RVer Debt Survey: Becoming Debt-Free While Traveling Full-Time

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In 2017, Heath and I paid off all our student debt. From a whopping $28,000 balance steadily growing each day to $0.

It took us two and a half years of intense focus to get there. We took on extra clients, rarely ate out, stayed at cheap RV parks, bought off-brand coffee—anything to help us pay down our debt.

The more we’ve talked about our own debts, the more we’ve heard from fellow travelers or wannabe travelers stories of how debt has impacted them. For some, they want to pay off all their debts before the start traveling. For others, RVing is a cheaper way to live that allows them to pay down their debts faster.

Pretty much everyone we know has had debt of some kind. Student loans. Vehicle loans. Mortgage. Credit cards. Debt is everywhere.

I read somewhere recently that debt is an emergency. It’s not something you work on or something that you pay off slowly over the years—it’s an emergency. You owe someone thousands of dollars. That’s a big deal!

This is how I felt last winter when Heath and I decided to officially sell our RV in favor of having a home base while we were expecting.

I never thought about our RV loan as debt until it came time to list and sell our RV. All of a sudden I was stressing about how we owed $85K on an RV loan for a rig NADA valued at $82K…that would definitely not sell for $82K.

We were, as they say, upside down.

It created a pit in my stomach. Just thinking about the thousands of dollars we would lose selling the rig was nauseating (then again, I was pregnant at the time). It was such a daunting thought we actually considered not selling the RV and keeping it for a while to put off the loss.

It’s estimated that 75% of Americans have some sort of debt (CNBC).

Because we run a Facebook group of people who travel and run a business on the road, I wanted to hear how they view and approach debt. So I posted in the group an informal survey to learn a little more.

I heard in their responses many of the same words I used when I thought about debt. Crushing, bare bones, “always in the back of my mind”, “it has stopped us from living our dreams”, depression, “I suck at life”, “it hangs over us heavy”, “I may have to delay retirement”.

Basically we all agree that being in debt sucks and stresses us out.

We’re talking about money on the podcast this week, so I thought now was a good time to share a few stats I learned about the RVE community from my survey. Here’s what I got:

Of those who have debt:

  • 32% have student debt
  • 50% have credit card debt
  • 63% have an RV or vehicle loan
  • 17% have medical bill debts
  • 76% owe over $10,000
  • 43% have been in debt for more than 5 years
  • 18% owe more than $100,000
  • 54% said they plan on traveling with debt

That last one really surprised me, and I think it prompts a discussion.

Should you travel if you have debt?

Our first year on the road, Heath was only one year out of college and student loans were our only form of debt. Which is to say that we were young enough that ignoring our pile of student debt seemed like a great idea.

Image result for hm that was probably a bad idea gif

We drove across the lower 48 before finally deciding to be responsible and start focusing on paying off our growing student debt. So we wrote out all the individual loan balances and their interest rates, stuck it on the fridge as a daily reminder, and got to work. (This is pretty key if you’re in debt—knowing exactly how much you owe!)

rv versus student debt

The thing about RVing is that you can travel extremely cheaply if you need to.

In 2015 we hunkered down in Austin, Texas for half the year at an RV park that cost only $350/month for a lakefront site. We started our production company after filming a course for our friend Jia and started taking on freelance film gigs. Our niche: helping authors market their books and develop courses.

By the end of the year, we had raised our average monthly income from $1,000 to $3,700. Not much, but by keeping expenses low we paid off roughly $14,000 of debt that year.

Then we bought our Winnebago (which they gave us a nice discount on), got a giant loan, and went back to square one.

But we had a plan!

RVs depreciate so quickly that they aren’t much of an asset. But we wanted to find ways to make our Winnebago work for us.

We spent 2016 working on our blog, building the RV Entrepreneur podcast and community, and trying to become a helpful resource for RVers. (This is also when Heath wrote his book, The RV Entrepreneur, which you can now read for free!) We also wrote blogs for Winnebago all year and somehow convinced them to sponsor our first ever RVE Summit and join us in-person in Texas for the event.

This was the turning point for us financially for a few reasons:

1. We made a couple of thousand dollars in ticket sales from our first Summit. This was the first meaningful amount of money we made as bloggers and proved to ourselves that we could actually make a go of it as content creators.

2. Great relationships are built in-person. Meeting up with the Winnebago crew at our Summit showed them that we were working hard to be valuable in the RV space.

