We’ve been living in our van full time now for 2 years, so it’s safe to say we’ve racked up a few nifty, but effective ways to make van life affordable.
You’re probably asking yourself “how cheap is van life”, and whether it really is the lifestyle for you, that’s why we’ve put together this post! After reading this you will hopefully come away with more knowledge and confidence on what kind of financing it takes to live in a van.
I’m going to explain 10 simple, yet effective, ways to afford full time van living, these not only worked for us but plenty of other people that are out there living on the road right now!
NOTE this is only a guide.. it obviously, ultimately depends on how much YOU want to change your life and use/save your money.
How cheap is van life? The answer depends on your mindset!
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10 ways to afford full time van living
1. Spend to Save
Easier said than done, granted, money was made for spending as they say… However, if travelling is a long term thing for you, then you need to learn how to save CONSISTENTLY.
Many people fail at saving anything because they think they need to slap hundreds or even thousands in the bank in one go!
The truth is, we have learnt that just putting away a couple of dollars whenever we can, works wonders as it all adds up over time.
This method is easy for us as we rarely spend loose change anyway and when it mounts up or you fill the piggy bank, go find a coin machine at the bank. This way of saving is as old as time but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it… surely even $1 a week is better than $0 a week… $4 a month is better than $0 a month?
You’re probably thinking “well what’s the point of only putting $4 a month away.. what will that get you??” Well, it will get you a nice muffin or a small cup of coffee. So shhh!
Look after your pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.
Annoying loose change, or the first steps to travelling full time in a van?
The point is, that if you adopt this method and are strict with yourself you will be really surprised how much you save in a year… We don’t have a set amount we save, we just save what we can… so an example would be – out of the $5.50 change in my wallet, I would put $2 of it in the piggy (preferably one that’s hard to get into).
The first time we did this method we saved over £800 IN COINS… this was over a year period of myself and Leah just putting in £1 approx each, EVERY DAY without fail. Some days it would be £1.20, others it would be 50p… the point is we were disciplined enough to add to the piggy bank EVERY DAY.
This was enough for us to pay off our Australian visas… But that was never the plan because we never expected to get that much, just throwing change in a box.. but it was a nice surprise because we didn’t really notice the money we were putting away, It felt like we weren’t even saving!
It seems like the use of physical cash is dying out. More people just tap their cards. I believe that there is still value in the use of cash because you simply treat it differently. I don’t mean take ALL your money out and put it under the floorboards or carry it around in the van… I mean just take out what a reasonable amount would be for you, for your ESSENTIALS, either by day or week. You will soon learn how fast or slow you actually spend your money.
Having said all that.. “you can’t take it with you” as they say. It’s certainly always going to be a balancing act managing your own finances, We have learnt that it is possible to save whilst you actually enjoy life when travelling, hence the SPEND TO SAVE title. Many people believe that travelling costs thousands and people who buy and live in a vehicle must be rich or funded by mummy and daddy… Generally speaking, this just isn’t true.
It all boils down to how much you want to change your lifestyle and prioritise your finances. With patience and hard work, you will eventually see a change and get what you’re wanting, It will even be a more for-filling journey that way.
But Dec? What if I can’t get any money and don’t have a job?!
2. Prepare to do ANY job
A lot of people wanting to or currently living the Van-Life, have no job.
Full-time travelling for the majority of people is a rollercoaster of ups and downs financially. Moving places all the time means moving work. The positive side to this is that there are ALWAYS jobs available SOMEWHERE.
The beauty of travelling, especially in a vehicle, is that you are free to go to work wherever you want (providing you can legally work in that country of course) Many places of work will actually let you park there if you really want haha…
The next problem comes when people say I don’t WANT to do that kind of work… I.e Farm work, cleaning toilets or all sorts of hard physical labour.
If you’re this type of person I would advise you to change your mindset. If this isn’t possible for you, I’m going to be brutally honest and say travelling full-time just isn’t for you.
Unless you are the very lucky minority that can afford to travel and not have to work, then I would say most people who start travelling eventually have to work, often in jobs that the locals don’t want to do themselves.
Farm work for example, along with other physical labour type jobs is a MUST if you want to travel to places like Australia for longer than a year on the working holiday visa: if you want to get your second year, you’ll have to do at least 88 days of farm work. This is even if you’re self-employed with your own business and haven’t gotten sponsorship for a longer type visa. (VISAS are another story for another post)
You will often find that the harder the work you do, the more character building and fulfilling experiences you will get out of it. Along with greater respect and connection with the locals! One of the hardest but yet, rewarding jobs myself and Leah have done is working on the biggest dairy farm in the Southern Hemisphere!
