A couple days ago I shared the first post in this mini-series, talking about what’s a realistic #vanlife budget. I also talked about how much lead time you may want to plan on to get financially - and physically - ready (read the full thing here), and then I said this:
“You can cut down your lead time, and the amount of savings required to quit your traditional day job, by setting yourself up to work from the road and try to earn a living while traveling.”
But really… before I get into specifics, let me ask you a basic question: why are you thinking about vanlife in the first place? If it’s because you’d simply like to have a bit more flexibility in your location and schedule, then the idea of a remote-work or freelance arrangement sounds fantastic. Just be aware that working remotely or freelance still means that you are working full-on, and potentially even harder and longer hours (particularly if you’re now hustling as a freelancer) than you did before.
I personally chose vanlife because I wanted a break. I wanted the freedom and flexibility to focus exclusively on what I loved (being active in the outdoors), when I wanted to, in whatever location was calling my heart - within driving distance, of course - and without deadlines or deliverables hanging over my head. I came from years of incredibly intense work and burnout-level stress as a top tier strategy consultant; I needed a break. Moving into a van was my way to get away from it all, at least for a little bit.
It is this background that informs my philosophy on saving up vs. working from the road. It would be fantastic to have a fat trust fund in the background that makes life on the road completely worry-free as far as finances go, but that is a luxury that most of us, myself and Paul included, don’t have. If you don’t have lots of money in the background you have to make a trade-off between delaying your time on the road to save up for it, or hustling while you’re on the road. Here is how I think about that trade-off.
Start out with a cushion of savings that will allow you to get used to, and fully enjoy, vanlife for a little while without having to worry about making money. When I first quit my day job at the end of 2015, I had saved up enough to live on the road “worry-free” for six months and then still have a small cushion which I would be able to use to feed myself while actively looking for work after my initial period of complete freedom. It took me about a year of planning my exit and saving very deliberately to get to that point.
My strategy for life after those first six months was a simple one: I figured that I would either organically have found something that I was excited to do and which would generate income for me, or if not… I would put my head down and return to the grind: park the van somewhere and work odd jobs for immediate income while applying to find a career-oriented position. I like this strategy because it’s a win-win: as a worst-case scenario you walk away with the memories of a lifetime from a fantastic six month vacation; in the best case, that vacation gave you enough headspace and new ideas to make money in a different way that you find more enjoyable than whatever it is that you “gave up” at the start of your vanlife journey.
There are many variations on the theme: many nomads make it work by finding seasonal or project work for part of the year (this can be anything from construction work to guiding to waitressing to temp office jobs) which allows them save up money to travel for the rest of the year. They work limited-time contracts as nurses, field scientists or in wilderness therapy; some work offshore with long shore breaks. Others find steady part- or full-time jobs that allow them to work remotely. As long as you’re OK with uncertainty and living cheaply, being on the road can actually be a lot easier to make work financially than urban adulting; you're not paying rent after all!
I am going to talk about getting started in the outdoor industry in my next post, sharing my thoughts on what it takes to not just find a way to pay for life on the road but to make life on the road pay you [spoiler alert: it takes a lot of hustle, but it's also pretty fun]. In the meantime, here are a few broader pointers and resources about how to generate income while you're on the road.
I typically differentiate between three different ways of earning money on the road.
- Seasonal, project-based or limited-term work
- This is maybe the least complicated way of making money as a nomad. If you are in a profession that allows for limited-term contracts, go take advantage of them. If you aren't, a simple google search for seasonal work will show you how much is out there (a lot! Here is just one outdoor-oriented example of many). Much of it isn't glamorous, but it will allow you to work part of the year - potentially in very cool places - and then use your earnings to move around freely for a while. The biggest disadvantage in addition to potentially unglamorous work: you'll most likely need to stay put in one location while you're working.
- Steady remote work
- I think landing an on-going and rewarding remote work setup is a bit more difficult than on-location limited time contracts because a fair number of companies still consider remote work to be an experiment rather than a proven concept. Instead of looking for a remote position from the start it may be easier to negotiate remote work after you’ve been with a company for a year or two and proven yourself as an asset while working on location.
- That said, if you are looking for a new position that will allow you to work remotely, here is a list of resources that can serve as a solid starting point. Working remotely is a distinct possibility, and of course is easier the more computer-based skills you have - coding, web design, social media management and copy writing are all good examples of jobs that lend themselves to remote work; customer service is another area that often offers remote gigs.
- Freelancing / entrepreneurship or 'the hustle', where the beautiful thing is that you're your own boss and the hard thing is that you're the boss and as such responsible for making sure you're getting paid for your work. By the way: if you're scratching your head about the difference between freelancing and entrepreneurship... check out this excellent article.
The hustle is awesome, but it's also hard. If you're hoping to get work as a freelancer on the road, it's really no different than transitioning out of a 9-to-5 and into self-employment while living in an apartment... except that everything is a bit harder as you're now moving around much more, and have to be a lot more deliberate about your work spaces and connectivity. All of that said, plenty has been written about how to get off the ground as a freelancer; I recommend you start here.
Let's say that you love the notion of vanlife and you know that you will need to make money on an ongoing basis, but you're thinking that you'd ideally like to get paid directly for what you want to do anyway: live on the road and go on adventures. In its essence this is just a specific form of nomadic freelancing (meaning: you have to hustle for it, hard) but there are some concrete pieces of advice on how to get started as a content-creator in the outdoor industry; stay tuned for the final post of the series on precisely that question.
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