Jillian Johnsrud has lived a life full of unconventional and, at times, uncomfortable financial choices.
Long before tiny houses or "van life" were considered desirable, she put herself through college living in a camper. When she was in her mid-twenties, she, her husband Adam, and their then-11-year-old son shared a rental home with a housemate.
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And after buying their first house in Montana for $50,000, the young family slept on air mattresses while they fixed the place up. "No floors, no walls, no kitchen," she recalls. "It was a rough year."
The family still owns that house, along with two others. Rent checks from two of their properties, along with other income sources, allowed Jillian and Adam to reach financial independence and quit their day jobs five and a half years ago, when Jillian was 32. "Neither of us has any plans to go back to the 9-to-5," Johnsrud says.
These days, the couple lives like a pair of early retirees, paying their day-to-day expenses with income from their rental properties, Adam's military pension, and periodic withdrawals from their investment portfolio, which, as of early August, totaled more than $700,000. Johnsrud is also doing some writing (she recently finished her first book) and life coaching while helping to raise the couple's five children, aged 5 to 13.
Here's how she went from living in a van to enjoying financial independence, and what she and her husband have planned for the future.
An early lesson: 'Money gives you options'
Johnsrud grew up straddling the poverty line in small-town Montana, and she learned the importance of money early on. "My mom was in her second marriage, and it wasn't a healthy relationship. When I was about 12, I begged her to leave," she says. Her mother said no. It wasn't realistic. She couldn't raise three kids on her own.
"I went upstairs and sobbed hot tears into my pillow, and it gave me this realization that money gives you options. It gives you choices," she says. "In that moment, it was like, 'I really want more choices than we currently have.' And saving money seemed to be the most direct path toward having more options in life."
Johnsrud began saving diligently during high school, working 20 to 30 hours a week at a gas station and the local pizza restaurant. By junior year, she'd saved enough to move out: $1,000, which she spent on "an ugly old camper." It was a less-than-glamorous living situation but it meant she wouldn't have to pay rent: "I just had to pay the lot fee."
'A lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs' to aggressively save and pay down debt
In 2002, Johnsrud was in her freshman year of college at "a Bible college that no longer exists" and still living in the camper. That's when she met Adam, then a junior at Northwest Nazarene University. The couple were married that summer and soon realized that combining finances meant combining debts.
Between Adam's student loans and credit card debt, and a $10,000 medical debt Jillian didn't realize she had, they owed about $55,000.
Video by Courtney Stith
The couple worked at paying down their debts and supporting themselves by keeping spending to a minimum. "We got some advice just before we got married that we should always save half our income. Because then down the road, you'll want to have kids or buy a house or do other expensive things, and that will be more of a possibility," she says. "To me, it was a simple idea. It made sense in my brain. So we kind of started out with that mindset."
That didn't leave them with much to live on. In that first year, Johnsrud estimates that she and Adam, who were both still in school, made $12,000 to $14,000. Stashing away half "meant a lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs, which was a lot harder for my husband, who grew up in a middle-class family," she says. "For me, it was easy-peasy. I think we went out to eat three times in my entire childhood. Not eating out for a year is just what people do."
Still, Johnsrud, who was now living with her husband in the camper, had to fight feelings of inadequacy. "I had a lot of insecurity about growing up poor," she says. "But I realized it was one or the other: We could either look wealthy or try to build wealth."
Tackling debt was the couple's top priority, so Adam made the decision to join the Army — a 4-year commitment that would, in turn, wipe out his $35,000 in student debt. "He went off to basic training on our first anniversary, which secured the student debt," Johnsrud says. "Within 3 or 4 months, we saved enough cash to pay off what was left of our other debt."
'Unconventional choices' helped diligently build wealth
The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Johnsrud got a job at Starbucks. Shortly after her 21st birthday, they were contacted by a social worker, seeking a new home for Adam's foster brother, Micah.
Johnsrud had always dreamt of adopting, something she made clear to Adam early on. "It's something we talked about on our first date," she says.
After a year of going through the appropriate training, licensing, and paperwork, the Johnsruds adopted Micah, then 11 years old. Johnsrud was promoted to assistant manager at Starbucks, bringing the family's income to about $60,000 a year, half of which they saved.
The couple soon decided to move from their two-bedroom apartment near the Pentagon to a more suburban neighborhood in northern Virginia. "It was a big jump in rent, so we made another unconventional choice, which no one in our peer group thought was a good idea," she says. But they had a plan to make it work: "We got a housemate, which helped keep our total expenses to about what we had paid before. It ended up being a really good financial decision."
Johnsrud estimates the decision to take on a housemate saved her and her husband $25,000 over the course of three years. By the time she turned 24, they'd saved up $100,000 and were debt-free.