Milking over 3000 cows per 8hour shift! As you can imagine it was brutal and not the cleanest of jobs either… BUT this job was by far the most rewarding in terms of money and meeting friends.
In reality, no matter what job you do its only a means to an end… you do the work and off you go again, not being tied down to any employment contracts. Not for everyone, but only working what averages out as half the year, sure works for us. Job security in current times is a complete myth anyway, in my opinion.
As I’m writing this now I’m currently unemployed… I prefer to think of it as self-employed but without a wage! We use certain other methods of funding our travels which we will share with you in future posts and hopefully shine some reality on how much money a typical Van-Lifer can bring in.
Finding a job can be challenging and so can many other things in van-life, but what annoys me is when you hear people say “there’s just NO work”. Travellers often say this when they can’t be bothered putting in the time to look, whether it’s sitting in the library (like I’m doing now) online job hunting or simply moving to another city or even state to work. Or they haven’t been full-time travelling for long and have hit the stage where they have little or no money and don’t want to do that “type” of work.
But you haven’t got a job DEC!?
That is true. Sometimes you will hit a place and there are FEWER jobs available to you or your skill set. And if you are travelling with a partner then you have to work out logistics if you only have the one vehicle you both live in.
Leah is working bless her, but unfortunately doesn’t drive yet, but if she did then what would I do… A problem with a simple solution but it’s not always clear.
In another section of this post, I go into how it can be a huge advantage of travelling with someone. Even though I’m currently not working, we are doing more than fine.
Through proper planning, you can cover yourself during times like this. When you’re at the top you should always plan for the descent of the rollercoaster. This comes through experience travelling and working, for example, once you know you’ve got a 3month period of work… plan your next move for when that’s over.
3. Travel with someone
Tying in with the previous point, travelling with someone full-time can be a huge advantage when it comes to affording van-life.
If you yourself are really struggling to find work to a point where you maybe haven’t planned your finances very well and are “running on fumes” then travelling with someone, like a partner, can increase your odds in getting a job.
Usually, partners like myself and Leah have totally different skill sets.
Hers are much more suited to a city environment as she has many years experience in the hospitality and food industry. She has a natural knack of walking into any job she seeks anyway… it’s like her superpower!
I don’t know how she does it but I guess when you are as friendly and approachable as Leah is, employers love you! These types of skills defiantly are suited to the travelling lifestyle… many jobs like bar-work, are casual and evening work. They are also great for meeting new people and often give you free time in the day to explore.
My skillset consists of construction, machinery operation in mines/quarry/farm environments obviously not the best match for city areas if there is little construction going on.
This has however been a big advantage to us when we have worked on farms etc. Usually meaning I can work better jobs with more money for both of us.
So I guess it’s all swings and flyovers… or however the saying goes.
When Leah works and I don’t, we get enough money to survive. When I work and Leah doesn’t, we live like KING AND QUEEN!… Jokes, but we do survive.
And when we are BOTH working we can really save and enjoy life. Travelling with someone else is an advantage on so many levels, in van-life, the reality of security/safety can be a thing stuck at the back of your mind (so it should be) More on this in future posts.
4. Sell what you don’t need
This one should be a no-brainer! If you’re planning on living in a vehicle you will have to downsize and sell a lot of things anyway, but if you’re already living the van-life, it’s probably good practice to get into a minimalist way of living.
Many people before they begin travelling don’t realise the attachment they have to all their “stuff” whilst living in a building you generally have more space to accumulate “stuff” So it goes without saying that downsizing your living space = downsizing the number of your possessions.
I can promise you this though.. no matter how much stuff you have, there will ALWAYS be something you can live without.
When you’re attached to your big fridge freezer (like we were) it can seem daunting to part with it. Honestly, though, it is a massive weight off your shoulders when you have finally sorted the sentimental items from the non-sentimental and sold off the stuff you can replace one day if you really need to.
I think it’s defiantly a mindset most people are in when it comes to a materialistic lifestyle… becoming a status symbol according to how much “stuff” you own, whether it is of use or not.
A classic example would be having pointless ornaments about the place – just because they look good, often just a fashion statement and serve no real purpose… so what’s the point in hanging on to them when you decide to travel?
The plus side to having all this crap is that if you change your mindset and be strict on what actually is sentimental (like old photographs), you can make a fair amount of money by selling at car boot sales/garage sales etc.
