Feature Image: Holly Mandarich
Article By: Kristin Hanes
In 2015, I was 34-years-old and sick of being in debt. I had a full-time job in the most expensive city in the United States, San Francisco, and couldn’t get ahead.
My small studio apartment cost me $1,800 per month in rent and utilities, and with that plus other expenses, there was no way I could pay off the debt that had followed me around for years or put money toward an emergency fund. I was one of the 57 million Americans with no emergency savings, and I knew something had to change.
My boyfriend was the one who came up with the idea to become “intentionally homeless.” We’d move out of our respective places and camp near San Francisco for as long as it took to be financially ahead.
“Look,” he told me while we hiked in the woods one day near the city, “If you didn’t pay rent for a year, you’d save over $20,000!”
The amount was mind-boggling. $20,000 that could go toward my $4,000 in debt, to building my financial future. But live in the woods? Really? I wasn’t convinced. Where would I put my clothes? Where would I shower? What if I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?
I Finally Decided to Go Intentionally Homeless
It took awhile for me to decide to give my 30-days notice, but finally, I did. The promise of getting out of debt and saving money was too tempting, despite the struggle I’d have to go through to get there.
I joined a nice gym in San Francisco where I’d shower every day. I gave most of my stuff to Goodwill, put the rest in a storage unit.
Leaving my apartment and becoming intentionally homeless was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. My next “home” was going to be a car or a tent. How was I going to get through it?
I’d never felt so vulnerable and lost but was also hopeful. I could finally kick my debt’s butt.
Where We Slept When We Went Without a Home
We started out by camping on Mt. Tamalpais, a state park near San Francisco. Every night, we’d cook dinner and play music and drink beers by the campfire, then wake up and go to the gym for our shower. I’d always had a love of the outdoors, so found it fun and romantic, until we encountered some scary people at a campground.
They brought loads of booze, and when we asked them to quiet down, they threatened us. We had to call the park rangers and later the police, who came and kicked out the rowdy bunch. But we felt forever changed like the thin walls of the tent weren’t enough to keep us safe.
So we started sleeping in the back of my boyfriend’s Toyota Prius. We folded down the back seats, spread out a futon, put a couple of pillows and a blanket back there, and had our own little moveable tiny home.
We parked in marinas, in campgrounds, in parking lots, in rest stops. On weeknights, we played music in a storage unit we’d turned into a jam space, playing rockabilly and blues. On the weekends, we had no chores or grocery shopping or yard-work, so instead, we went backpacking in national parks. We felt such unbelievable freedom, and I watched my debt slowly dwindle away.
I did miss a few things when I was “intentionally homeless.” I missed a couch to cuddle up on at night to watch a movie with a glass of wine. I missed making coffee and waking up slowly, reading the newspaper, having a real bed to sleep in, a bathroom where I could wash my face and brush my teeth at night.
But being without those things also made me so much more grateful when I did have them. I’d learned how to no longer take things for granted.
Paying Off my Debt For Good
I ended up living in the car and the tent for four months and then my debt was gone. I had a healthy emergency fund saved up and moved into a room in a real house.
It might not seem like $4,000 is that much, but I was paying massive amounts of interest every month. No money was heading into my savings account. I realized that even though my debt seemed small, it was imperative to pay off for the security of my financial future.
And thank goodness I did pay off that debt and saved up money, because just seven months later, I lost my full-time job.
My boyfriend had bought a sailboat, so I found myself once again living with less. I got rid of even more stuff and have now been living on the boat for two years. This allows me to afford to live in the San Francisco Bay area and not go into debt any further.
I hope to never, ever go into debt again.
What You Can do to Pay off Debt
I think what I did is on the extreme of the lengths people go through to pay off debt, and I know it’s not for everyone. What I do think is that there are simple things the everyday person can cut out and put the money toward debt.
- Cut out cable and get movies and shows from the library
- Get a cheap phone plan
- Eat and drink at home more often than not
- Buy clothes second-hand instead of new
- Lower your living expenses by moving into a smaller place or getting a roommate
- Get a better phone plan my current plan is only $35 per month
- Renegotiate your insurance
There are so many ways to lower expenses and put the money toward debt. Being financially-free is one of the best feelings in the world, and I hope someday, everyone gets to have it.