Talking Money: On destroying debt with Zack & Jen of Free Up

When we started the BudgetBakers blog, we were clear about one thing — we wouldn’t offer unsolicited advice or preach about the one-right-way to manage money or become debt free! Why? Because, we know that there is no such thing. We respect each of your money management systems and what we offer are simple, yet intelligent solutions to make this process easier for you.

We believe that a lot of learning happens by asking the right questions. So here’s presenting our new interview series, Talking Money, where we seek out the best minds in the industry and ask them questions we know you’re eager to have answered.

Latest in our series in the millennial couple Zack & Jen, who destroyed $50,000 in debt in just 11 months by moving into a camper. Most people would tell you that it’s tough to live on just love and fresh air. But that’s exactly what Zack and Jen did. They were just like any of us. In love, and… in debt.

We caught up with this awesome couple, who is now helping others like them deal achieve financial freedom through their blog Free Up, to get a peek into their story, first hand. Excerpts from our conversation:


Hi guys! Great job on busting that huge debt! So let’s start right at the beginning. At what point in your relationship did you guys discuss about your debts?

We began focusing on our finances shortly after we returned home from our honeymoon in the Bahamas in 2014.

We just decided that we needed to figure things out so we made a plan to track all of our expenses and then try to minimize them as much as we could.

We essentially made a “get out of debt” plan and calculated what the maximum amount we could afford to pay towards our debt was and how long it would take us. We quickly realized that just making minimum payments wasn’t going to get us anywhere fast!

So what was your initial plan to tackle it?

First, we listed all of our assets and liabilities. We wrote down everything we owned and owed. This gave us a good picture of our cash flow for every month. Then we identified the loans we wanted to focus on paying down first.

For us, it made sense to make large payments on the highest interest rate loans first. And, luckily for us, this turned out to be the smallest loan. So we made $2000 payments each month towards that loan and tackled it at first.

This was a quick win for us and it also eliminated the highest interest rate loan saving us a lot of money in the long run. Next we tracked our monthly expenses to identify what we could cut down on.

And, what triggered the decision to move into a camper?

When we looked at our finances, one of the things we tried to do was to reduce our recurring expenses like rent, car payments, insurance, phone bills, etc as much as we could. We wanted to make sure that we left no stone unturned when it came to figuring out how to reduce our monthly costs. One of the things that was hard to reduce was our monthly rent payment.

This led to us bringing up the idea of living in a camper. While we still paid for the electricity and water where we kept the camper, it was significantly cheaper than renting our apartment at the time and helped us make major strides towards paying down our debt.

What were your initial fears? And how did you overcome them?

Initially, it was scary because we were about to change our entire life! I mean, you don’t hear of people moving out of their comfortable lives to sell a bunch of stuff and live in a camper too often. It was new territory for us. The biggest fear we had to get over was just “doing something different” than the norm.

Nowadays, millennials are so caught up in keeping up with everyone else that they often forget to make sure what they are doing is, in fact, good for their own financial life or not.

I think this comes from all the noise on the internet about what you “should” be doing at what age. We took the approach to focus on what we knew would be best for us and that was focusing on getting rid of our $50,000 of student loan debts so we could travel more, save for our retirement and start our online business.

The process of moving into and remodelling the camper

What was something you least expected to happen, but turned out to be a big issue during your life in the camper.

As with any good story or journey in life, you face unexpected characters and turns on the way to your destination. Living in a camper was no different. Things like making sure we remembered to change the propane tank every two weeks so that we could cook and have heat in the winter were critical. Inevitably we had a few cold nights but we laugh about it now.

Another thing living in the camper taught us was to appreciate the simple things in life: like hot water. The tank would only heat up enough water for about a 5 minute shower. Do the math and divide that by two people. It was challenging. Sure, cold showers are terrible but it’s not the end of the world. Putting things in perspective really helped us. So many people around the world (nearly 700 million) don’t even have access to clean drinking water. We found that there is always something to be grateful for no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

What kept you going when things got challenging?

Like most things in life, when you pursue something that is worthwhile things won’t always be easy. What kept us going was the ultimate goal we set originally that we would be debt free in 11 months. To us becoming debt free was our WHY.

We set goals that would get us there and we were in many ways impatient when it came to reaching them. I think this fueled our success. Staying focused. Setting goals. Following through with them.

We also publicly mentioned that we were setting out on this new journey. So if we backed out, we would have to explain to our friends and family. We just didn’t want to not achieve our goal that we’d originally set out for.

Life in the camper during the year

What is some practical advice you have to give to couples who want to buy an RV and live like you guys did?

There’s a few things I would suggest.

First, do your research on what RV will be best for you. You don’t need a $30,000 RV. We spent $3,500 and found something that was great for us. I would also suggest finding one that you can invest some sweat equity into and resell it once you are done living in it. Ideally you’ll be able to sell it for more than you bought it for. This gives you a nice “launch fund” into whatever you are planning next.

Secondly, make it a challenge to review your life while living in a camper.Think of this stage as an experiment to improve the way you live. Spend less. Read more. Think of it as a Henry David Thoreau-Walden type of adventure. Consider it a season of reflection and going against the grain. You’ll get out of it what you put into it.

Lastly, expect the unexpected. You will encounter things that are out of your comfort zone. That is the point (if you decide to live in an RV). You don’t have to live outside your comfort zone forever because you will grow and adapt into who you are striving to become.

Had you decided earlier on when you would stop and move out? Or when did you decide it was time to give up the camper life?

We decided we would only live in the RV for as long as we needed to in order to pay off our debt. We did the math backwards and figured out it would take us 11 months to become debt free. So that was our goal. We considered keeping the camper once we paid off our debt, but we decided to sell it. Since we remodeled it, we were able to make about three times what we bought it for. So it ended up being a good investment.

How has this 11 month changed you attitude towards money and life?

We learned so many things about money, life, and simple living during those 11 months.

The main takeaway for us and for others considering how to get out of debt is to just take action. You may not be able to live in a camper but you can take steps to reaching your financial goals in other ways.

We still live simply and because of that we have more now than ever to do the things we love.

What is your idea of a rich life?

We view money as a tool, not an outcome. Having a lot of money does not mean you’ll be happy. We find that too many millennials want to chase the dollar early in their career and forget about what they are giving up for it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there… but finding freedom financially is so much more than making a lot of money.

To me, a rich life is one that you enjoy waking up every day and pursuing something that you care about.

Now, what do you guys do and what kind of a house do you live in?

We currently run our blog that teaches millennials about personal finance and how they can find freedom from debt so they can do more of what they love.

We live in a great apartment in the city center and enjoy spending our nights on the balcony or out on the town with friends. We decided to move into an apartment so that we could be mobile. We want to be able to travel and not worry about having a house to take care of while we’re gone.

What do you miss from the trailer life and did it take time to get used to living in a real house after the move?

In some ways we miss the adventure of living in the RV. It was fun. Adjusting to our apartment wasn’t too hard except the usual pains of moving all your stuff. We still strive to live simply so we can enjoy spending our income on experiences and not things. We see our accomplishment of getting out of debt not the final step but just the beginning.

To read more about Zack & Jen, follow their blog or sign up for their upcoming online course on financial freedom.

Over to you…

So did you enjoy this conversation? Write to us in the responses section below with suggestions on whom we should feature in this interview series next or if you have any questions you would like us to ask them. We’re waiting to hear from you!

Did you enjoy reading this? Why don’t you share it and help others who are overwhelmed by debt?

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