In a strange sort of way it also makes you appreciate the truly sentimental objects you own, even more, they’re not being drowned out by your junk or forgotten about.
We distinctly remember the day we had sold everything in our house and all that remained was two backpacks, and 1 medium-sized cardboard box containing SENTIMENTAL possessions, things that just could never be replaced. The sensation was one that will stay with us forever.
Suddenly you feel a nice sense of freedom and appreciation for the things that really matter… This was the moment we realised this was all actually happening.
This was not the end though…
We have continued to live like this as a necessity of living the van-life and I guess travelling, in general, is just so much easier this way.
Selling anything that we don’t need long term or just not buying stuff that serves no purpose has been an ideal way of us affording to maintain this lifestyle. Since living on the road we’ve sold leisure batteries, we’ve sold old cameras, we’ve sold tools etc anything we need to change or replace we never just throw away.
When you’re in the business of making memories and living your dreams the first step is to gain the mindset of what REALLY MATTERS to you. For us, it wasn’t hard because we have never been super materialistic and always knew that memories and experiences trumped any physical possession.
5. Swallow your pride
I say this because its probably the hardest thing on this list for many people but its something that will help you endlessly if you do it.
People who are thinking about changing their lives so much by going travelling full-time, especially in a vehicle, may not realise how different things are going to get. Things that aren’t obvious before you actually do it.
For us, one example of this was the realisation that we weren’t going to be wearing “best” clothes all the time IN PUBLIC. It may seem strange but many people (including ourselves at the time) like to wear really nice clothes and some people change them every day and even sometimes twice a day for no special occasion, other than to step out in public!
We weren’t as bad as others but we certainly changed our clothes every day and always went out “presentable”
As you can imagine this is quite challenging when all you own is a backpack holding a few sets of clothes rather than a massive wardrobe! At first, you think – yeh no problem we can just wash them at the laundromat every couple of days… which we did! But then you begin to realise that you’re still wearing the same couple of sets of clothes ALL THE TIME... you feel like people start recognising you just because you’re in the same clothes!
Sometimes feeling judged about our cleanliness, It would have been easy to fall into the trap of buying more clothes – that we wouldn’t have been able to pack. But what for? Just to feel like everybody else? And be stuck in the stupid mindset of “keeping up with the jones’s” We were clean so what’s the problem?!
The clothes we own are still of high quality purely because they last longer and are more functional for outdoors etc. It’s no secret that clothes can make people feel better about themselves but I feel that it has gotten out of hand with people feeling like they MUST buy the latest designer brands and only wear it once!
Just think of the money you will save if you just swallow your pride and only have a couple of decent, practical sets of clothes rather than having to throw away old for new all the time or lug around a wardrobe on your travels!
This doesn’t just apply for clothes, that was just an example we experienced… Ever heard the term “a label snob!” Well, these people deffo exist. People who buy things solely on the branding of the product rather than the quality. “I only drink ‘Pepsi’ cola” for example.
These mindsets can be the reason people are put off travelling in the first place.. they believe certain countries won’t stock a certain brand of food they like, therefore they won’t go?! The truth is that many countries often have identical products but with a slightly different name/label. In Australia for example, we have experienced a vast increase in the variety of stuff we like. Leah says “especially chocolate!”
At the end of the day, it’s another way of thinking that needs to be addressed in order to make travelling more affordable and strengthen your mind when it comes to living life on the road.
I’ve written another post “Van-Life -Dealing with Judgment” that links to what I’m trying to say here and why I think it’s important to prepare your mind for this type of lifestyle, so if you want more detail on this topic go check that out.
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6. Eat Better
In Van-Life we have managed to eat a lot healthier and generally better all round! For some people this is hard to believe as we get asked all the time.. “but how do you store fresh food” and ‘What do you cook?” And so on…
The first answer would be we bought a 12v fridge for our van. These can be pretty expensive and we knew this.. planning it into our van build budget was defiantly a must. We knew and now know how cost effective having a decent 12v fridge is within a home on wheels. We can fit an entire weeks food shop for two people in the smallest fridge Waeco does. This has been the Best Buy of the van by far! Costing us around $900 it was certainly a big spend but It had paid for itself within a month… saving us hundreds of dollars in eating out at restaurants.
You may be thinking why not just buy a cheap cooler instead.. well from experience these just don’t work long-term. Not only are you paying for ice all the time, but they are also a mess and generally don’t keep your food fresh for longer than a couple of days. INVEST in a decent 12v fridge.
