After tying the knot in 2014, Zack and Jen McCullock took a hard look at their finances. They realized that paying off their debts -- a combination of student loans, car payments and other miscellaneous bills totaling $50,000 -- would take them over 10 years.
[See: 10 Easy Ways to Pay Off Debt.]
The Oklahoma couple worked at nonprofits and dreamed of long-term travel, but they knew that these debts could postpone that dream. They decided to drastically cut costs and pay them off sooner.
The first big lifestyle change? Buying a 31-foot travel camper, renovating it and living in it for 11 months to minimize housing costs. The pair moved out of the camper about a year ago when they became debt-free and recently launched a millennial debt repayment blog FreeUp, which Zack now works on full time.
U.S. News recently chatted with Zack, 29, and Jen, 27, to find out what it's really like to live in a camper and how the experience has impacted their money mindset. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Who came up with the idea to live in a camper?
Jen: I would like to take credit for that. Every summer growing up, we would camp in Oregon and we had a little camper that you put on the back of a truck. Zack and I were on a date night, and we were talking about living simply. Then, we started talking and discussed the idea of getting a camper.
Zack: We originally wanted to live in this truck bed camper. They sit on top of a truck bed, and they're very small. Thinking back on that now, it would have been nearly impossible to live in that. I think any great idea starts out really ambitious, and then you have to work your way to reality from that.
Where did the camper sit? Did you have electricity?
Zack: My parents own some land in north Oklahoma City. We worked out a deal with them to basically put the camper on that land and pay the electrical cost for it. We moved into the camper right before summer, and we ran some electrical cords initially, but we didn't realize that this camper AC unit needed to be on 220-volt power to work properly.
When we first got it, we thought we'd just bought this $4,000 camper and the AC didn't work. We were mortified that we had made this bad purchase. Then my dad came out and looked at it. He installed a camper hookup for us so that we could have appropriate power. I helped him dig the ditch, but it was his expertise that got it done.
We lived through an ice storm in the camper, where I was standing on the roof trimming tree limbs that had 2 inches of ice on them, because I was afraid they were going to fall into our roof. We lived through a brutally hot summer and a tornado, but overall it was a great experience.
Now that you've moved out of the camper, how has that experience shaped your attitudes toward money?
Zack: When we were at the land, we didn't have internet, so we had to find things to do with our time after work. We read a lot. I downloaded podcasts at work so I could listen to them at home. And we spent a lot more time outside. Practicing minimalism for those 11 months really shaped the way we handle our money, and how we live our lives. We try to continue those things. Now we do have Hulu and Netflix back, but we try to keep those habits and ideals that we learned through that time.
What are your current financial goals?
Jen: One of our financial goals is to be able to travel longer term, so we want to save up money for that.
Zack: Being out of debt has accelerated a lot of our financial goals. We built up a nice savings account, so we feel comfortable enough for me to do [our business] full time. Once you're debt-free, you realize the freedom that you have to do more of what you love, and that's what our business is about. Our view on money is that it should empower you to do more of what you love and make an impact in the world.
Anything else you'd like readers to know?
Zack: For millennials, we feel a lot of pressure from society to keep up: to graduate college, get married, buy a house, have a kid and do the American dream thing. I think a lot of people feel that way. And I'm not against that at all, but we have to keep continually challenging ourselves to question those things. Are we ready for that? Oftentimes, our friends are passing us up. They're buying houses; they're having kids. But we know that long term, we'll do those things when we're ready.
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