Personal finance

This Family Sold Their House to Live in an RV—Now They Earn Over $80,000 a Year Traveling Across the US

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This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

It's hard to get hold of Karen Akpan. One week, the 32-year-old might be visiting family in Florida with her husband, Sylvester, and their son Aiden; the next, the family is sunbathing in Aruba or sightseeing in the Dominican Republic. In the past month alone, their travels also included Colombia, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where CNBC Make It caught up with them.

The family wasn't always so mobile. But at the end of 2019, Karen and Sylvester, 41, took a hard look at their finances and decided to make a change. They sold both of their homes in California (they lived in one and rented out the other), used $14,000 from their savings to buy an RV off of Facebook Marketplace in early 2020 and started traveling around the U.S.

The family — yes, even 8-year-old Aiden earns a paycheck — now make a living from Karen's blog, The Mom Trotter, and by creating ad campaigns for the likes of Camping World, Circle K Stores, Hilton Hotels and Disney, among others, for Instagram and TikTok. Income has varied from month to month since they started in 2020, but last year they took home around $81,000. This year they are on track to more than double those earnings.

"There's no way we're going back to a house or careers or anything like that," Karen says. "We love the freedom that working for ourselves, being entrepreneurs, has given us."

Making a change

Growing up in Cameroon in Central Africa, Karen says she wasn't taught about money. "It was taboo," she says.

After moving to the U.S. at 15, she attended both undergrad and graduate school at Cal State Northridge, accruing close to $70,000 in student loan debt while studying family and consumer sciences. When she married Sylvester, who had student loan debt of his own, in August 2011, the couple bought a home they couldn't really afford and began to live what they considered at the time to be the American dream.

Karen and Sylvester Akpan with their son, Aiden (L), niece, Avery, and nephew, Ethan.
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Karen and Sylvester Akpan with their son, Aiden (L), niece, Avery, and nephew, Ethan.

A 2019 RV trip around Arizona, Nevada and Utah inspired the couple to rethink their dream. "We were house poor, that's the honest truth," Karen says, noting they couldn't really afford their $4,200-per-month house payment on their salaries at the time.

Plus, after they had Aiden, the family was traveling at least once a month to show him the world. They rarely spent time in the big house they were paying so much to live in.

Soon after that trip, they exchanged their hefty mortgage for the one-time RV payment (Aiden was already being homeschooled, which made the transition easier), with the intention to pay off all of their debt and start building wealth for Aiden.

They left their 9-5 jobs, so at the time, Karen's blog was their only income stream; she estimates they were bringing home less than $50,000 a year.

Aiden, Ethan and Avery climb in the bunk bed in the Akpans' RV.
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Aiden, Ethan and Avery climb in the bunk bed in the Akpans' RV.

Now, they are saving and investing for the future, which they weren't able to do before. The couple reached their debt-free goal of completely paying off $110,000 in student loans last year, mostly with money from the sale of the home. That they now earn significantly more than they used to is a happy accident.

Most of the financial moves are done with Aiden in mind. After learning more about personal finance over the past few years, Karen and Sylvester are encouraging Aiden to learn and save on his own so he has a leg up in the world.

"I want us to be able to be debt-free because then we can pass on generational wealth to our son," says Karen. "It's just been so freeing."

How they budget their money

Here are the Akpans' expected June 2021 monthly personal expenses.

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  • Investments: $8,950 to 401(k)s for Karen and Sylvester ($3,250), and Roth IRAs for all three Akpans, including Aiden ($1,500). They also invest through a brokerage account ($4,200), and a special college account for Aiden ($500).
  • Discretionary: $680 including donations, hair care and homeschooling expenses
  • Gas: $600
  • Food: $300 for groceries. The Akpans cook basically every meal, unless they are in a city like New Orleans and want to splurge, or it is a business expense.
  • Car insurance: $275 for their car and RV
  • Phone: $200
  • Wi-Fi: $80
  • Subscriptions: $41 including Amazon Prime, Netflix and Spotify

Karen and Sylvester technically operate an S Corp, and most of their expenses are business expenses. They pay themselves and Aiden as W-2 employees. The company made around $300,000 last year, and the Akpans took home around $81,000. This year, they are on track to earn around $180,000, the majority of which comes from their Instagram campaigns.

The Akpans have basically no housing costs. They paid $14,000 for their first RV (they were recently gifted a new RV by Camping World), and about $6,000 for a Thousand Trails lifetime membership, which allows them to park their RV for free at campgrounds across the country (they occasionally stop at parks that are not part of the program).

Karen Akpan working in her RV.
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Karen Akpan working in her RV.

They do not have health insurance in the U.S., which Karen says does occasionally make her nervous. The family recently traveled to Colombia, where they had dental work done at a more affordable price. Sylvester got top and bottom braces for $70, which they paid for out of pocket.

Most of their earnings go into investments, including solo 401(k)s, Roth IRAs and their brokerage accounts. Karen and Sylvester just opened their first 401(k)s in June, and have around $16,000 between them in Roth IRAs. Their goal is to contribute the maximum to each retirement account this year.

"We didn't have any 401(k) accounts, which honestly, that really stressed me out a lot," Karen says. "I feel like people at this age already have so much money in 401(k) accounts and we're starting late."

Aside from maxing out their retirement accounts, they are focused on building wealth for Aiden and saving to buy a rental property one day.

Here are the Akpans' expected monthly business expenses for June 2021, covering what they spend on content creation, to host Karen's website, travel and produce ad campaigns.

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  • Travel: $3,000
  • Virtual assistants: $2,000
  • Photographer/videographer: $500
  • Food for ad campaigns: $500
  • Subscriptions: $500 for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, Boomerang, Canva, GSuite, Google storage, a National Park pass, Scott's Cheap Flights, Spotify, YouTube Premium and others
  • Shopping: $250 including new clothes and shoes for campaigns (brands sometimes request that they wear certain colors or matching clothes)
  • Phone: $100
  • Wi-Fi: $100

Living the good life

Karen launched The Mom Trotter blog when she was working full-time as a clinical researcher in 2016 (Sylvester worked as a nurse at a prison). The family has always prioritized traveling, particularly international travel, and she had a knack for finding deals.

Karen and Sylvester Akpan in their RV.
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Karen and Sylvester Akpan in their RV.

The blog was her way of sharing her tips and tricks with the world; it also brought in some ad revenue. Now, the family uses the Mom Trotter name for all of their various social media platforms. Sylvester goes by Dad Trotter.

The nomadic lifestyle started as a potential year of travel for the Trotters. Now, Karen says they aren't sure when they'll stop. It has given them the freedom to travel that they always craved, brought them closer together as a family and helped them grow their savings and investments.

They are able to spoil Karen's niece and nephew, Avery, 6, and Ethan, 8, who are like siblings to Aiden, and they've built a community of other travelers and fans of their work.

"Living in an RV, for us, has honestly been the most amazing thing for a family," Karen says. "We're happier because we just we don't have the bills ... We wake up when we want to. We go out when we want to. We don't have the pressure on us anymore."

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