Once you have a fridge you can basically cook ‘proper’ meals. We have cooked anything from big steak dinners, chicken and rice dishes, fish dishes etc…
We generally buy whole foods because they are more healthy and fill you up better. The myth of them being more expensive is exactly that.. a myth. People who disbelieve this are either “label snobs” or just too lazy to hunt for a bargain. We have nice meals out quite often too but never really bother with fast food unless we absolutely have to.
Things like Macdonalds are easy in van-life but they never sustain you properly and you end up spending more on less food in the long run. Cooking up better quality food and wholesome meals is key in van-life, not only for your health but when you know what works for your own tastes, you can make batch pasta etc that’s cheap and lasts for days! Just like many do when they live in a building! Other tips on what to eat in a van will be coming in future posts.. things like buying cooked meat from the deli counter are actually cheaper than packet meats in many places.
7. Be Resourceful
When travelling anywhere in the world for a period of time, things can challenge you more than you ever thought.
This is something that’s close to my heart when it comes to living this lifestyle because as a person I love to challenge myself. I believe that it is necessary to live a fulfilling life. I also believe that if you’re travelling and you don’t experience challenges, then you’re not making the most out of your experiences… its what makes you a better traveller, adventurer, explorer etc.
One of the biggest challenges in Van-Life or travelling, in general, is affording it. This can be combated by learning to become resourceful. People living the Van-Life already will relate to what I’m saying straight away because I don’t think there’s a van-lifer out there that hasn’t had to be resourceful…
From using unorthodox methods of mechanical repairs to get them by, to making a clothesline out of… well pretty much anything other than an actual clothesline!
Sometimes you will find that you learn some pretty good life lessons along the way, by becoming less wasteful of things and finding multiple purposes for things you own can save you heaps of money. With amazing Apps around today such as wiki-camps, you can find FREE everything really… water, showers, campsites, wifi and so on!
On the extreme, some travellers even manage to get their food costs down to zero! “But how?” I hear you ask… Well by bin-digging as we call it in the UK or dumpster-diving for other parts of the world…
Some of you may decide to stop reading after that comment… However, that mindset and closed-mindedness are what separates the sheepdogs from the sheep.
Let me explain to those who are still reading haha, even though we ourselves have no experiences in this activity, we know quite a lot that do.
Some of our closest friends are experts! When we say bin-digging, you need to understand that this isn’t walking down any street, dipping your arm into any old public bin… They only target SUPERMARKET skips/dumpsters.
The reason being is that they are only used for throwing away food/items past there “sell by date”.
No matter what walk of life you’re from, this is a major problem with the world today… throwing away perfectly good food (some of it even still in date!) just because it doesn’t sell. You have to ask yourself what kind of world do we live in where people are literally dying of hunger and supermarkets are throwing away perfectly ok food by the lorry load!
We have never done this ourselves because we never have needed to. Hypocrite you might be saying… but not really because it is illegal in some areas and I guess we just don’t want the hassle just yet but that doesn’t mean we agree with the sheer waste.
Like I said, its good to keep an open mind with these sort of things and always consider them a possibility. What separates the sheepdogs from the sheep is having an open mind and respect towards those who dare to do what’s morally right. We have known people who do this purely to give to the homeless or someone in severe need…
I guess this opens up a whole can of worms when discussing topics such as this, so I think I will end in saying: being resourceful can be a massive way to save money and afford travelling. Even if you are without money/food then what we spoke about above will certainly get you by.
8. Manage your time better
One of the most common words used to describe Van-Life is FREEDOM.
Living in a van can give freedom in so many ways, one of which is financially; in ways that we have spoken about, but another is by generally giving you more time to do what you want in life.
However, I reckon that this doesn’t mean you can’t still have some planning and routines. As cliche as it always sounds, you have to find the BALANCE.
We have always said that travel is about the moment, spontaneity and all that jazz! And Honestly, we have very vague plans for the future. Only recently have we decided where we would like to go, what country next… But we have defiantly known when it is the right time to plan ahead.
This can save you a MASSIVE amount of time and MONEY! I’ll give you an example: We had no plans when we first travelled to Australia but when we eventually decided to drive down the middle of the entire country and through the outback, we knew we HAD to plan. We plotted the entire road trip because if we hadn’t, we could have quite easily not made it. Places like the Australian Outback are no joke and you really need to know what you’re doing. We also had a budget for our trip and planning ahead definitely helped us stick to it. We knew where all the fuel stations where and the time scales etc.
Managing your time better can be as simple as getting into a small routine on a morning (like having your coffee, brushing your teeth and so on) all before you start your adventures.
