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Van Life Helped This Man Pay Off $30,000 in Student Loans

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When Evan Finton decided to go to college, he majored in engineering. To get through the rigorous program in just four years—a rare feat—he had to borrow money to cover his living expenses and tuition.

“I lived on student loans throughout my college career,” he said. “But I lived pretty frugally. I’ve never been a person who goes out and parties and I never went on a spring break. Throughout college, I made sure I was watching where I was spending money.”

Despite being careful with his spending, Finton graduated in 2016 with $30,000 in student loan debt. To manage his debt and to maximize his money, Finton made a drastic decision: he embraced the tiny house mindset and moved into a renovated campervan full-time.

By cutting his living expenses, he was able to pay off his student loans in just three years, giving him the financial freedom to pursue an untraditional lifestyle. Here’s how he did it.


Image provided by Evan Finton

Dealing with Student Loans

Finton’s engineering program was expensive, costing about $300 per credit hour. To cover his expenses, he used a mix of grants, federal loans, and private student loans, racking up $30,000 in education debt.

Most people just make the minimum payments on their loans, and it can take 10 years or more to pay them off. But for Finton, being in debt for a decade was unacceptable. Having student loans hanging over his head would make it difficult for him to pursue his interests and goals.

While many people struggle to afford their payments, Finton was lucky.

“With my engineering degree, I was never really struggling to afford the payments,” he said. “I started out around $70,000 per year, so I was living pretty well.”

He didn’t have to worry about finding the money to pay the minimum due each month. But Finton decided to take it a step further to aggressively pay off his debt. Despite his excellent salary, Finton spent his first year living with his dad to reduce his living expenses and to take advantage of his loan’s grace period. By doing so, he was able to put extra money toward his loan’s principal.

“I did that because during the initial six months after graduation, there was no interest accruing on my [subsidized federal] student loans,” he said. “So I really wanted to focus and pay down debt as quick as I could during those six months.”

However, living with his father was a temporary solution, and Finton started to explore other options.

Joining the Vandwellers

After college, Finton thought about different housing situations that would free up extra cash to repay his student loans. However, paying rent on an apartment or home didn’t appeal to him.

“I don’t want to put my money into something that I’m not going to own,” he said. “And, if you look at buying a house, it really doesn’t pay off unless you’re there three to five years.”

Finton started exploring tiny homes, which are small living spaces under 600-square feet. Tiny houses can be actual small homes on a foundation, or they can be renovated trailers or buses.

Finton initially opted for a travel trailer, which he could park at an RV resort or mobile home park and pay $300 to $500 for lot rent. That rate was far cheaper than rental or mortgage payments would be in his area, so he decided to purchase a trailer to lower his expenses.

“With my job, I was able to get a couple thousand dollars set aside within a few months, which was enough to put a decent-sized down payment down on the trailer,” he said. “From there, I worked with the owner and set up a payment plan.”

Rather than testing out tiny living first, Finton moved right in. The first time he lived in a small space was when he moved into his trailer. At first, it was a transition.

“Minimalism inherently came along with moving into a smaller space,” he said. “You need less things. And living in a smaller space made me reevaluate what those things are actually doing for me.”

Moving into a travel trailer changed how Finton shopped and accrued stuff.

“It made me think more about what different items in my life, what their purpose or meaning to me are,” he said. “And if they don’t have a deep connection with me, or bring some type of value, or have multiple purposes, then I just felt personally it wasn’t worth it to have them around. To me, the energy feels cleaner [without excess things] and you don’t have so many things distracting you.”

By going small, Finton was able to dramatically reduce his living expenses. Not only did he have a smaller monthly payment, but he also spent less money on extras. Thanks to living in a trailer, Finton was able to put $1,500 per month — far more than the minimum owed — toward his student loans. In December 2018, just three years after he graduated, Finton was able to completely pay off his student loans.

Image provided by Evan Finton

Living in the Van Full Time

Getting rid of his student loan debt so quickly gave Finton much more freedom. Without the weight of his loans, he had more breathing room in his budget to pursue his interests.

To keep the momentum going, Finton started to think about ways to cut his expenses still further while giving himself more mobility. While he initially thought about buying a tiny home on wheels, he ended up renovating a sprinter van, instead.

After selling his travel trailer, he financed a used van for $27,000 and spent about $8,000 customizing the van conversion for his needs. By doing the labor himself, he was able to cut down on renovation costs.

He created a completely self-sustaining home on wheels that is off-the-grid, meaning it doesn’t need to be hooked up to utilities. Finton installed solar panels on the top for power, a 12V refrigerator, a composting toilet, a two-burner propane stove, and a powered sink with a water pump. It even has luxuries like a projector for movies and a hammock in the middle for guests. All told, he fits everything within a 60-square-foot space.

Image provided by Evan Finton

Best of all, he can take his home wherever he wants. As a regular vehicle, he can park it anywhere, and travel from destination to destination, living on the road.

“The car payment [on the van] was $400 per month, but that’s a car, house, and travel tent all in one,” Finton said.

With his student loans paid off, Finton used the money he used to spend on loan payments to bulk up his savings account and 401(k), instead. By saving money consistently and reducing his living expenses,  Finton was able to build a solid nest egg and emergency fund.

Now, he plans on leaving his corporate job. He, his girlfriend, and their two dogs are planning on touring the country for 12 months, on a full-time road trip, exploring new cities and hiking.

“At this point, tiny living has pretty much consumed my life and I’m interested in doing more with it,” he said. “Traveling is the time for us to discover where we want to put our energy.”

Image provided by Evan Finton

Is Tiny Living Right for You?

Not ready to break your lease and become a vanlifer? Living in a tiny home or a renovated van may seem like a drastic step. But if you’re dealing with student loan debt, downsizing and living in a tiny home can be an excellent way to reduce your living expenses to free up extra money to repay your loans. To figure out if it’s for you, Finton recommended thinking about your priorities.

For me, I think laying out my wants and needs really helped me,” he said. “There’s a lot of benefits to living tiny, but there are also a lot of drawbacks. But I think of them as challenges, and challenges bring me fulfillment.”

Vandwelling or downsizing into a tiny home isn’t for everyone. But for some people, it can be an effective way to achieve financial freedom by saving a lot of money.

“If you’re okay with giving up a few modern luxuries for the benefit of living free and not being chained to debt, then tiny living may be for you,” Finton said. “So just lay out your wants and needs and find what fits you best.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.

Conquer your student debt. Refinance now.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.