How To Afford And Sustain The Van Life Lifestyle
Have you noticed that some of the van life accounts you see online never seem to have to put in a day’s work? At least, that’s how they make it appear in their photos and on their feeds. Living a nomadic lifestyle and traveling 24/7 is so much more than just sitting on the beach, drinking piña coladas all day long, rock climbing, and spending the night around a fire playing ukuleles.
The reality behind all those curated images is likely a little less glamorous. These people might actually be working more than 40 hours a week on their business to get it going. Some of them might be spending 12 hours each day building a new blog, or editing all of their YouTube videos so that they can have days off more often.
The truth is, you need to pay for things to have a good time, and unless you have a trust fund (and most of us don’t), you’ll have to figure out a way to make a steady living so you can do the things you want to do.
In this post, I wanted to start off by sharing our own personal story. This is how we figured out how we were going to afford and sustain this lifestyle we live. I’ll also share some helpful tips we learned along the way that may help you on your own journey.
BEFORE THE VAN PURCHASE
When we went to go purchase our van, we had over $12,000 saved up. This was money we earned from selling my car and Cody’s motorcycle, as well as from selling all of our belongings.
We knew we couldn’t survive on that money for long, so we had to come up with a plan for how we would earn a regular income while living in our van. During this period, right before our van build, we were in the beginning stages of growing our creative agency into a full-time business. The first thing we discussed was finding more clients that we could serve from the road. At the beginning, we only had a few clients under our belts.
In addition, we would be getting $1,200 a month from my remote design job. That $1,200 was our cushion so we could really work on building our own business without worrying too much about paying the bills.
AFTER THE VAN BUILD
One thing we didn’t plan for was my design job falling through right when we finished our van build. We were left with pretty much $0 in our bank accounts after our van was all finished. I think we had enough money to buy gas and food, and that was about it.
Our business was growing slowly at this point because we invested more of our time into our van build and had neglected marketing ourselves or focusing on finding work. We were out of money and out of clients!
MOVE IN DAY
The day we moved into the van, our excitement outweighed the fact that we only had a few hundred dollars to start with. Luckily, my aunt and uncle hooked us up with a fully stocked pantry, so we didn’t need to buy groceries for a little while.
We set off on our adventure with the idea in the back of our heads that it would all work out. We knew it would. We believed we could make it happen regardless of the circumstances and obstacles thrown our way.
It was stressful, it was challenging, and it was difficult.
There was one point we had dump our change jar out onto the floor to find enough quarters and dollar bills to pay for gas.
You may think we’re absolutely nuts for making it so hard on ourselves... because let’s face it, there is no one to blame for those moments except ourselves. But our determination for this lifestyle, this glamorized nomadic life full of adventure, hardship, and uncertainty made it easier to get through that shit.
We wanted it badly, and we got what we wanted after working our asses off and going through the ups and downs..
You better believe there were times we wanted to give up, get a real job, and live like a normal person that wasn’t dumping quarters on the ground of a $50,000 Mercedes sprinter van to pay for gas.
We’re both pretty stubborn, which is why I think we got through it. We were going to give it our all and if it started to fail, we would just try and try again until it worked.
OVER ONE YEAR LATER
I wouldn’t say we have it all figured out, but we have learned from our mistakes and those moments of trial and error. We have a thriving business that brings in between $2-6k a month. We have money in our savings account, we have passive income sources, and we have a big network of amazing people just like us that we connect with all the time. We’ve been invited to van life discussion panels and van life gatherings. We’re able to travel 24/7.
I’m so proud that we got through that initial hard stage.
I know there will be many more difficult stages to go through, but I am happy we didn’t give up and we kept going.
Alright, so here’s our tips on how to afford and sustain the van life lifestyle.
We wanted to share a few tips and reminders so that you can think about it and plan ahead of time… and not have to dig through your quarters to pay for gas like we did ;-)
How to afford the van life lifestyle:
SAVE UP BEFORE YOU GO
We saved $12,000 which we felt was a lot of money at the time. $2,000 of that went toward a down payment for our van, and the rest went into the van build. We actually had to use our credit cards to finish building our van… and we still don’t have everything we wanted in it to this day!
So, I think it’s really important to think about what kind of van you want to have. Some people want a cheaper vehicle to start with, some people want to use cheaper materials. We thought about it like this: our van is our house, so we want it to be the best we can possibly have. We want to be comfortable and live in it full-time.
Once you figure that out, try to hash out some of the costs of the build. Check out this post to see how much it cost us to build our van. This is something we didn’t do and I wish we had. I thought our fridge was going to cost around $200, but it ended up being close to $1,100.
Save up as much as you can and give yourself enough wiggle room to have money left over when you are finished! That’s one of the bigger mistakes we made at the very beginning.
If you’ve never budgeted before, you should start now. When you become a digital nomad (especially if you don’t have a job that pays a consistent remote paycheck) you’re going to have to budget and plan ahead.
There were some months that we made a bunch of money, and then the next month we made $0. So, budgeting your money and having a cushion in your savings account is really important.