Getting up at a set time every day and having a small routine can help you gain more time doing what you want because you will gradually become more efficient at the mundane stuff.
Believe it or not, this can benefit you financially because you find things just run smoothly, you never overstay things like parking meters and you aren’t rushing around burning more fuel in your van etc.
I get that for some, having any kind of ’routine’ can suck. You’re living the dream of travel and the excitement is the unknown!
What I’m saying is that it’s better to balance the unknown with small amounts of known.. like a set wake up time for example. Eventually, these small routines just become habit anyway and you don’t even notice you’re doing them, only experiencing the benefits from them… more money, time to enjoy life and maybe follow your passion.
9. Monetize your passion
Bringing me onto the next method on how to afford full time van living… making money from doing what you love.
Finding a passion in the first place can be very difficult for some people, let alone finding out how to make money from it!
Usually, if you’re passionate about something you feel like that’s all that matters in your life and it gives you a feeling of purpose.
Knowing how to monetise this can be tricky, especially if your passion is extremely popular.
It’s easy to see why many people think that becoming a footballer, for example, is the only way to make your passion for football profitable… but why not work another role within the football industry?
Obviously, there are a lot of people thinking ‘what’s the point because you won’t earn as much as a footballer!’ But they’re missing the point.
A passion is not about how much you can make from it, but the feeling that you love what you do and that if you can earn money doing that – then great!
We have discovered that our passion is to travel the world and capture the moments with our photography. In our efforts to fund this we have found areas of the entire ‘travel’ genre that we can monetise! If you’re also passionate about travel then you can check out our Patreon to find out some of these ways!…
Travelling full-time frees up so much time for people, that figuring out what you love just kind of happens!
Once you have found your passion use it to your advantage, think what VALUE you can bring to that ‘industry’ or ‘topic’ because that’s what gets peoples attention.
If really love something then you should naturally want to do it more and more, thus gaining experience and maybe even expertise that people will want from you. If it’s your true passion it will also be obvious to many people, also giving people trust in you.
All that being said, this method is a long term way of funding your travels and can certainly take YEARS to earn from.
I’m here to tell you that it’s, for the most part, going to be a long road before you earn anything from a newly felt passion or interest but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
Like most things, it’s the ‘starting’ something that’s the hardest part and once you’re over that first hurdle you can begin to see your hard work paying off… even if its only a small amount, its better than nothing!
10. Regular Vehicle Maintenance
This one is obviously to all those Van-Lifers out there who live and travel for decent time periods in any vehicle… MAINTENANCE!
Many travellers buy a van or similar with not much more experience than their driver’s licence, some don’t even have that!
I think its pretty safe to say that if you are going to live in a vehicle its probably a good idea to learn how to do AT LEAST basic maintenance, oil and fluid changes, change globes/bulbs, tyre maintenance etc You wouldn’t move into your own house and no know how to do basic maintenance so why would you do the same moving into a vehicle?
Hows this going to save you money… well at the risk of sound like your dad, decent tyre and wheel condition will save you loads in fuel economy which is a van-lifer’s biggest bill.
It’s also a major safety point. Keeping a good service history on your vehicle is another top way of saving money on repairs and when it comes to selling it eventually. This leads to my next point of learning ‘basic mechanics’ can save you hundreds if not thousands in the long run. It might even save your life if you break down in a really remote area!
Do your best to learn your home on wheels inside out and always keep an eye on things.
Too many people buy a vehicle riddled with issues from the get-go because they don’t know the basics. I’d strongly advise you get a qualified mechanic to check your new van before you buy it and maybe learn a few things and maintenance too.
People breaking down – big time – in there new vehicle is probably one of the biggest reasons why they don’t continue Van-Life and it really doesn’t have to go down like that! I’m going to do a more in-depth post about this topic, covering general maintenance, like a ‘things you need to know about /how to look after your vehicle home’ so stay tuned for that!
So there you go, hopefully, these 10 van life tips have made you realise that it is possible to live and travel in a fan full time; once you have the right mindset. Like I said before, these are like guidelines to how many people have afforded this lifestyle, including us! There are probably many other methods/better ways out there but we know from experience that all 10 of these points have made a huge difference to us and I hope they make things better and easier for you too. Affording this amazing lifestyle is a constant learning curve and in our eyes should be a progressional journey.
Good luck and thanks for reading! If you have any methods we haven’t mentioned, feel free to drop us a comment or join us over on Facebook!
Other van life tips!
Coming soon – How to stay fit on the road
Coming soon – How to eat well while travelling in a van
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