Van life and extended travel can be a wonderful and liberating way of living, but it's not always about the beautiful scenery and freedom. Like many other lifestyles, it can be to make enough income to keep up with your expenses.
Regardless if you want to live #vanlife full-time, part-time, or as a year-out vacation, you’ll be much better off if you take some time out for planning. Same goes if you are already living the van life…or if you’re planning some other form of living or travel outside of the norm.
Below I’ll provide you with a brief overview of the options you have when it comes to making money (and saving it!) while living in a van, by having a plan.
Firstly, understand that everybody’s situation is different
There are a multitude of reasons why you may want to live or travel longer-term in a van. Some people simply love the freedom that vanlife offers. Others find that living in a van provides them with a more fulfilling work-life balance and some, because it is the most affordable way for them to live.
Then there are those who own a property and live the van lifestyle part-time, for extended holidays or as a way of leading a temporary nomadic lifestyle, but retaining security.
Some people will be reading this who are already living vanlife & some will be dreaming about it or working towards it; some will have a van, some will not; some will have good jobs, some will be working for minimum wage; some will have savings, some will have none and there will be partners, kids, cats and dogs alongside differing priorities and aspirations…and some might be vanlife-ing in a car!
The thing to understand is that everyone is different and just as there is no ‘one fit’ solution to your vehicle, there's no ‘one fit' solution to your income.
So first up, you should really…
1. Do a situation analysis
Seriously, this is not boring – it changed my life and brought me a growing passive income stream that sees no limits.
First, you need to assess where you are now and have a rough idea of what life of freedom you aspire to live.
Is could be one big trip covering hundreds or thousands of miles in a custom RV worth +$100,000, living a low-impact life in a $1,000 DIY van locally or living at a ‘bricks n mortar' home, having the freedom to tinker your van conversion and head off anytime you wish for extended breaks.
Whatever your aspirations, do you have the resources to support them?
If not, how are you going to do it?
One of the biggest parts of your situation analysis is a full assessment of your current assets and liabilities.
Let's break it down…
What are your assets and opportunities?
For assets, that means writing down everything from how much money you have in the bank to how much you earn and figuring out the value of other things you own (everything from clothing & books to larger items, and even your car or house).
Also take into consideration longer term savings/investments and pensions. Depending on other factors, these may impact your plan. Mine did; I had zero pension and at 40ish years old I realised there was an anxiety that would have impacted my vanlife happiness had I not addressed it.
Optional: Opportunities are also worth considering. Are you in a job that has over-time potential? Are there other earning opportunities you could avail of e.g. participate in a medical trial, be a movie-shoot extra or work at an event?
List the following:
- Current bank balance
- Monthly income
- All assets and the approx value if you were to sell now (group small items together)
- Any basic savings you have
- Any longer-term savings/investments/pensions
- Optional: brainstorm any ‘asset’ opportunities to earn
What are your liabilities?
After you've figured out how much money you have, you then look at your liabilities.
What must you pay that can't be put off? Maybe you have debt, student loans, child support, or other things such as health insurance that you must pay for that isn't something you can live without.
Also figure out your cash flow, especially what goes out of your account on a regular basis.
List the following:
- Monthly outgoings (from debt repayments to food, phone & luxuries)
Where can you make savings?
Threats should also be considered. Is your current income/outgoings situation stable? How much can you rely on the figures above – how accurate are they?
What are your skills and interests?
Knowing what your talents are and likes/dislikes go a long way in terms of the work you might consider on the road. Not everybody is confident in front of (or behind!) the camera, so becoming a van life Instagramer or Youtuber won't be for everyone!
Likewise, consider your current job and if there is potential to continue on a part time or flexible basis.
Do your skills and interests align with seasonal work?
Quickly list the skills you have (for these, look at the work you are being paid to do or have been paid to do in the past) and your general interests. This doesn’t need to be exhaustive – just enough to get your subconscious mind processing in the background.
What are your aspirations?
It goes without saying that vanlife aspirations play a big part in the cost of your van, your ongoing expenses and your ability to work on the road.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of traveling and enjoy your luxuries, it’s going to cost a lot more than living a low-impact life in the hills.
Equally, that life in the hills might not have much internet connectivity and thus could restrict your earning potential.
Or are you planning to job-hop or volunteer your way across the country?
