How to Actually Afford Van Life

How to Actually Afford Van Life

“How can you afford this?” is one of the questions we’ve gotten most, after “ew, how do you take showers?” and “how do you not kill each other?” (see this blog for answers on that one!). 

When we started thinking about this adventure, I turned to the never ending wisdom of the internet and social media van life accounts. I quickly became frustrated (and quite frankly, continue to be) on how many people, van lifers and others, claim to fund their travels; as social media “influencers,” life coaches, consultants, etc. Even the more realistic jobs that you can do remotely still require you to a) already work for a company that is cool with that or b) find a remote job that is growing in the jobbie field. I also read a few times “just start your own business!” WHAT. 

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Needless to say, I’m here to throw down some real talk. Those people can shove that advice right back in their perfect faces, and their somehow always perfectly styled hair, because that s**t is not going to work for the average person. Mike and I are extraordinary in many ways, yes, but in terms of having money at our disposal or skills that translate to these magical unicorn careers, we’re pretty average. Keep reading for how we actually did/do it, as well as some of my suggestions to achieve your own goal, even if it’s not living in a van.

First, get that debt down!

I know I just said Mike and I are average, but in terms of the average American’s debt, we are exceptional. At the end of 2018, the average American had $6,000 in monthly credit card debt, and $135,000 in mortgage/car/student loan debt. Woof. Before we left on this adventure, we had sold our humble home, got down to a one van family (a deer may have sped up that process, to be honest) that we paid for with cash and worked our a**es off to pay off credit card debts. So besides my student loans – which aren’t that terrible – Mike and I are at zero debt. Our savings wasn’t really too impressive when we left, but there was no burden hanging over our heads either. 

Every one has different priorities, and maybe you don’t have any desire to live in a van and travel. But it’s important to ask yourself if having a brand new car or a big house is more important than fulfilling your life dreams and experiences. If it’s not… it’s time to downsize. Keeping up with the Joneses is a silly thing to chase when you have your own life to create.

Mike and Luca working on remodeling our new home!

Have a good support system 

We absolutely could not have done this without our incredible friends and family. When we started talking about this adventure, there were a handful of naysayers, but mostly the response was overwhelming and unequivocal support. It is much easier to follow through if you have people on your team, rather than saying “WTF are you thinking?!” Nothing can kill a dream quicker than having no one supporting you or pushing you to move forward. These people are crucial to keep you focused. I had more than a few personal freak outs, asking myself “WTF am I thinking; leaving a job I love, a steady paycheck, health insurance, any semblance of personal space, and friends that are always 5 minutes away?” You need those friends that will bring you back off the ledge. 

We’re also so blessed to have friends that go above and beyond just telling us to go for it; we have a village that helped make it happen. For example, while we definitely worked hard to save money – we also lived in our friend’s basement last year after we sold our house and paid her in pennies (and lots of treats and Christmas cheer) for rent.  We are currently staying in our friend’s basement (Mike and I are dungeon trolls apparently) in Colorado. Not everyone is willing to give up their personal space and comfort just to help out a friend. Count yourself lucky if you have people like this in your life, and lean on them when you need it. 

Put that pride away

This was a tough one for me. I had been financially independent since college (mostlyyyy… I mean, the Banco de Madre doesn’t count, right?). I’m not saying I never went on dates purely for a free dinner, but I would try to take care of myself. I traveled with friends with plane tickets that I bought, got my own loan and paid it off when I needed a car, paid my own bills, and generally try to make sure I live like an empowered woman just like Beyonce told me to… except with .00001% of her income. Going out with friends, no matter our difference in income, I would try to keep it split evenly and pay for myself. 

And yet, when we started traveling with no income, I had to start saying “yes” when people would offer to pay for drinks or dinners or whatnot. (That sentence makes me sound like a whore, doesn’t it?) Our very first stop in Michigan, my friends treated us to drinks and multiple meals. I would have usually at least paid them back in even a minor way. And despite knowing they’re okay financially does nothing to relieve my feeling as a money suckling leech. However… by constantly reminding myself that when friends offer, they’re doing it because they truly want to, it makes it a tiny bit easier to accept. And while it is definitely, never ever, ever expected for our friends to pay for anything for us, it’s always appreciated when a gift comes along and enhances our current day or extends our travels another day. 

Budget like you’re an adult

So there is this new thing I learned about recently. BUDGETING. It’s wild. I have a spreadsheet where I track my income and every expense, just like an old school checkbook ledger. I have a goal for each week that my bank account must be at.  If it’s not getting there, I start figuring out how I can reach it. I look on craigslist for random gig jobs, I sell things on eBay, I use a money making app called Field Agent.

