This Millennial Couple Paid Off $50K in Debt — Now They Live on a Sailboat

Updated February 22, 2017
by Dana Sitar
Staff Writer

“Lucidity in her present state is a sailboat,” writes Ryan Deitrich.

“She is a 1985 Hallberg-Rassy … they are notorious for crossing oceans — which is what we intend to do with her.”

Deitrich and his girlfriend Kelsey Swagler bought the vintage sailboat 10 months ago, and they’ve been living on it for the past seven.

Living aboard — as those in the know call it — has drastically reduced their living expenses, but the lifestyle is about more than money.

It’s about “being able to see different cities and travel at a small expense, and being able to see it from a different side — from the water,” Kelsey explains.

“It takes a certain mindset,” Ryan says, “but if you’re prepared for it,” it’s totally doable.

Their preparations took about a year.

“It was all we wanted to do,” he says, and they weren’t disappointed.

How This Couple Paid Off $50K in Debt and Saved $30K for a Sailboat

Ryan Deitrich and his girlfriend Kelsey Swagler pose on their sailboat docked at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Two years before moving onto the boat, Kelsey owed $35,000 in student loans. Ryan, 25, owed $15,000 on a car loan.

Kelsey, also 25, was raised in a frugal family, by accountants. She was generally taught to be smart about money and budgeting. Ryan…not so much.

“In a previous life, I was a professional poker player, so I would spend money like crazy,” he says.

Kelsey helped him understand how much money he was spending, and he really caught on when they moved into their first place together. That’s when he hit the brakes on spending.

“I kind of went cold turkey right away,” he says of the decision to stop spending, start saving and get out of debt.

The couple met while in college at the University of Tampa in Florida. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment together in the city. They planned to rent out the spare room through Airbnb to cover expenses so they could make progress on their debt.

Between some savings and a sign-on bonus at his new job, Ryan was able to pay off the car loan within a month or two. That left them to focus on Kelsey’s $35,000 in student loans.

Through frugality, creative money-making and one very major lifestyle change, they would pay it off in just 19 months.

They earned about $85,000 a year combined from their full-time jobs. In 10 months hosting through Airbnb, they earned another $16,000.

The Airbnb income easily covered their monthly expenses — about $1,200 for rent and utilities.

But they wanted to do better.

Frugality became a sort of challenge they wanted to conquer.

“We played a ‘don’t spend any money on the weekend’ game,” Ryan explains. “That started pretty much right around the same time that we started the Airbnb, so we kind of had a major drop on how much we were spending and then also had this big surplus of income coming in.”

Before the “game” started, they were spending about $80 to $100 each weekend on dinners out, drinks and entertainment. A moratorium on weekend spending could mean an extra $400 a month toward their debt and savings.

To occupy their weekends, they’d pack a lunch — “Lots of PB&J sandwiches,” Ryan remembers — and visit a new state park one day. The other day they’d spend binge-watching something on Netflix.

Oh, and careful meal planning.

“Every single Sunday, we would spend two or three hours meal prepping for the entire week,” Ryan explains. That helped them avoid going out to eat on weeknight evenings just because they were “hangry” and didn’t feel like cooking.

“We kind of beefed up our grocery spending at that point, but it resulted in a lot of savings.”

For a year and a half, they both also occasionally drove for Uber and Lyft. Ryan worked Saturdays at his full-time job because he earned about double pay for those days. Kelsey spent the day driving with the rideshare services.

They also made a point to drive anytime there was a surge, so they could get the most money for their time. They took advantages of promotions, holidays and special events when the companies guaranteed drivers extra pay.

Once they knew they were sea-bound, they started to sell off everything they owned — and they were ruthless.

“We re-listed a paper-towel holder four times on OfferUp just to get $1,” Ryan said.

They estimate they made at least $5,000 selling clothes, shoes, furniture and other things they realized they didn’t need.

The trick was keeping a box of stuff in their bedroom, which they constantly refilled with things they found in the closet.

“When you pull it out of the closet,” Ryan said, “and it’s around you in your day-to-day life, it starts to get annoying.”

With that persistent reminder, they found it easy to get rid of the things they never used.

What It’s Like Living on a Boat

The inside of Lucidity is cozy but comfortable. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

“I originally wanted to move into a van,” Ryan says.

But, “I was not for that,” Kelsey quickly interjected.

As a compromise, Kelsey came up with the idea to move onto a boat.

Her only contingency was it needed to fit a full-size queen mattress — not typical for a house boat, but they ended up squeezing one in. She also wanted a shower she could stand up in.

“We wanted to live in a place where we could travel around and still feel at home,” she explains. “We wanted to live in a smaller space, like a tiny home, but knew we didn’t want to live in (an actual) tiny home yet, so we picked a boat.”

They found their new home through a sailing forum and got an unbelievable deal.

They met a man named Jim, who’d owned the boat for 30 years — including living on it for a solo trans-Atlantic excursion — and wanted to find it a good home.

They bought the boat for $30,000, though they believe it could have gone for more than $50,000. They don’t take credit for the bargain, though. It was more like fate.

“The buying process was a true dream, and throughout it we got to know Jim and his endless tales of adventures, from hitchhiking across Australia to time spent in Zimbabwe,” Ryan writes at Abandon Comfort, where they blog about their new adventures. “We can only hope to emulate Jim’s time onboard her and we are so grateful to have the opportunity to be her next owners.”

