at the principle of a loan. This means that you can spend decades making monthly payments and not see the balance you owe reduced by any significant amount. It also means you wind up paying drastically more in the long run. Even when I was unemployed, I made certain that I paid above my monthly minimums.
Aggressively paying off debt requires an individual to change their habits, routines, and behaviors. It also takes a change of perspective. I didn't like re-routing a portion of each paycheck to my lender. To overcome that, I approached my self-imposed repayment plan like a monthly challenge. I kept a spreadsheet where I documented how much I paid towards my loan every month and each month I'd try to pay more than the previous month.
Dave Ramsey, author of "The Total Money Makeover," encourages individuals to tackle their smallest debts first. He suggests this approach because a person can be filled with a sense of accomplishment when they pay off a loan, and this sense of accomplishment can be necessary to keep some people moving forward towards their goal. I, however, tackled my debts with the highest interest rates first, which was also the loan with the highest principle. My private loans had interest rates that ranged from 4.375% to 10.500%. I paid minimums on all my loans and directed overpayments specifically to my loan with a 10.5% interest rate. Once I paid that loan off, I directed overpayments to the loan with the next highest interest rate. This is what Ramsey refers to as the debt snowball.
There are also tools available to help people better track and manage their finances. One app that I personally use is Mint, which enables users to track and better understand their income and expenses. By breaking down expenses into major and minor categories, users can set budgets for themselves and analyze their spending habits. Users can also set financial goals and receive suggested action plans to achieve those goals.
It takes discipline to discern the difference between needs and wants and act accordingly. Having the goal of rapidly paying off my debt meant prioritizing that goal over other wants. This translated to foregoing vacations and other self-serving expenses. That said, I knew if I achieved my goal of paying off my debt then in the long run I'd be much more financially capable of investing in myself and my community. It took short term sacrifices to achieve long term gains.
Any goal takes dedication and perseverance to achieve. Often times when we approach goals we find ourselves caught up in the what and the how. It's equally important that we know our why. The why can fuel us even through the toughest of times. Our why is what keeps us going even when everything seems to be working against us.
Through it all, I continuously checked in with myself and monitored my progress. When momentum seemed against me I revisited my why for the necessary motivation to see things through. I was confident that if I remained disciplined I could achieve my goal of paying off my student loans and becoming debt free. It took 38 months of discipline, but I paid off approximately $70,000 in debt. At the age of 33, I'm no longer carrying a burden that I thought I'd be stuck with for my entire life. I'm certain that if I could do it you can too. You just need to develop a repayment plan that's right for you.