Mike and I love trying new restaurants and breweries – but we’ve learned to say no if we aren’t above our goal that week. Whether or not you’re going to travel like we are, I guarantee you are saving for something – a house, a baby, college, retirement, fyre festival…. You should do everything you can to not put it on a credit card and create more debt for yourself. We’re definitely having an easier time bnot spending frivolously as we don’t have as many friends around that we are constantly doing things with – but even if you are still surrounded by friends, look for ways to cut back. I’m sure there’s a Buzzfeed article out there on how to do that or something – actually wait, just googled it. Here you go. Thanks Buzzfeed! (There are a bajillion ways to save and still live life, but I like this article because it gives a shoutout to my grocery love, Aldi)

PS – Sorry Mom, I know you tried to teach me about budgeting since I was 10 when you gave me a fake checkbook to track my allowance and my crazy expenditures at the Book Fair and in the Delia’s catalog. Sometimes I’m a slow learner.

Dates nights look a bit different now – food and drinks at home, while watching a redbox move. Muchhh cheaper than going out for dinner and a movie!

Nothing is beneath you

Mike and I are currently paused in our travels to refill our bank accounts. We scoured craigslist and job sites, walked into random businesses handing out our resumes, and said yes to whatever came our way. This was not a time to wait for the perfect job that we are passionate about and feeds our souls. Our level of funds and desire to eat any food did not allow us that luxury. A one day sign spinning gig on a busy street for $100? Sign us up! Mystery shopping for $20? Sure! 

Since we’ve been in Colorado, Mike has worked as a project manager for a solar company, done odd job projects through a manual labor type company, was a substitute teacher, and a janitor, and now works the front door at a bar on weekends and is the Behavioral Interventions Specialist at a school during the week. He wasn’t exactly pumped up every day at all those positions, but one of his best qualities is that he makes damn sure he gives his all, whether it’s at a job, his training, our relationship, anything!  Mike summed it up best…. “Even if I’m pushing a broom through a hallway, I’m going to be the best broom pusher they’ve ever seen.”

I’m currently working almost all my waking hours at a Natural Health place as a receptionist and serving/bartending at Outback Steakhouse. I found the receptionist gig on Craigslist and was initially nervous about working there because I thought it would be a bunch of anti vax wackos that think essential oils cure cancer. While there are a couple patients like that, it’s actually been pretty wonderful and I’m learning a lot, so I’m glad I say yes to this opportunity. I applied at a lot of restaurants because I know how great the cash can be – Outback was the first one to respond. Do I love that I’m serving bloomin onions and steaks that are doomed to be sent back by the Karens of the world that want to speak to my manager? Nope. Do I feel a little ridiculous that my first real job was waiting tables, and here I am 15 years later, doing it again? Yep. However, it’ll all be worth it when I’m in Alaska watching grizzlies catch salmon (from a very, very, very safe distance) and getting my junior ranger badge from the least visited National Park located in the Arctic. 

Aside from anything that is illegal or that would crush your morals to an oblivion, you should do anything to reach your dreams. 

We laid PVC piping on a mall roof in Ohio – in the rain. Such a fun day.

 The dirty details

I’m sharing this somewhat taboo info because I want everyone to know that it doesn’t matter how much you make – I believe you can follow your dreams. Before the adventure and quitting our jobs, I was making $36,000 a year at my nonprofit job, which after taxes, insurance and retirement savings, take home was closer to $20,000. And Mike owned and ran a small adventure company which was successful in many ways but not necessarily in growing our bank accounts. Needless to say, we weren’t wiping our bums with $20 bills. 

When we left for the trip, we only had about $15K saved (and that was in large part from selling our house). Our monthly expenses while on the road include van insurance, student loan payment, cell phones, YMCA membership (side note – did you know their membership is income based?!), and of course fuel and groceries which all together totals about $1,000 a month. (We also really need to add health insurance in these expenses too.). That theoretically should have let us travel for 15 months until we were bankrupt. However, that does not account for any fun expenditures or those pesky unplanned surprises, like a $1,000 tow bill out of Big Bend National Park….

Hindsight is 20/20

We have a much better idea of what we’re doing now. After treating ourselves to a brewery and restaurant in every new city for the first couple months, it was easy to see that we couldn’t sustain that type of spending very long. Once we started only giving ourselves an allowance of $25 each per week for fun, we were able to keep our banks from bleeding dry as quickly. But we also could not have predicted the ridiculous number of unlucky van issues we had along the way. 

It’s been just over a year since I left my job and we started our travels in the beautiful Hawaii. We have learned a lot this past year, and I think we are going to do a much better job planning for this next part of the adventure. And the biggest way we’re doing that is by planning for the unexpected. It’s so easy to look back and say “we should have…” but that is not fair to yourself. You don’t know what you don’t know yet. So, try to take a few of my humble seeds of wisdom, do your best, and get ready to make some mistakes while chasing your dreams. 

Also, if you need someone to get you a job at Outback, hit me up. Never underestimate the average American’s desire to spend too much money on a baby sirloin and lobster tail. 

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4 thoughts on “How to Actually Afford Van Life

  1. I love this, motivating to many of us, at all stages of life. And great advice: live below your means and focus on enjoying life instead of acquiring stuff you don’t need.

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