TAKE ON FREELANCE WORK
The best way to afford the van life lifestyle is to start taking on freelance work! If you have skills in graphic design, website design, photography, writing, copy editing, or if you have simple skills in office work, you can start taking freelance jobs.
Start by building a portfolio of your work. Take on free or low paying jobs to build up your skills and your portfolio. Do work for friends and get testimonials. Once you have a solid portfolio, you can apply for freelance work. It takes time to find clients, but if you put in the effort you will see results!
This is the best way to really start building a sustainable income for yourself once you are living in a van. Once you’ve established yourself, you can start charging more money, and eventually you can get consistent clients that are willing to pay a good rate to work with you.
GET A REMOTE JOB
You can also find a full-time job that doesn’t require you to work in an office. There are so many new businesses that support remote work. I had a design job that was remote and didn’t require me to ever come into an office. All I had to do was stick to deadlines, have weekly meetings, and hold myself accountable.
START A BUSINESS
Once you’ve freelanced for a little while and you have some work under your belt, you can consider starting your own business. Being a freelancer and starting a business are very similar, the main differences are that you might have a more established website, a business name, more dedicated clients, and a defined process of how you work with people.
You can even start a product-based business and sell digital products, artwork, candles, jewlery, resume templates… you name it. Whatever you excel at, you can make money selling, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.
Starting your own business is a great way to afford and sustain your lifestyle because it doesn't require you to go into an office, and you can make your own hours. This doesn’t mean that you won't work a day in your life... in fact, it’s quite often the opposite. You might work more hours, but you’ll be doing something you are passionate about and it will allow you to have much more flexibility in your days.
How to sustain the van life lifestyle:
AVOID GAS STATION SNACKS
Going on longer trips to further destinations means you’ll be spending many hours in the car buckled up. A gas station drink, bag of chips, or a candy bar may seem like a small amount of money here and there, but if you purchase a snack every time you fill up or stop by the restroom, you are going to run out of money! Micro purchases add up quickly without even realizing it. Plus, gas station food is usually unhealthy. Avoiding it is just a good idea all around!
ONLY PURCHASE THINGS YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT
This is something that’s really important if you live in a van or you are considering living in a van in the future. When transitioning to a minimal lifestyle, you have to really think about the things you purchase. Buying a few new things here and there is fine when you live in an apartment. That book? Those new pillows from Target? Those pants you must have right now? When you live in a van, you really have to sit and think about each and every purchase you make and be sure that it’s absolutely necessary. Why? Because you have no space!
Only purchase things you really are passionate about, and that you have thought through completely. I know I’ve bought things for our van on impulse only to realize it’s too big, doesn’t fit, or we don’t end up using it. This temptation has gotten easier to control over time.
I’ve heard some people say they get by with just $500 a month. I call bullshit on that one. I think it’s important to be realistic about your spending. Of course, you are going to want to splurge on an occasional six pack of beer, pay for an amazing camping spot, or purchase new jackets from Patagonia for winter.
Just because you’re living in a van, these “wants” don’t change. It’s important to be real with yourself about how much you are going to spend and what you need to live the best life you can!
If you really want to sustain the van life lifestyle, you probably should avoid campgrounds. Campgrounds are awesome because they are easy to find, and they’re almost always in desireable locations. However, they range anywhere from $5 to $60 a night. Over time, that can add up. You could end up paying just as much for campsites as you were paying for your rent.
I think it’s good to have a campground budget so you can enjoy those awesome sites in great locations every so often. Even just once a week is great. Sometimes they have showers too!
Instead of campgrounds, check out BLM for free camping. We use this app called Allstays, which is a lifesaver and a game changer! We didn’t have it for the first 5 months of van life and we really wish we did.
DOWNLOAD GAS BUDDY
Gas Buddy is an app that shows you gas prices in your area. You can then seek out the cheapest gas station, which can save you an extra 50 cents a gallon! That’s a huge difference. Sometimes you can find cheaper gas by going off the main highway, which saves a lot of money in the long run.
COOK YOUR OWN FOOD
We’ve found ourselves cooking more often in our van, which is surprising given our tiny space and lack of kitchen gadgets. We save so much money by grocery shopping and cooking our own meals every day instead of relying on take out. Eating fast food or eating at restaurants really burns through a lot of your money.
We really love dining out and trying cuisine in new cities and towns! So, we made a rule that we only eat out if we’re trying something new and it’s worth it. We try to avoid those times when we are feeling lazy and just want to go to Chipotle, because we know we can save that $20 and go to a brewery in Colorado instead. That’s likely to be a lot more memorable than a random burrito lunch.
Cooking our own food has saved us a lot of money, and made dining out more of a special occasion rather than an everyday occasion.
Living the van life lifestyle and creating a work from anywhere job is no easy task. It’s probably going to kick your ass in the beginning, but it’s also going to be very rewarding and allow you to live a dream lifestyle full of travel, flexibility, and ukulele playing by the fire.