Our Transition from Apartment Life to Van Life
If you haven’t read all of our other blog posts already (it’s okay, we understand), we talk about what it was like living in our van for the first month, and for the first year. But today, I wanted to talk about the actual transition that happened when we went from living in an apartment to living in a van full time. This is going to be a truth bomb, because it really wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies when we moved in. It was one of the most difficult things we have ever endured in our life and while I am so happy with our decision, I do wish I had made the process much easier for myself by fully preparing for the change in lifestyle.
I guess when we moved into our van, there weren't as many vanlife YouTubers and bloggers out there, so we just went in with an open mind and no expectations other than, “yay we get to travel the world and open our back doors to amazing views!”
This is exactly why I want to write this for you today. If you’re thinking about living in a van, I want to prepare you WAY better than I was prepared so that you don’t have to deal with some of the shit we did. I’m gonna break it down into the story of the transition, and then give you tips on making your transition easier!
Let’s dive in.
Back in January 2016, Cody and I were nearing the end of a chapter in our lives (graduating college) and we had to make a decision on what the next step would be. We originally wanted to make a big change and move from Portland to Colorado, but we ultimately decided that moving to a new state wasn’t what we were looking for. In fact, living in an apartment and paying rent was something we weren’t interested in anymore.
So, we calculated some numbers and made a plan to save up for our first van. Over those next 5 months, we saved close to $4,000 with the plan to sell Cody’s motorcycle and my car. By the time our apartment lease was up we had $10,000 in the bank and we were ready to buy our first van.
It was an exciting time! Everything worked out really nicely for us; we got a deal on our first van (thanks Mercedes Benz of Salem) and we had successfully sold all of our furniture. We were graduating college, we had a big huge grad party with all of our friends and family… we were STOKED.
We used $2,000 for the down payment on our van, which left us with $8,000 in the bank to put into our van. We had NO IDEA how much a van build would cost. You can read about our first van cost here. So we figured $8,000 was enough, and in fact we felt like it was more than enough so we used $1,000 of it to go to Las Vegas as a graduation gift to ourselves. This left us with around $7,000 to build our van. We also had a couple freelance retainer jobs, meaning we got paid consistently every month.
We were definitely on cloud nine and SO excited for our upcoming adventures.
The build up.
When we started our van build, we realized very quickly how much things can add up. Our first trip to Home Depot cost us close to $1,200. We had no idea what we were doing or how to build a van, so we turned to Google and a few van accounts to help us with our van build. I think the main one we kept referring to was sprintervandiaries.com
We ran out of money very fast quickly once we purchased the things we needed for our van build. Our refrigerator alone cost us around $1,200!
Because we ran out of money so fast, we had to take on some more freelance work. We worked with a few companies over the summer and we were very excited about our business. We knew we wanted to work with outdoor companies, so when Stanley approached us for a fun project we immediately said yes. This helped us with our van build costs and we were able to finish our van!
During our build, our business was in a weird phase of being completely random. We were selling books about photography, writing blog posts about photography, and trying to work with companies to create marketing campaigns. At the time, I was also working freelance with a stock photography company which had been my main source of income while I was in college.
We had our business, but it made no sense. We had no real plan, no branding, no marketing strategies… we were just writing blog posts and cold calling companies about working with them. Our business was pretty much just us taking on random freelance jobs. We had no ideal client, no pricing, no budget, nothing. That was a big mistake. Why? Because my contract job abruptly ended and the consistent income we were banking on? It was gone.
We now had NO income coming in and no money in our bank account saved up for when we were actually LIVING in the van.
The move in.
On move in day, we spent the whole day packing up, feeling excited but also a little nervous. How would we make money? How can we afford gas and food? We only had a few hundred bucks in our bank account. We had enough to fill up our gas tank, and luckily my aunt had given us a van housewarming gift that included a bunch of food and wine.
We moved in and set off towards Colorado. The first night was miserable. It was below freezing at the Walmart we decided to stay at and we could not sleep. Our blankets were not warm enough and we felt under prepared and stressed out about not having any money.
We arrived to my friend’s house in Colorado and stayed there for the weekend. It helped us forget about the stress and lack of money coming in.