Make a board on Pinterest or jot down a few sentences. Don’t overthink it at this point. Again, your subconscious mind will build out from seed.
2. Budget your vanlife – or at least ballpark it!
I’ll write a bigger piece on budgeting and link to some amazing vanlife bloggers from all over the world who have documented their DIY campervan conversions, cost of living and road trips.
For now, you need to be aware that in general, a van is not cheap.
Even a ‘cheap van’ is not cheap.
You’ll want to give yourself a budget or budget range and start researching.
Take into consideration the ‘base van’ and ‘conversion’ aspects, and be aware that whilst you can price hobs, fridges, sinks and wiring, nothing is black & white when it comes to your base van.
eg. We originally set out looking for a ‘blank canvas’, however the base van we ended up with was a semi-converted ex-ambulance bus (Renault Master) which already had windows and an insulated floor. Read all about it here – the pros and cons of converting an ex-ambulance on a budget.
Day-to-day & ongoing expenses
The lifestyle you choose to live alongside the location and distance you wish to travel will all impact your day-to-day living costs. Fuel is a lot more expensive in Europe than the US or Asia; eating out frequently or using serviced campsites may be convenient however it will cost more than wild camping or doing a bit of volunteer work in return for a park up.
You’ll have van insurance, servicing / maintenance and consumables, such as tyres, can be extremely expensive. You may have vehicle breakdown cover and there will most likely be parking fees to pay at times.
These all need to be factored in when budgeting for your vanlife income requirements.
Don’t wing it!
In most cases, you will make your life much easier if you dedicate some time to save money and plan from home, rather than ‘wing it’ and head off with no real thought.
A few months of dedication can make a huge difference to your long-term future happiness.
3. Assess your opportunities to earn a remote income
By now, you should have a good understanding of your situation and at least a ballpark idea of the costs involved in buying and living or extended travel in a van life.
The bulk of this blog is about earning money online, remote / passive income and financial freedom and there will be individual articles on many opportunities, so I’ll not dive into specifics here.
Instead, I’ll share a few thoughts and considerations.
- Do you want a remote employment job? (regular work and pay but not overly flexible)
- How about freelance work? (very flexible, but less reliable than a ‘job’)
- Do you have time to invest? (eg. learn a specific skill such as web scraping, local business promotion or video editing…or to develop a ‘passive’ revenue stream)
- Do you have money to invest? (eg. purchase an online business, input to a rewards / income generating venture or investment)
Even if physical seasonal work is more your style (eg. I LOVE volunteering at festivals), developing some form of remote income stream will really make your life easier and your vanlife more flexible.
My biggest takeaway from 2020
Having had a lot of ventures over the decades and recent years of ‘business busy-ness’, I really had not taken the time to step back and see a bigger picture.
My biggest takeaways from 2020 were to assess my situation and what I really wanted, take time and stress more seriously as a cost factor, not leave assets ‘lying around’ unmonetized (declutter; from books and old phones to larger assets — I've been getting rid of them all!) and to make money work for me.
Doing this has literally changed my life within a few months.
4. Planning your plan
Now, knowing your assets and liabilities, skills and aspirations, you are in a good position to see if you have the resources to hit the road in a van…and what van and lifestyle you can potentially afford.
Given your financial and personal situation, where do you stand? Are you in a position to jump into van life (and ultimate freedom)?
Technically, I was. But in reality, I wasn’t (the ‘ultimate freedom’ part was missing: freedom of time).
So I adjusted my plan.
We saved $10,000 (on our van conversion / plan) and within 5 months I have a passive income that is more than enough to support my ‘van life’ lifestyle….and is growing every day. I continue to grow it to reduce risk and provide future financial security.
This will allow me to travel and live life on my own terms, rather than worrying or chasing money. If I find myself volunteering on some animal sanctuary, I can stay as long as they'll have me — no need to move on just so I can earn money.
In April I decided to start Van Life Income and by the last few days in June 2021, this site went live.
5. Where to next?
Take a browse through the sections and posts to get an idea of what opportunities are out there. Put pen to paper, do a situation analysis and figure out what might work for you. Plan your van. Think about where it might take you.
Unsure where to start? Try: DIY camper van conversion – how to choose the right van and earn passive income with the savings!
Most importantly, take your time and enjoy the process.
It's all part of the adventure 🙂