In addition to getting their dream boat, Ryan and Kelsey developed a relationship with Jim, a 78-year-old, 5-foot-3 Scottish man who Ryan says is “like a boat-dad…or a grandpa.”

The couple picked it up at Indiantown, on the east coast of Florida. They spent three days with Jim learning the ins and outs — and quirks — of the boat.

The trip home to port on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg was five days.

“They were rocky!” Kelsey recalls.

“When we first put out the sail, we both had no sailing experience,” Ryan explains.

Ryan was with the Coast Guard for five years, so he had power-boating experience — but not sailing. They had to learn from books, YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error.

After about 30 minutes on the water, “we found out Kelsey was seasick.”

Then they tore a sail.

Then they heard an alarm onboard they hadn’t heard before. They realized the boat was taking on water.

They were able to just press a button that’s made for that situation and let the water out, but before they figured that out, “it was the scariest two minutes, as our boat filled up with water,” Kelsey says.

They still don’t know where the water was coming from.

“The winds were pretty heavy that day,” Ryan explains. “We probably shouldn’t have been sailing, knowing what we know now.”

Hindsight is 20/20.

Thankfully, Kelsey’s gotten over her seasickness, and it’s been pretty smooth sailing since.

The Actual Cost of Living on a Boat

Lucidity docked at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Once they docked their new home at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, they continued to shed a lot of their belongings.

“On a boat, you can’t hide anything, so you really have to keep it small,” Kelsey says.

They’re committed to minimalist living. They don’t have anything in a storage unit, which you might expect for anyone who’s downsized so dramatically.

Do they miss anything? They quickly — and honestly — said no.

Ryan recalled one day when he felt the pull to just relax and watch TV, “but that was one Sunday” — in nearly a year.

Occasionally they miss having a microwave. They could have one, but Kelsey says, “then it’s too much like a home. You’re not really sailing as much.” And it takes up a lot of room and power from the boat’s 30-amp battery.

Kelsey occasionally uses a hair dryer, but avoids it to save power. Generally, she hasn’t given up any of her necessities. And she still goes to work every morning!

They don’t look like they’ve been battling the high seas for months, either. They look like any other healthy, clean-cut millennials.

Kelsey still works in advertising. Ryan was working and going to grad school until a classmate pitched him an idea for an app to help users pay down student loans using their spare change.

Two months ago, he left his job to work full-time on the newly-founded company, Spared. His main income is a $700 monthly G.I. Bill stipend, and he still has about $15,000 in savings.

They pay $450 a month to dock the boat at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, plus $200 to live aboard. That fee includes an outlet at the dock, where they can charge the battery, plus laundry and even a pool.

The marina also has on-land bathroom facilities, so they don’t have to use the toilet and shower on the boat. That lets them avoid emptying a waste-holding tank, which is like those on an RV.

Because they bought such an old, used — and well-loved — boat, their biggest expense now is maintenance.

Since purchasing Lucidity, they’ve put $10,000 into fixing her up. They plan to spend another $8,000 adding solar panels and about $15,000 replacing her worn teak decks with more durable synthetic material.

They point out they could get power more cheaply than the solar panels. In addition to the panels themselves, a lot of expense goes into building a platform to hold them. The cabin doesn’t have an empty roof like a typical house does.

The other option for power away from shore, which uses less space, is to install a wind generator. That’s pretty popular, they said, but noisy. It would keep them awake at night — a sacrifice they’re not willing to make.

With lots of projects to work on, they no longer have to worry about what to do with their weekends. They spend those on boat-improvement projects.

“It takes four times as a long to do a single project, because you’re on the water,” Kelsey notes.

If anything falls through the rails into the water, they have to head back to Home Depot to replace it — not a hindrance you usually face on land.

Once they replace the decks, they’ll be ready to set out.

“We just pretty much have to go ahead and sail at that point,” once the major projects are finished, Ryan says.

They eventually intend to sail the Caribbean Sea, only occasionally dropping anchor, not having a dedicated home in a marina like they do now.

Should You Live on a Boat?

Sailboats pictured at Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Ryan says living aboard a boat is “totally doable for anyone.”

“If you set up a plan and have some kind of set goal in place, it’s so easy to accomplish this.”

Anyone can save the money, he believes, and learn the skills. You just have to be willing to live the lifestyle. Everyone they run into at the marina speaks of it with a twinkle in their eye and a wistful romance in their voice, he says.

“It’s kind of like old-school living where you know your neighbors, and everyone is kind of a team,” Ryan explains. “That’s just how it is with liveaboards and people that are cruising on boats, as well.”

Their neighbors have been more than willing to share advice and extra materials when they need them. They quickly welcomed Ryan and Kelsey into the “neighborhood.”

To be comfortable living on a boat, “you have to like camping, and being in small spaces,” Kelsey said.

But you’re not exactly roughing it, Ryan adds. “If you’re OK with camping, this is like glamping,” with electricity, running water and pool access, after all.

In addition to the mobility, they’re both excited about how much they’re learning.

“Every day is brand-new, which is something we definitely didn’t expect,” Ryan says. Almost a year in, they still don’t know nearly as much as they thought they would.

The bottom line of this lifestyle, though, is the freedom.

“We had the option of either buying this or buying a home, and not having a mortgage is incredible,” Ryan says. “It’s such a freedom that people don’t realize that you can have. For us the flexibility we get from it is awesome.”

Your Turn: Have you ever considered living aboard a sailboat?

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).

by Dana Sitar
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

Share Your Thoughts

Top Articles