The Wild Drive #buslife Recap Part One - Debt Annihilation
How did we go from +$100,000 of debt and being a signature away from purchasing a house to fully embracing the idea and reality of tiny living and a flexible, simple lifestyle?
Nah, just kidding...
In October 2013, we were newly married and sitting pretty on $100,000 of interest-accruing student loan debt and a car loan. Feeling the pressure of adhering to the “expected” steps of adulthood, we also found ourselves under contract to purchase a $175,000 house. With personal goals and dreamy adventures knocking at our subconscious, a feeling swept over us after the house inspection came back with less than stellar marks.
It became clear that this was a serious move; one that came with six figure debt to add on to our already stressful six figure debt. We're adults, we should be comfortable with this, but, do we really want this? In retrospect, it’s almost as if we were looking for bad news out of the inspection. It gave us an out and made us think about what really felt right for US. Everyone is different, after all.
We backed out of the sale and had a long conversation with each other about what the next step could be. WHAT do we want? WHERE do we want to be? At times, we were super critical of ourselves and felt a bit like we failed...
How do we feel and appear successful as adults without a HOUSE?! Adults have houses! Back to the drawing board…
All we knew for sure is that we didn’t want to be chipping away at beastly loans until the outrageous payoff date listed on the statements. Options are limited with that kind of commitment, and our hearts, even then, were a little too wild to bear the thought.
So, we decided to get rid of them; to focus on that task and let things flow and evolve from there. We actually made a game out of it...
We simplified our lives and our spending. We strategized ways to make the balances shrink. It started to feel GOOD, really good, to save money and redirect funds to annihilating debt. The mantras and motivation flowed strong and the hardworking months came and went. Don't get me wrong, we still enjoyed ourselves, a lot, but we prioritized the game of disappearing loan balances.
I tracked everything in a budget spreadsheet that I still use today and it worked like a charm. I know, I know, get Mint. Whatever. Trust me I’m all up to date with what’s out there, but, sometimes a simple spreadsheet does the job just fine.
Interested in getting a free copy of my income, expense, and savings tracker spreadsheet? Sign up here... I'll release it in mid-August!
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We kept a reasonable (AT LEAST 3 months of living expenses, easily calculated thanks to our spreadsheet) cushion of funds in our checking account but every other extra bit of money went straight to our loans. We kept all of the normal monthly amounts on automatic payment, but more importantly we made consistent extra payments by phone every single month, sometimes more often.
We grew to LOVE feeling of sending extra money in because it meant that we were one step closer to being debt-free, faster. THIS became our top priority and plans started building around that goal. I didn't expect for things to happen this way, but I cannot tell you HOW thankful I am. Our core priorities and perspective REALLY started to shift at this point. That's what you're 20's are all about right? Figuring out what's right for YOU...
Everyone is different. This is just our story.
For us, the journey of buckling down to rid ourselves of the burden of student loan debt changed us in a very significant way. It made us consciously think about the value and purpose behind our work, habits, purchases, and possessions. It surprised us, challenged us, and proved that we can accomplish big things. We all can!
In October 2015, two years later, we called in to make our final student loan payment. Quick note on why I always took the time to CALL in for extra payments on our student loans...
At the beginning of project debt annihilation, I found that often times when I sent in an extra payment, they would do funny things like not apply it to the specific loan I indicated on the memo line, only apply it to interest, or pause my normally scheduled monthly payment because I was so far "ahead", etc. SO - I preferred talking to a real person to ensure that my extra payment was received and handled the way I intended. Peace of mind. Call me crazy. It was worth the few minutes of weird hold music. See this post for more about what this student loan debt payoff process taught us.
We received a super anti-climactic confirmation of payoff from the customer service representative by and just like that, we were free. Well, sort of.
We still had two car loans (one became two in April 2014) to tackle, but we accepted that for now. We’ll get back to that later.
A few months later, in January 2016, with our total debt reduced by 80%, we returned to the discussion about our next step, our next adventure. The frugal habits we adopted from 2013 - 2015 stuck with us, and we just kept going with it. We were now sitting pretty on some savings since all the money we were sending to student loan lenders was instead OURS and earning interest in our checking account. Woohoo.
Maybe now we should buy a house?
We started toying with the idea of buying a classic camper/van to refurbish. At the time we followed a few vintage camper groups and blogs and kept our eyes peeled for something on that front. We also did a lot of research on building a tiny home, the rules and regulations, etc. - We knew that we wanted to live small and simply, it was REALLY fun and it worked for us. Whether it was a tiny home build or finding the right trailer to turn into something with year-round livability, we were interested. At the time, we never heard the word “skoolie”, and knew nothing of the possibility of converting a school bus (or prison bus!!) into a tiny home.
We kept our options option through February and one day like any other we started our weekly online search. Browsing through the craigslist goodies and not so goodies, we came across a listing for a 31 foot retired prison bus/mobile command center for sale in MA. It had a nice creepy black/chipped red patina, and the faded words “SHERIFF’S OFFICE” written on the front end above the windshield.
Ben stopped right away to read more to which I reacted like any normal person and freaked out. I straight up judged that book by its cover. It’s not a teal VW camper van, aka, I’m not interested.
Ben read me the listing which described the bus in greater detail: a 1989 Chevy B6P with a diesel engine with only 19,000 miles on it. It was owned by the Sheriff’s department in VA and used as a mobile surveillance vehicle after it did its time in the slammer as a prison transport bus. It was outfitted with shore power hookup, electric outlets throughout, and a Cummins Onan 8000 generator.
Ben was SOLD. I reluctantly started listening…
The inside had three locking door prison cages which separated the space behind the drivers seat into three sections. There were metal server stands, four seats, a few drop down tables, and dozens of power strips and outlets alongside where neat secretive equipment once sat (or so I assume!). In the back of the bus there was an air compressor which powered a 24 foot pneumatic mast antenna attached to the back of the bus.
Ben was STILL sold. My slight interest turned into curiosity. This is nuts.
Reading further, we learned that the body of the bus was in pretty great condition considering its age, with surface rust only. It was a very well cared for bus. The seller planned to do a bus to tiny home conversion himself but quickly realized (or his wife realized) that he’s in his sixties and has too many projects going as-is.
We did some research on school bus conversions since this was the first we heard of such a wacky thing. We quickly found that there were a growing number of crazy (awesome) people doing this exact thing all over the world. One of the key advantages they talked about was that buses are built with such solid materials compared to modern day RVs and trailers.
Ben said he knew it right then and there. He wanted this bus. There I was sitting next to him, visions of us lounging in an adorable 1960’s teal and chrome canned ham trailer, or that VW camper van. I never pictured us buying a 30 foot PRISON BUS from Virginia. *Sigh*
Ben convinced me that we should at least go take a look at it. I trusted him then and every single day I'm glad I did. We reached the seller and set up a date and time to go visit and test drive the bus the following week.
Get alllll caught up in our prison bus tiny home conversion process:
Part Two - Mad Max prison bus, anyone?
Part Three - Work, work, and inspiration!
Featured image photo cred: Rachel Halsey Photography a.k.a. a super sweet photographic magician.