It’s not polite to talk about money, is it? But, hands down, the most popular thing friends and strangers ask is:
How the heck can you afford to travel full time?
The point of this blog is to make full-time van travel feel more accessible, so we’re disregarding what is polite and tasteful in favor of letting you take a peek behind the curtain. Besides, we’ve mentioned pee jars on multiple occasions, which is probably more impolite and tasteless…
Our hope is that sharing our story helps you figure out how to make full-time travel sustainable for you.
The best things in life are free: an afternoon spent hiking and wading at Barton Springs Greenbelt in Austin, TX
Step 1: Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
We don’t live off trust funds. We didn’t win the lottery. But we do have strengths and weaknesses. In fact, you could argue we can’t afford to travel full time — we’ll talk about that more later.
The first thing you need to do is make an honest assessment of your financial strengths and weaknesses. What works for our situation might not work for you. It’ll also help you figure out what you need to take care of or plan for before you start traveling.
- Chris and I are both college-educated with more than a decade of work experience.
- We own real estate in San Francisco.
- We have a good credit history, so we’re able to borrow money cheaply and easily.
- We had both been saving for retirement prior to traveling full time.
- My career could easily be transitioned into remote freelancing.
- I have student loan debt that requires monthly payments.
- Chris’ career could not be easily transitioned into remote freelancing.
- Before van traveling full time, we took what we thought would be a temporary, one-year sabbatical. Because we thought we’d go back to our “former lives,” we intentionally spent most of our cash savings.
- With plenty of work experience and an asset like real estate, we felt comfortable taking risks. If everything went to hell, we felt confident we could find jobs again or sell our property if we had to.
- With our cash savings mostly gone, we didn’t have a lot of runway when starting our own businesses. So we had to figure out how to cover expenses if our businesses didn’t become profitable quickly enough. That’s where our good credit history helped: we were able to float expenses on promotional-rate, interest-free credit cards to help with our unpredictable earnings.
Maybe you have debt that you need to pay down before you can travel. Perhaps you need to build up your cash savings before you feel comfortable leaving your job because you are still early in your career. Or, maybe you have zero obligations and are comfortable living off your savings until the money runs out and you have to pick up odd jobs. Knowing where you stand will help you figure out what you need to do before hitting the road.
Chris posing along with Anne, one of our fantastic HelpX hosts; we’ve recently started doing work exchanges on farms and ranches to get new experiences, visit new places and work in exchange for free accommodation and we LOVE it
Step 2: Figure Out How You’ll Earn Income
Here are the five main options you have:
- Get a job that offers telecommuting and zero-to-minimal in-person time. A lot of knowledge-based work can take place online. Check out job sites like FlexJobs to find telecommuting positions. Or talk to your current employer.
- Get a job that requires a lot of travel. I met a woman who traveled around the world recruiting students for a design university. She was traveling so much that her apartment was pretty much always vacant, so she scrapped it and traveled while living in Airbnbs in between work trips.
- Start a business you can operate from anywhere. Many full-time travelers offer online courses, do freelance work, figure out how to monetize their blogs, etc. It’s not necessarily easy to start a business, but it offers the most flexibility.
- Pick up gigs and odd jobs you can do in person or online. Sites like Upwork are great for freelancers looking for short-term gigs. If you have other skills — carpentry, for example — you could look on sites like craigslist in places you plan to visit for short-term jobs.
- Save up all the money you need in advance and live on a fixed income. If you’re only planning on traveling full time for a fixed amount of time, you may just be able to save up a bunch of cash and live on it until the money runs out.
There are lots of other specific ways to make a location-independent living. You could also do a combination of these things!
Chris and I fall primarily in #3. Our businesses have fairly low overhead, so it didn’t take too long to be profitable. But the biggest thing is that we don’t earn nearly as much as we used to. Together, we make roughly 30 percent of our former dual income — also taking into account things like health insurance that used to be provided by our employers. What we’ve gained, however, is time. And that’s pretty precious to us.
Here’s specifically how we earn our income:
- Operate two e-commerce stores that mainly generate sales through Amazon and eBay. (Chris)
- Maintain websites and blogs that generate affiliate and advertising income. (Chris)
- Offer communications consulting services to nonprofits. (Tamara)
- Serve on a panel of paid coaches/advisors for managers. (Tamara)
- Sell print and online books. (Tamara)
- Rent out our condo in San Francisco. (Both)
If you’re going to spend money eating out, make sure it’s something you couldn’t make easily yourself like this awesome Texas BBQ we got at Rudy’s
Step 3: Think About Expenses You Need to Plan For
One thing that may surprise you is that it can cost less to travel full time than live in one place. Here are the categories in our expense budget, in order of most expensive to least expensive:
- Food (e.g., groceries, dining out, coffee shops, bars)
- Fun/Experience/Discretionary Spending (e.g., national parks pass, plane tickets, bicycle maintenance, firewood)
- Accommodations (e.g., campsites, Airbnbs)
- Health Insurance
- Van (e.g., car payment, insurance, oil changes)
- Condo Shortfall (i.e., expenses related to our property not covered by rental income)
- Student Loans
- Mobile Data Plan
- Financial Advisor
- Personal Care (e.g., toiletries, haircuts)
Notice what’s NOT here? Monthly cable bills, commute expenses, gas/electric bills, retail therapy, etc. If we do need to buy something like clothes, it comes out of our “fun” category so it forces us to consider whether we really need it.