After that weekend, we had to drive back to Portland for a video job, and we barely had enough gas money to get there. Our gas tank and our bank account were on empty.
We arrived at a gas station a few hours away from Portland and we needed enough to get us there. I was in tears in the front seat and Cody was scrambling around to find our change jar. He dumped it out on the floor and we were on the floor digging around for quarters, trying to conjure up enough money for a few gallons of gas.
Luckily we had $15 in that change jar, but the one moment that I remember so vividly is when the gas attendant came up to us and asked if everything was okay.
When we told him we were fine and he walked away we bust out laughing. Cody said, “well, we’re REALLY living in a van now that we’re dumping change on our floor.” We both laughed about it, pumped our gas, and instead of turning back on the highway, we decided to drive straight ahead towards the Columbia River where we found a beautiful park to watch the sunset from.
In that moment, I wanted to give up so badly. I felt like a failure. I felt more stressed out than I ever have, but this beautiful scene made me remember why we decided to do this, and it gave me the courage to keep going.
We struggled for 4-5 months after that. Living from client to client. Feeling desperate about finding work, which ultimately pushed it away.
We were racking up debt on our credit cards, feeling sorry for ourselves, and going through the most difficult, broke time of our lives.
Van life was now less of a choice and more like our only option.
We went through intense feast and famine cycles. Our business would do well, but we had so much debt and bills to pay that we used all of the money immediately to pay everything off. And then we were broke again, desperately trying to find more clients. Believe me when I say “finding” clients does not work. Desperately trying to find work to make money does not work, it only pushes people away. Because honestly, who wants to work with someone who is desperate to make money?
We lacked confidence, we lacked a plan, we had no idea who our audience was or what our business was really about. Being brand designers ourselves, our own business had lacked any sort of brand identity. We literally just created a logo in college and threw it up on a website and called it good.
Having no brand strategy, no clear direction, no budget, no income plan, no other sources of income other than client work, and no marketing strategy led to us being broke with a failing business.
We were broke millennials that lived in an expensive van.
After a solid year of living in our van, we finally made some shifts in our business that drastically changed our lives for the better. I’m going to list off all of the things we did differently that changed the direction of our business and made our lives much more abundant and got us to where we are today!
First, we changed our mindset.
The moment Cody and I were at our breaking point was the moment we decided to question WHY we were going through this cycle of feast and famine.
Were WE the reason we were broke? Were we the ones who were sabotaging our success with our limiting beliefs?
Months and months of brokeness, desperation, and a failing business had led us to not believing in ourselves.
We felt we were ALWAYS going to be stuck here. Every time we had a client that said no, we let it get to us. We told ourselves lies like “we’re always going to be broke”, “clients never say yes”, “clients don't appreciate our talents”, “we’re too poor to do this”, “we’re too broke to afford anything”, “our business is a failure”… you get the idea. Just a constant spiral of negative thoughts.
Is that the reason why we were stuck? Because we were keeping ourselves there? Digging a deeper hole?
Yes. That was the exact reason why.
So we started listening to books about the Law of Attraction, Money Mindset, and Limiting Beliefs. These books changed the way we viewed the world and completely changed our approach. You can read some of these books that changed our lives completely here.
Instead of constantly telling ourselves we were broke and thinking we had to cut back on our budget, we decided to change the story and tell ourselves we could make enough money to cover our budget. We decided to tell ourselves that we were worthy of earning more, that we had enough, that we were successful already, that we were abundant in money. We decided to be more grateful for the journey, more grateful for what we had, and more focused on the good things instead of focusing on what we were lacking.
We actually had a money mantra we repeated where we said “I’m abundant in money, and money is abundant in me” and we literally would shout it out loud while driving in the van.
Truthfully, we are still working on our mindset today, but if it wasn’t for making that change first, we would NOT be where we are today making more than double our income last year.
After we started working on our mindset, we of course had to take action with those thoughts.
Believing it was possible is only a small step, so we took more steps in our business to show the universe (or whatever you wish to believe in) that we were serious and committed to making it work. That we were DONE with feeling sorry for ourselves, done with letting our FEAR control our lives, done with our limiting beliefs.
We created a business blueprint.
