Extreme Debt Payoff: Going Nomad to Pay Down Debt
After sleeping in a van for years and working under the table, Dave K. became debt-free and he’s ready to come back to the real world.
Dave K., a 31-year-old former engineer, doesn’t have a home address or phone number. He doesn’t even have an email address, let alone a computer with internet access. When asked how to contact him, he answers, “Call my cousin, and she’ll tell you when I plan to be in town next.”
Becoming A Nomad
Dave didn’t grow up as a nomad. Nor did he dream that one day he’d be living out of his parents’ beat-up Chrysler. But as a child, he loved the outdoors, which inspired him to pursue a career as an environmental engineer.
“I didn’t think being an adult came with being stuck with student loans,” he explains. “I went to community college to save a buck, and constantly applied for scholarships. Still [I] ended up with $20,000 in student loans. It kind of spiraled from there when I lost my job in the recession.” Two years after graduating, Dave found himself in over $30,000-worth of debt.
Out of desperation, he sold his car, moved home to Denver, and worked temp jobs.
While he was able to pay his parents rent and help with utility and food costs, his debt went untouched, and debt collectors started calling.
After saving a few thousand dollars, Keller bought his parents’ old van and took to the road. A friend with a ranch in Idaho offered him $400 a week, plus room and board if he worked the busy season doing odd jobs around the land. He negotiated the offer up to $600 by offering to stay in his car and pay for his food.
Using A Nomadic Lifestyle To Annihilate Debt
“I didn’t spend a dime of the money,” Dave says. “I put everything towards my bills back home. Once I think I splurged on pita chips once, but I was too guilty to eat them. Same with going out to eat. I’d make an excuse why I couldn’t go to the bar on the weekends. I haven’t bought a new shirt or a pair of shoes in five years.”
In exchange for living so minimally, Dave came up with a simple budgeting system that worked for him. “I’d get paid in cash, so I’d go to the Wal-Mart every Friday night and send cashier’s checks to my mom so she could pay $400 towards the loans, $15 to the car insurance, and $50 went to paying down my past credit card debt. And then I’d use the rest for essentials like gas and food for the week. If there was any leftover, I kept it in a safe hidden in the van.”
When The System Pays Off
Dave paid off $1,000 of his credit card bills and $5,000 of student loans in 10 weeks of ranch work.
While he intended to return to Denver and apply for more jobs, Dave realized that living the nomadic life would both help him make huge bill payments and give him the life he really wanted.
“I spent my whole life thinking I was supposed to graduate high school, get into college, find a job, have kids, retire, and die,” he muses.
“[But] after the first few weeks out in my van, it sounded so stupid to have to live like that… So I didn’t go back.”
Dave’s family friend recommended him to another farmer in California, then a construction foreman in Texas. Each paid him under-the-table and agreed to let him live on their land in exchange for more cash. No matter the job, Dave found a way to get to a bank or a credit union to send the cash for his bills to his mother, and later to his cousin.
“When I was out working, I didn’t get the bills, so I didn’t really think of them,” he recalls. “That was the best part. So it was just a habit I developed: get a new job, think about how much I needed to survive bare-bones, and then give the rest to the bank. I guess it worked because by my third year out on the road, I paid off my credit card bill and my student loans.”
Taking Lessons Into Adulthood
He continued to live on the least amount of resources possible while saving the rest of the cash in the safe that he still kept hidden in his car. He estimates that he has between $30,000 and $45,000 stashed in his van and at various bank accounts around the country.
Still, Dave believes his time as a real nomad is nearing its end. By summer of 2017, he plans on heading back to Denver to start over again. This time, he’s doing it – as he calls it – “the right way.”
He’ll go without the debt to hold him down, but with a backup plan for emergencies and a million unforgettable experiences to guide him on the road ahead.