In what has been a difficult year for many, Karen Akpan and her husband, Sylvester managed to find a silver lining.
The couple had been struggling under the weight of $118,000 in combined student loan debt and a heavy mortgage payment. Originally from West Africa, Karen admits that she had limited financial literacy when she enrolled in university in California, which led to an avalanche of student loan debt.
“Growing up we never talked about money with anybody, you don’t know how much money anybody makes, and you don’t know how much anybody saves. You don’t even know the right way to do it,” she explained to Travel Noire.
A subsequent master’s degree did not improve her job prospects. The Akpans found themselves fighting to stay afloat and spend time with their young son. The solution presented itself in an unconventional way. They decided to sell their California home and purchase an RV.
Since then, they’ve managed to eliminate all their debt and see almost half the US in the process. Travel Noire spoke with Karen about how the couple made their monumental lifestyle change, how it has affected their relationship, and how she blocks out the naysayers.
When did you realize that you needed to make a shift in your life?
It just seemed like we were working a lot; working to keep up. I just didn’t want to have to work too much to keep up. My focus was just to spend more time with my son.
Why did you decide to sell your California home?
When we got married, we purchased our first home and then we decided to put that as a rental and then purchased another one. We moved closer to the L.A. area. But it just wasn’t a good choice. Now that I think about it after watching so many YouTube videos and learning about finance in general, those are the things that I didn’t know to think about, like how much your house is supposed to cost versus how much you make. The term house poor had never occurred to me until I realized that we were house poor.
How much was the house costing you?
The second house we bought for $625,000 and then the mortgage was $4,200 a month. We definitely had to do something about it. There was just no way around it.
When you came to that realization, why did you decide on an RV? How did that conversation go?
The goal was to downsize, right? So I’m looking at all these places to downsize to, and they’re just as expensive. So I’m thinking I’m going to downsize and basically just pay almost the same cost of what I’m paying for a house, but then be stuck in a tiny house. I don’t want to do that. So the next best thing would be to be able to travel and then kind of do the RV life. So we took an RV trip last year and after that trip, it really opened up my eyes and showed us that this was something that we could do. We came across a lot of families who are full-time living and everybody just seemed happier and more relaxed.
How much of the US have you seen during your RV travels?
We’ve been to 20 states so far. We haven’t been to the East Coast yet. That’s because it’s cold right now, and we basically follow the weather. So once it starts getting a little warmer, then we’ll drive all that way just because the RV doesn’t have that insulation.
For people who don’t know what the RV life is like, tell us about it.
It’s honestly one of the best things that we’ve ever done. We have a room in the back. My husband and I have a queen size bed that has a super comfortable mattress. And then our son, our eight year old, his room is in the front. He has a queen size bed too that’s over the cab, which is like a bunk over the driver’s seat. Right now, my nieces and nephews are visiting and all three kids can sleep up there comfortably and they love it. It’s his little area where he has his toys and his books. I love that the RV has that separation. We love that he has his own space up front and we have our own space at the back. We have a little dining area where we sit down for for work and school and to eat. And then we have a full kitchen with microwave, cooktop, refrigerator, a little living room area and then the bathroom, shower, and toilet.
How much would an RV cost someone, just generally speaking?
There are so many different kinds of RV. There’s a class A, B, C, there’s a trailer, there’s a fifth wheel. The prices vary a lot. But we have a class C and we bought it for I think fourteen thousand. We bought it on Facebook Marketplace. So my husband bought it and then he literally watched YouTube and then we did the whole inside; painted it, took the carpet off, put hardwood on there, changed the countertops, changed the pools. We basically made it feel like home for us.
I imagined an RV would have been more expensive.
It depends on what you’re looking for. If people want fancy RV’s, I’ve seen an RV for $300,000. Those are nice, but our goal was to save money. So we’re going for the cheapest option possible. You can get a trailer for like five, six, seven, eight, nine thousand. But the difference is that you need a car to pull the trailer, but an RV has the engine, so we drive it versus pulling. So if you’re trying to downsize, and you’re looking for something affordable, there’s stuff out there.
How much would you estimate that you’ve been able to save so far?
We save, I would say, at least 80 to 85 percent of our income because we don’t spend on anything. We literally cut out all spending. We’re not buying anything. We’re not shopping. There’s less space in the RV to put it up. So there’s no way. Where’s it going to go? Before we would go to Costco and load up on groceries. We would over buy stuff. But now we only buy a little bit at a time because our fridge is smaller, space is smaller. So we only buy what we need, which I’ve noticed makes a huge difference.
In terms of family dynamics, the three of you are sharing a smaller space. Have you found that you’ve grown closer just from doing that?
Oh, definitely. It’s just amazing. Even with my husband, our marriage is just so much better to be honest with you. It’s so much better because we’re less stressed and then we’re together all the time and we really enjoy each other’s company. And with our eight-year-old it’s really good because we have eyes on him; he’s always with us, so he’s watching us, he’s listening to us. We always see what he’s doing. We know what he’s up to at all times. So it brings some sort of closeness as a family when we all like one unit.
Can you share some practical tips for anyone contemplating switching to this kind of life? What should they consider before doing this?
The number one thing is don’t listen to what anybody says. I feel like a lot of people want to do it, but they’re scared. Oh, what is this person going to think? What’s my family going to think? You have to live your life for you. When we moved to the RV, we didn’t care what anybody thought. A lot of people thought we were crazy, to be honest with you because it’s not the norm. So it can be very discouraging when nobody really understands why you’re making the choices that you’re making.
My number one tip is if you want to do something, don’t listen to what anybody says and don’t listen to the naysayers. The other thing I would say is it doesn’t hurt to try it. If you want to go RVing, I say do it. If you don’t like it, then, hey, why not go back to your house? But at least, you know, you tried it out. If you own a home, I would say rent it out for a year and then try RVing for a year. You will never know if you like it if you don’t try it out.
Follow the Akpan family’s RV adventures at The Mom Trotter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.