Facing a five-figure mountain of credit card debt, many might move home with mom and dad, pick up a second or third job, or maybe go back to school.
But sometimes, extreme problems call for extreme solutions.
That was the mindset of Charles Johnson, a Seattle transplant living in Cambridge who two years ago took drastic measures to shed $25,000 in unpaid bills.
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Johnson, now 27, left his apartment in the Fenway, gave away most of his furniture and schlepped out to an undisclosed location off the bike path in Cambridge.
“I ended up sleeping out in the woods for four months,” he told Metro.“Four months later, I was debt-free."
Now, Johnson wants to be a life-coach for the debt-ensnared, launching a new group he’s calling Boston Debt Destroyers, at a time when student loans are bigger than ever and the average American family is in debt by more than $15,000 on credit cards alone.
Johnson imagines the Debt Destroyers meet-ups, which start this week, will be part AA-style support group, part strategy think-tank, part club for those willing to commit to life-hacking their way to financial stability. They’ll be free and he isn’t selling anything, he said, although he's also launching a website and said he may eventually offer paid services.
The meetings, he said, will focus not just on radical life-changing decisions, but on smart moves: paying off credit cards with the highest interest rates first, for example, or driving for a ride-sharing company on weekends.
“Some people are going to want to take more of a laid-back approach,” he said. “That’s OK. We’re not going to exclude anyone.”
Because his method, obviously, isn’t for everyone.
Throughout the fall of 2014, Johnson said, he slept outdoors in a weatherproof bivouac sack (a “body condom,” he called it), showered at the gym and packed clothes and other belongings in a storage unit.
All the while, he worked for an area start-up, put in hours on nights and weekends and padded his salary with consulting gigs.
He also quit drinking, stopped going out and cut his food costs to a minimum. Until he reached his goal and made his $25,000 in debt disappear, he said, almost everything went to bills. He paid his last one on New Year’s Eve.
He also recognizes, for the record, that his decision to be homeless by choice came from a place of privilege. He had a good job to fall back on and could stop anytime he wanted. His health and dignity were never at risk.
“Not everyone is so fortunate,” Johnson said.
But ever since his experiment on the city’s outskirts, he’s been open with curious friends and strangers about how his debt problem got started.
Ask and he’ll tell you how he squandered a $65,000-a-year salary on a busy social life and $1,875-a-month apartment he couldn’t afford, or about that time he maxed out his credit card with nothing left to eat and a paycheck still several days away.
“How ridiculous is that?” he said. “I felt so ashamed and embarrassed it had gotten to that point.”
He’s met lots of people like him — 20- and 30-somethings with promising careers who are hopelessly in debt — who felt they couldn’t tell friends and loved ones about their situation. So a few weeks ago, he got the idea to try to help.
“Social support is a big thing,” Johnson said. “That’s going to be one element of the group: crafting a safe space that’s private, where people can share their personal struggles and successes, but also have people share resources and the tools and tactics they used in their journey.
The first meeting is on Wednesday night. To join, sign up online