The challenge we currently have is that our income is juuuuuuust enough to cover these expenses. If something unforeseen happens, it can cause a problem. (See Step 5.)
The key is to think about what you want to do while traveling. Then you can plan for it. We like hiking, and the good news is that it’s mostly free. If you want to paint the sunsets in all the places you visit, budget for art supplies. If you plan to spend an entire season on the slopes, budget for ski passes.
Our $80 national parks pass gets us into national parks, like Big Bend National Park pictured here, and monuments all year and pays for itself after 3-4 parks
Step 4: Remember These Money-Saving Tips
Even though we make a fraction of our income, we’re able to make it work because we’ve simplified our life. None of these things felt like sacrifices to us because of what we gained.
- Look for inexpensive accommodations. For most people, vacation is expensive because you’re paying for two sets of accommodations at a time! We don’t pay for a place to go back to, and we look for cheap/free accommodations wherever possible. Campsites, free public land, Airbnbs, Walmarts, house/pet sitting, work exchanges, staying with friends/family (but never overstaying our welcome), hostels — these all cost a fraction of what many people pay for a house or hotel.
- Think twice about tours. For some things, you really do need a tour: a boat trip to snorkel/dive in the Great Barrier Reef or visiting sacred heritage sites only accessible with a guide. But if you’re willing to do some research, often you can put together a DIY tour for free or minimal expense. We rarely pay for tours and often opt to walk, drive, paddle or bike on our own, which gives us the flexibility to do what we want. That said, we love historical walking tours because we learn things we never would on our own. All we’re saying is to choose wisely.
- Cook your own food. Restaurants, cafes and food trucks can quickly eat into your budget. Unless you’re eating something unique to a region that you’d never make by yourself, head to the grocery store.
- Look for opportunities to “insource.” This is something championed by the folks at Frugalwoods, who even cut each other’s hair. We don’t go that far, but we do our own taxes and manage our property ourselves. Why? We don’t mind doing it. That way we can save the stuff we can’t do, like haircuts, for the pros.
- Take advantage of coupons and bonus points, but not too much. Pay attention to sales and credit card rewards. For instance, if you know you’ll need toothpaste next week and see that it’s buy one, get one free, do it! Or, if it’s 5 percent cash back this quarter on gasoline if you use a specific credit card, use it! The key is to only do it for things you were going to purchase anyway. Don’t buy things just because they’re on sale.
- Track and write-off expenses. Use a site like Mint to track and categorize your expenses. It’ll help you figure out where most of your money is going and help you adjust your budget as needed. Also, look for opportunities for write-offs! For example, because we use our cell phones for our businesses, we can write off part of the cost on our taxes.
- Take advantage of income-based repayment. When first starting my consulting work, I applied to have my student loan payments fluctuate based on my income. That allowed me to keep payments low until my income went up.
- Travel light. Look for ways to limit the number of things you have. For instance, our minivan is pretty small, but we intentionally didn’t build a platform bed for extra storage. Why? When you have space, you fill it! You’ll be less likely to shop for unnecessary things if you genuinely don’t have space for it. This also applies when traveling out of the van, which we learned when we brought too much to Europe.
The Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, TX offers free tours and beer tasting along with a meeting with a special beer robot
Step 5: Know That It’ll Be a Work in Progress
If this all sounds a little too easy breezy, here’s the kicker: Even if you do all these things above, the numbers may not add up. Maybe you won’t be able to generate enough income. Some surprise expenses could come up and derail your plans. Your life on the road could cost more than you expected.
Guess what? Surprises can happen even if you’re not traveling. Don’t let an imperfect situation keep you from taking a leap. Almost-but-not-quite-perfect is usually okay, and you can work at it along the way. Here are the things that aren’t perfect but haven’t stopped us from traveling:
- We haven’t been saving. Our real estate is appreciating, but we haven’t contributed to our retirement accounts in two years. We built it into our budget this year though, so we’re good as long as there are no costly surprises. (Knock on wood.)
- We don’t have much buffer. Stuff breaks, people get sick, projects get cancelled, and all sorts of other things could go wrong. Our income covers our planned expenses, but we are still rebuilding our emergency cash reserves for the unforeseen.
- We ran out of runway. As we mentioned in “Our Weaknesses,” we had limited cash savings when we started our businesses. And while we were able to get revenue right away, it took a while to be profitable. We took on some debt during that time, but are steadily paying it back.
- Travel can cut into our expenses and income. Even though we practice what we preach about not overspending on stuff, we can spend more than we mean to on experiences. Last year we spent more than we anticipated on plane tickets and missed out on more income than anticipated while long-distance hiking, but in both instances we have no regrets because we gained once-in-lifetime memories.
- Our income is still rising. Our businesses are still relatively new and have room for growth. But we’re able to make do with what we have for now and are confident income will increase as we get better at running our businesses. Then maybe we can do the pricier travel things we have to pass up on.
There you have it, folks. The good, the bad and the ugly, along with our advice to help you plan. Good luck and let us know if you have ideas we haven’t tried!