After our mindset shifts, we focused on creating a business blueprint that we could easily follow. We set real goals for our business, made a plan of action, and created a brand strategy that would help us reach our goals. This helped us have an intention behind our actions and instead of just creating to create, we created with a purpose.
We had clear goals outlined and a clear plan for how we would reach those goals. This made our business thrive, and little by little we were able to make consistent income every single month. We were even able to buy new camera gear, hire people to help us, pay some of our debt, and make upgrades to our van.
We diversified our income sources.
After hashing out our business blueprint and creating some achievable goals for our business, we decided to figure out ways to diversify our income sources.
Over time, we recognized that client work was not reliable as a consistent income source because there would always be slow months. When the holidays arrived, clients were less likely to hire us for our services because they were on vacation or spending time with families. That meant all of December (and into January) we would have no income coming in.
So we started focusing our time and effort on our YouTube channel and our blog to see if we could make an income there. We also looked into creating templates or working with clients on a retainer to keep the income more consistent.
This helped our business so much that we now have been able to completely stop “finding” clients. I believe it’s mostly because we are not desperate for work due to the income we have coming in from other sources. This helps us come off as more desirable to work with because we are not desperately trying to sell to people to make ends meet.
Diversifying income is probably the second best thing we could have done for our business!
We created a website with a real strategy.
With our business blueprint in place and a few ideas for income sources planned out, we created a new website that focused on growing our traffic. We wrote blog posts that were helpful and we spent a lot of time studying what blog posts did well and which ones did not over time.
We then focused on creating a strategy for our website with real goals. Instead of just writing random blog posts about photography that no one wanted to read, we decided to write about van life. We also studied how to use Pinterest to help grow our website traffic and realized that the majority of our traffic was coming from people finding our helpful blog posts about van life.
Our traffic exploded in growth, which in turn, led to our other social media channels growing, getting more clients, and making more money.
We made a marketing plan.
Instead of posting content willy nilly, we dove into our marketing strategy and started creating content we felt would help our business grow and lead people back to our website. We had real solid goals and plans for our content instead of just posting at random or trying to get more followers.
After focusing on creating content people loved, we saw HUGE spurts of growth in our business and in our following. More clients, more money, more everything.
We worked on our own internal thoughts and self confidence.
Like I mentioned earlier, our mindset shifts were the #1 thing we had to do, and along with that came with changing our internal thoughts and beliefs, and our self confidence.
We started exercising regularly, eating healthy, reading books that helped us grow and expand our mind. We listened to inspiring podcasts, started finding a community to support us and making sure we challenged our thoughts and beliefs.
Tips we have to make your transition easier than ours.
Figure out HOW MUCH your van build will cost.
When we first starting saving for our van, we didn’t actually know how much we needed for the actual van build. So, do your research ahead of time and figure out which products you will buy and how much materials will cost and make a budget. It may not be exact, but at least you can get a general idea of how much money you’ll actually need.
Don’t end up like us and cut corners at the very end of your build because you didn’t have enough money. You can check out our post on how much our cost breakdown was.
Start saving money and save for not only the build, but also the living and moving in part.
Don’t just save money for the build. Think about moving in, too! You’re going to need to buy stuff if you don’t already have it, like a broom, cups, soap, propane, groceries, etc. Once you move in, you’ll find you need certain things and you may have to go shopping to get more items after you’ve finished the build.
Start your nomadic business now.
If you don’t know how you are going to make an income, you should start figuring that out right now. Don’t wait to set up your business or create a solid plan until after you move into the van. The sooner you start, get organized, and figure out your income sources, the better!
Luckily, you don’t have to do it alone like we did. We have so many resources on starting your business and how to become a digital nomad. You can check out those resources here.
Diversify your income streams.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to diversify your income sources. As soon as we did this, it eased a lot of stress in our lives and made van life WAY more fun. You can check out our post on the 6 best ways to make money while living in a van here!
Find a supportive community.
Your friends and family probably won’t understand van life or your nomadic business, even if they love and support you. The best thing you can do is find a community of people on the same journey as you. Having a community has helped us feel less alone and we’ve met so many incredible people along the way. We have an awesome community for digital nomads making a living from the road. You can join our free Facebook group by clicking here.