This is the latest installment of our series Into the Black, where we hear from people who escaped the overwhelming burden of unpaid bills and loans through their own sacrifice and ingenuity. This week we talked to Bryan Rengel, who’s paid off his credit card and student loan debt by dredging the ocean for gold.
Bryan Rengel, 27, Nome, Alaska
Past debt: Around $44,000
Source: Student loan ($25,000), credit card ($14,000) and car ($5,000)
Past job: Underwater welder
Past salary: $17 per hour, working around 100 hours a week
Current job: Gold diver (as in, literally diving for gold)
Salary: It varies. On a good week, $7,000. But when the weather is bad and the boat can’t be taken out, $0.
Current net worth: $7,500
I was supposed to be a lawyer.
Instead, I fell in love with diving in college, and the law school plans quickly fell by the wayside. My friend convinced me to take a diving class — this 100-level kinesiology course — with him and I had a blast. I started taking more advanced diving courses, and, eventually, my rescue captain told me, “Man, you don’t want to go to law school. You should go to diving school.” And that’s exactly what I did.
I had managed to get out of undergrad debt-free thanks to the $10,000 I saved up selling weed in high school and an inheritance I received from my grandmother when I was a kid. My parents helped me out a little toward the end, when I was having trouble paying for tuition, but I paid 90 percent of the costs myself.
I enrolled in the marine diving program at Santa Barbara City College and took out a $25,000 loan. I wasn’t too concerned about going into debt. I knew diving paid pretty well, and I’ve always been able to live off scraps.
You can’t focus on the debt, because it’s always there. What you can focus on is being proactive about getting a job and earning more income, which is where I put all my mental energy.
I graduated in 2013 with no money in my pocket. So I took out a credit card and a car loan, bought a truck and drove to Lafayette, Louisiana. I had no plan. Luckily, I found a diving job my first day there. Unfortunately, I had to live out of my truck for a week while I got settled.
I was making $12 an hour maintaining offshore oil platforms — inspecting them underwater, installing new pipes and welding parts together as needed. The pay was decent, though, because I was working nearly 100 hours a week.
As diver, you’re hardly at home because you’re living on a boat. But the nice thing is that most things are taken care of for you. You’re not driving to and from work and spending money on gas, and all of your meals are provided, so your overhead is essentially zero.
That was always my goal: To find a job that had almost zero living expenses. I knew the fastest route out of debt was to work my ass off, have no social life, get down to zero debt, then reassess and go from there.
When I was on land, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five other guys, paying $200 a month. There was nothing in the apartment except the nasty couch that had come with it and a Coleman cooler we used as a coffee table. And Monopoly. We played lots of Monopoly.
We were all divers, and we all worked different schedules so it was usually just two of us in the house at a time. But sometimes a storm would roll through and we wouldn’t be able to go out on the water so we’d all have to stay there together. We went to Walmart to buy air mattresses, but ended up purchasing hammocks instead. We hung them from the walls and had people sleeping in hammocks in the living room.
For a while, I only made the minimum payments on my loans: $220.18 per month. Then one day my dad told me, “You know, of that $220, $94 is interest. If you add that up, by the time you pay this off, you’ll have paid an extra $10,000 in interest.”
That’s when I got serious about paying off my loans. I had never done the math before. I had never sat down and calculated or made an Excel spreadsheet of my finances. But I knew that that was more money that I’d like to give the bank, so I started paying $200, $300 more whenever I had the money.
I lived and worked in Louisiana for about two years until, by pure happenstance, I fell into a job in Alaska. A buddy of mine had moved back to Santa Cruz and was working in Home Depot when he started chatting it up with this guy Tom. Tom was a diver.
“No shit?! My friend Bryan is a diver.”
“No shit?! I need a diver for this summer,” Tom said.
There wasn’t a lot of work in Louisiana, and this just fell into my lap, so I was like, Shit, I gotta try it. The job was diving for gold — as in, diving to the bottom of the ocean and vacuuming the sea floor for gold.
I moved to Alaska in May 2015. By then I had whittled my student loan debt to $18,000, but I had racked up nearly $14,000 in credit card debt. I was living frugally in Louisiana, but I’d run out of money when there was no work and had to buy food on credit.
I was paid 25 percent of whatever gold I acquired, and was getting checks for $5,000, $6,000 every few weeks. I usually put half of it toward my credit card debt, and kept the other half to live off of. Whenever I had it, I’d put $1,000 toward my student loan debt.
I was living in “hotel” — a generous term for the place — that was dirty and gross and directly above a bar. But my employer offered to pay my rent, so again my living expenses were low.
The following spring, my grandmother died and I was left with another inheritance: $15,000. I used it to pay off the remainder of my student loan debt. (I had already paid down my credit card debt by then.)
My new plan is to save enough money that I can have two houses: one to rent out, and another shithole I can fix up myself. It’s amazing how willing people are to pay other people to do things for them. Everything you need to know to be self-sufficient can be found on YouTube. We live in the greatest do-it-yourself moment in history and people are still reluctant.
I don’t think many people could live like I do. It’s a pain the ass. It’s Spartan and solitary — both at work, spending hours underwater, and at home. It was hard to go on Facebook and see my friends going to concerts and festivals. But I’ve always been minimalist, self-sufficient. I don’t consider myself exceptional. I just understand there are sacrifices you have to make to achieve a goal.