I was hiking with my roommate and crush Tom in Mt. Tamalpais State Park in 2015, just north of San Francisco when he said the craziest thing.
“What if we lived up here?”
“Up where?” I said as I dodged rocks and branches on the redwood-lined trail. I saw no cabin rentals, no apartment complexes.
Plus, I thought we had a pretty good deal at the communal property we shared in Mill Valley.
“Here, in the campgrounds,” said Tom. “Imagine how much money we could save.”
I thought he was nuts. Sure, my tiny, 250-square foot studio cottage cost me $1750 per month, and I had irritating, lingering debt that I tracked every month, but there was no way I’d give up my comfortable home to live in a tent.
Tom rented out a room in the property’s main house for $1,000 per month, plus utilities.
“Just think of it like this,” Tom said. “If you didn’t pay rent for one entire year, you’d save $21,000.”
The amount I paid for rent was mind-boggling. I’d never thought of it that way, as a yearly expense.
My rent alone for just one year was enough to pay for a new car, a couple of years of college tuition, a trip around the world.
Housing prices in the San Francisco Bay area are so insane it’s hard to get ahead.
Giving up my Place for Life in a Prius
At first, I couldn’t imagine giving up my comfortable bed, my leather couch, my New York Times and coffee on Sundays.
But Tom had planted a seed in my mind, a seed that grew and sprouted and took over all logical thought.
He moved out first, donating stuff to Goodwill, putting unnecessary items in a storage unit.
He started sleeping in his Toyota Prius and camping on Mt. Tam, where I joined him and drank beer by the campfire.
I’d known him only six months, but wanted to be near him every second of every day. We were having an adventure.
This lifestyle isn’t all that bad, I thought. Maybe I could handle camping for a few months.
So, I gave my 30-days notice and moved out, wanting to pay off debt from high-interest loans – and save up a nice-sized emergency fund.
When I walked away from my apartment for the last time, I felt a profound feeling of loss.
I’d no longer have a home, a safe cocoon to crawl into if something went wrong in my life.
I was putting all of my trust in Tom, who I barely knew. If we got in a fight or it didn’t work out, I’d be fending for myself.
Giving up my apartment, my home, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
At first, I felt Homeless When Living in a Car and a Tent
I rented a storage unit in Sausalito where I put my bed, suitcases full of clothes, a bag of shoes, good pots and knives.
This big blue shipping container would serve as my closet, where I’d pick out clothes for my work week in San Francisco.
I joined a nice gym where I could exercise, shower, and hang out using wifi in the cafe.
We cleaned out space in Tom’s storage unit so we could play music and jam on the drumset and guitar. I got a PO BOX so I could still get mail.
At first, the feelings of homelessness were hard to deal with.
Some nights, after a hard day at work, all I wanted was a warm bath, a book, a comfortable couch, a movie. I felt transitory, like no place was mine.
There was no apartment to go run and hide in if Tom and I ever fought. We were really, truly, in this together.
Getting Used to a Nomadic Life
But slowly, I got used to my life camping on Mt. Tam and sleeping in the Prius, where we folded down the back two seats to make a bed.
We parked in marinas, rest stops, campgrounds, the storage unit parking lot, all while keeping a low profile, stealth camping.
We spent weekends backpacking in national parks, with no cleaning, grocery shopping or chores to worry about.
We grew even closer to nature, reveling in its beauty, becoming addicted to the fresh air streaming through our cracked windows at night.
And every paycheck I entered into YNAB, my budget software, was like winning the lottery. I put huge amounts toward my debt every month, and even more into my emergency fund.
I’d never felt so good financially; like I was finally gaining control.
How Living Below One’s Means is Key to Paying Off Debt
After four months of living in a tent and a car near San Francisco, I’d finally paid off the debt I’d had for almost 10 years.
Most of that debt was from high-interest loans (30%) I’d taken out for vacations and as deposits on apartments. Every monthly payment I made went toward interest, and that debt lingered, and grew, and lingered.
I’ll never take out a high-interest loan again.
I also significantly grew my emergency fund, which I’d never had before.
In all my years working as a full-time radio news reporter, I never saved over $1,000. After living in the car, I had enough to cover any unexpected situation.
At 35-years-old, for the first time in my adult life, I was finally financially free.
Why I Now Live on a Sailboat
Seven months after I paid off all my debt, I was laid off from my full-time job. Thank goodness I’d already learned how to budget and save, and had my little nest egg.
I moved onto Tom’s newly-acquired 41-foot-sailboat, where we’ve now lived for over two years.
Now that I’ve paid off debt, I refuse to go into debt again, especially for something like rent.
I don’t think living in a car or even on a sailboat is an extreme that most people need to take to pay off debt.
The lesson from my experience is this: if you’re able to live below your means, even if just a little, it can do wonders for your financial situation.
Maybe you can rent a cheaper place.
Maybe you can rent out a room in your house.
Maybe you can sell stuff or start a side hustle to pay off debt.
Maybe you can get rid of cable, get a cheaper cell phone plan, sell your car.
Debt payoff is attainable for everyone, as long as you’re willing to make a sacrifice.
And when that sacrifice is over, you’ll finally be financially free, and the world will be your oyster.
Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the founder of the blog about alternative living, The Wayward Home. Check it out!