Savvy investments in the market and real estate
Having reached this important milestone, the Johnsruds weighed their options. They considered buying a house. They also toyed with the idea of embarking on "mini-retirements" — setting aside chunks of their savings to go on prolonged vacations, a concept that Johnsrud had brought up during the first year of marriage.
"In Bible college, I was reading through the Old Testament, and not only is Sunday the sabbath day, but every seven years was a sabbath year," she says. "I told my husband it was a fabulous idea, and he was like, 'Oh, sweetie, I think you missed the boat on that one.' But I thought if we saved an extra 10%, we could probably figure it out."
It turned out to be moot, because the opportunity to travel knocked. A superior at the Pentagon wanted Adam to stay on for another four years and in turn, offered him any posting he wanted. He picked Heidelberg, Germany. Over the years, Adam had built up plenty of leave, and the couple was able to take lengthy vacations, visiting 27 countries.
The timing of the move was fortuitous as well. Just before the couple embarked, the 2008 stock market crash happened. The Johnsruds bought the dip, putting most of the $100,000 they had saved up into target-date mutual funds, which included maxing out both of their IRAs, contributing to Adam's Thrift Savings Plan, and investing the rest through brokerage accounts.
Video by Courtney Stith
After four and a half years in Germany, during which they welcomed their first biological child, the Johnsruds returned to America in 2012 with about $250,000. They'd continued to save half their income, and "definitely benefited from four and a half years of compounding growth," Johnsrud says.
Arriving back in the U.S. at the tail end of the housing crash, the couple were able to buy a cheap fixer-upper in Montana's Flathead Valley. "We could have bought a pretty nice house for $150,000, but instead we paid cash for a total dump — $50,000," she says. "We didn't have a contractor to go to to help us. There was no Chip and Joanna Gaines. In my optimism, I said, 'Let's just watch YouTube videos! It'll be great!'"
The couple renovated about half of the house before purchasing a rental property, which they call the "yellow house," for $70,000. It meant putting off completing the original home for a year or two, but they believed the investment would be worth it.
They're living off their investment income and planning for the future
The following two years were tough. Micah, a type-1 diabetic, passed away unexpectedly at age 20. The couple and their 5-year-old were sleeping on air mattresses in their half-renovated house. Ultimately, Adam took six months off to complete the renovations and care for their child, with the help of a pension he'd received for his medical discharge from the military, after two foot surgeries had rendered him unable to serve.
The couple knew they wanted to adopt again. In preparation, they did a cash-out refinance on the yellow house. They extracted $100,000 to put towards what they now call the "big house," which they rented out along with the yellow house.
"We knew we'd eventually need a bigger house, so we bought [the big house] as a rental," Johnsrud says. "It was slightly inconvenient living in a smaller house, but for now, we thought, it made more financial sense."
In 2013, the adoption agency asked the couple to take on a set of three siblings, ages 5, 2, and 1. At about the same time, Johnsrud discovered she was pregnant. "I had a little bit of a mommy meltdown," she says. She had left her job to take care of the children, so rather than saving half of their income, she and Adam were more or less breaking even.
"My husband was working a very stressful job as well," she says. "We had two rental incomes and a lot of savings and this pension income, so we said, 'We're going to take a year off and regroup and finish our bathroom and take a vacation.'"
Five years later, neither have returned to traditional jobs. "The numbers really worked out well," Johnsrud says.
Having moved into the big house, the Johnsruds now rent out their first house and the yellow house, which generate a combined cash flow of $1,500 to $1,700 a month. Adam's pension accounts for another $1,500, and includes health-care coverage for the whole family. That's about enough to cover their monthly expenses, which usually come in at about $3,000.
For other expenses, the couple loosely follow the 4% rule, withdrawing a small portion of their portfolio every year while letting the rest continue to grow. The Johnsruds recently performed another cash-out refi on their biggest property, extracting $250,000 and investing it in their portfolio.
"When markets are doing well, I don't mind skimming 5% or 6% off the top," she says. "We bought a camper two years ago, and bought a $50,000 piece of land that we use as our private little campground."
The Johnsruds have a few other plans for their money. They're funneling some of their investments into a donor-advised fund, a vehicle for charitable giving, and plan to start donating more aggressively to organizations that fund foster-care systems in underprivileged countries.
They're also considering buying property "someplace sunnier," so they're investigating locations in Portugal, Costa Rica, and Arizona. "This winter, we're going to experiment with living someplace else for a long chunk of time and just test that out and see how it goes," she says.
And the Johnsruds are teaching their kids about money and investing from an early age. "We're starting to help them invest. They each have their own brokerage account," Johnsrud says. "My eight-year-old is desperate to start a TikTok account about personal finance. She's been begging me since Christmas."
The article "How a Millennial in Montana Went From Living in a Camper Van to Financial Independence by 32" originally published on Grow (CNBC + Acorns).
Video by Helen Zhao
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