Karen Akpan, known as @themomtrotter across social media, started her blog in 2017 to document and share budget travel hacks for people. Although she wasn’t a big spender, her story speaks to how debt can sneak into the lives of even those who earn good money.
This creep ultimately caused her family to lose the ability to stay on top of their finances.
“It’s called ‘lifestyle creep’ when you’re done with school so you think you have more money and can afford more things,” Akpan says. “But the truth is that you really can’t.”
At the time, Akpan had a good-paying job as a clinical researcher while her husband stayed home with their son. The consistent income made it hard to see how their monthly payments were beginning to add up. Then, in 2019, she lost her job.
This pivotal moment changed Akpan’s relationship with money and her life trajectory. With an expensive California mortgage, car payments and student loans, the emergency fund she and her husband, Sylvester, had dutifully built quickly depleted. At that point, it felt like they were drowning in debt.
She recalls waking up one day and thinking, I can’t live like this. If I continue like this, the cycle is gonna repeat itself. My child’s going to start college and struggle and have two or three jobs. The thought of her son, Aiden, going through the same struggles was enough for her to change things. With books, blogs and YouTube (or as Akpan calls it, “YouTube University”), she began educating herself on financial literacy and how to budget. At one point, she realized it was time to sell the house.
“I calculated and multiplied our monthly payment by the 30-year time period, and I realized that we would pay back three times the amount of the house,” Akpan explains. “I was like, What in the world am I doing? Why in the world would I buy anything and pay three times the amount back? Immediately, I was like, We’ve got to sell the house. We’re done. That’s it.”
So, they sold the house. They made all the improvements for the home, but by the time everything was said and done—between closing costs and renovation payments—they made less than $20,000.
“I thought we would sell the house, and we would just get the money that we had put in, but it was a total lie and a rude awakening for me,” Akpan says.
Their family had previously traveled in an RV, so she knew it was something she enjoyed. With the majority of the money made from their house, she decided to buy an RV off Facebook Marketplace. A few months later, they were on the road living in it.
That first night in the RV was memorable.
“I have really bad insomnia, and I don’t sleep well,” Akpan says. “That night, I slept like a baby. You know when you wake up in the morning and have no worry? Like, you wake up and have a coffee. I sat outside under the shade, sipping my coffee, and I did nothing. Wow, I did nothing. I had no worries. No worry in the world.”
Even with no monthly mortgage, they still had to pay for food, gas, health insurance and other bills. They calculated that their family of three could live off $2,000, so that was the minimum they targeted to make each month. This is when Akpan landed a gig from her blog.
“I started my blog for fun, highlighting how you can travel and get discounts and do stuff on a budget. But never in a million years did I think that I could make this much money from it,” Akpan says. “I didn’t even know that people were making this much money from it. So, when I saw the potential from the blog, I was like, ‘We got to invest in this, and we got to get serious about this because money can come in.’”
The potential she saw came to life, and her blog campaigns and paid promotions grew. They went from $2,000 campaigns to $10,000 campaigns. This time, the cash flow wasn’t going into monthly payments. With a sound financial literacy foundation, they began tackling their debt.
“Before, we were spending a good $5,000 to $8,000 a month on just bills,” Akpan says. “Imagine not having that and then making that $8,000 and only spending $2,000 a month. Being able to save so much!? Selling the house was absolutely our No. 1 best decision.”
When Akpan and her husband paid the total amount of their student loans, she remembers sitting in the car looking at each other in disbelief. “Last year, we had $0,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, look how far we’ve come.’”
Since they first sold their house, the Akpan family has paid off $200,000 in debt and increased their net worth to more than $200,000. Akpan credits it all to losing her job.
“If I hadn’t lost my contract, I wouldn’t have learned anything about money,” she reflects. “I would have still been working. I used to work 60- to 70-hour weeks; I worked like crazy because I thought we needed a house. It literally was a reset. And that reset is not only helping me now but everyone.”
It’s no exaggeration; the blessings in her life aren’t just reserved for her. There’s a particular category for blessing others in her monthly budget. She recently surprised her niece and nephews with a surprise vacation to Mexico.
“I just told them to pack a bag and show up,” Akpan says.
This sense of generosity is something she’s intentionally cultivating in her son as well.
“We’ll sit at dinner, and he’ll ask, ‘OK, mom, whose dinner are we gonna pay for?’ Or we’ll go get groceries and cover someone else. It’s so important because he gets to travel to all these fancy places, and I want him to understand that you have this, but it’s also just as important to give.”
Akpan’s not just open with her family about finances. A quick skim through her social media will show a lot of candid conversations around money, with exact figures and investment accounts they use. For Akpan, passing on her knowledge is nonnegotiable.
“It would be terrible if I didn’t do my due diligence and educate somebody,” Akpan says. “These are things people don’t know about, like a Roth IRA.”
A barrier to entry for financial literacy was the inability to find others in her life who were knowledgeable about money.
“When I first started, I kept thinking, ‘do Black people do this?’” Akpan says, “I don’t know people who are debt-free. I don’t know anybody who has paid off a student loan, and it’s really hard to see yourself in a place where you don’t know anybody who has done something. That’s why I share about money so openly, because I want other people to see me and say, ‘Hey, I know somebody who has paid this off. I could do it, too.’ Because, at the time, I was looking for that person.”
Now, Akpan makes it a point to ask people if they have a Roth individual retirement account. When friends say yes, she’ll ask, “Why didn’t you tell me? If you’ve known about this Roth IRA, and you knew that this was a way that I could put money away tax-free, why didn’t you share the knowledge?”
Akpan also encourages people to change their perception of what travel entails if they feel they can’t afford it.
“You can drive, take the bus, take the train,” she says. “If you go into another city or someplace new, you’ve traveled. Don’t get caught up in, ‘I didn’t fly on a plane overseas, so I haven’t traveled.’ No, you can create travel experiences for yourself right there that don’t cost a lot.”
She also encourages aspiring digital nomads to create the life they want by first acknowledging their true priorities. Then, they can make a budget with that in mind, monitor their expenses and see what can be cut.
“When I started budgeting, I was blown away by how much money we spent on random stuff,” Akpan says. “Like, if you don’t budget, you really don’t know where your money goes. So, I preach about budgeting all the time.”
All the knowledge in the world doesn’t help without action, so Akpan encourages people to just go for it. “Go ahead and take the risk,” she says “You never know what’s waiting for you.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Alyssa Lynne Photography
Iona Brannon is a freelance journalist based in the U.S. You can read more of her work at ionabrannon.com.