Later that year, Winnebago hired us to help launch their new line of RVs. We’d been helping authors launch courses and books for a couple of years at that point so this was right up our alley. (Years later now Heath still says this was his favorite work project he’s ever done.)

Kyle Kesterson

We worked way more hours during that time than we ever had before, juggling our existing clients, the project with Winnebago, and finishing writing my book. And while we were exhausted come the holidays, we checked our bank account and realized we could make the final payment on our student loans.

It was the best feeling ever to be free of our student debt (and the worst feeling ever to lose upwards of $8,000 from our bank account in a single moment!).

It sounds irresponsible to say “we’re going to travel full-time even though we are tens of thousands of dollars in debt.” But I believe we attempted to go at it semi-responsibly.

Our first year on the road when we ignored the debt? Not super responsible.

Those next two and a half years of working long hours, struggling to get our blog profitable, hustling to make our business attractive to potential clients? That worked.

Research shows it takes on average 21 years for someone to pay off a bachelor’s degree (US News). So really you could argue that traveling while paying off debt is the best way to go. (Just something to tell your friends and family when they inevitably think you’re crazy for moving into an RV.)

Also, to note the obvious, it’s incredibly easy to overspend a ton of money on RVing too. Our friends Brooke and Buddy wrote an awesome blog that shared how to spend entirely too much money on a year of RV travel. I don’t want to set the false expectation that just because we were able to pull off paying down student debt while traveling that it makes sense for everyone because it certainly does not.

Paying Off Our Other Debt: The RV

Paying off our RV loan was very different than our student debt journey.

Student loans, like mortgages, can be considered good debt. AKA money spent with a return, like a good education.

RVs are a total luxury purchase, though. That’s why it can be so hard to get a loan to buy an RV in the first place. You don’t really need an RV.

But since we were full-time, we decided to treat our RV payment kind of like a mortgage payment. For example, since this was our full-time home the interest we paid was tax-deductible. Unlike most homes though, RVs will rapidly depreciate and you will almost always lose money…unless you buy an Airstream or do a sleek renovation. Airstreams seem to retain their value for a fifty-year minimum.

When we sold our RV in January, we went to Bank of America with a check from the people who bought our RV plus a check I wrote for over $10,000 to pay off the remaining balance of the loan. We could’ve continued paying the loan off month by month, but we had enough in the bank to nix the loan completely.

And it was a beautiful sight:

I kind of expected a little bit of confetti or congrats but I’ll take an all caps thank you too.

We were finally, truly debt-free.

Tips from other RVers Who Have Paid Down Their Debt

Paying off debt isn’t easy. For most of us, it means picking up extra work, starting a side hustle, or spending countless hours working on our businesses. It often takes years of focus.

Our story is just one way to approach paying off debt. In the survey I mentioned earlier that I sent to our audience, I asked people who had paid off all or most of their debt what helped them the most. Here are a few of the most helpful responses and resources people shared with me on how they paid down their own debts.

“Don’t just pay off debt, revamp and rethink about how and what you are spending money on. If you pay off debt and don’t change anything, you will end up right back where you started from – with debt. It’s like that age-old saying. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – that’s the definition of insanity. Be insane with your adventures, not your debt.” – Ken & April Pishna

➤ People are pretty evenly divided that one of the tips below is the absolute best way to pay off your debt. One focuses on eliminating the number of debts you owe (great if you have debt from multiple sources) and the other is focused on slowing down how quickly your debt is accruing interest. Choose your approach:

  1. Choose the lowest amount owed, focus on that and pay it off first. Move on to the next lowest and so on.
  2. List your debts in order of the highest interest rate. Attack the highest rate debt first.

➤ “Be persistent, and focus on growing your income rather than pinching pennies by avoiding a vacation or skipping the occasional nice meal. Growing yourself and your income will open a lot more possibilities for yourself than skipping Starbucks or a visit to a restaurant to save a few bucks.” – Lilly

➤ Read any or all of these…but maybe borrow them from the library so you don’t have to spend extra money:

“I’m debt-free now, but living in an RV helped me become debt-free. Two reasons:

  1. It’s tough to be a consumerist in under 300 sq. feet.
  2. I paid as much as I could afford every month instead of the minimum payment.” – Porter Palmer

➤ Start a side hustle! (A recommendation by a few different people) We love the Side Hustle School Podcast, and not just because Heath was on the show a few weeks ago!

And the golden rule:

“Don’t accumulate more debt. Just don’t.” – Carey Green (and many others!)

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