5 Families Who Chose Van Life to Save Money & See the World
While leaving the day-to-day grind behind to travel the world in a van seems like a dream to many of us, the initial thought of, Heck yes, let's buy a van and go! can get quickly replaced by an onslaught of questions—most of them monetary. How will I make money while on the road? It seems like van life should be cheaper with less square footage—but is it? And if you add kids to the mix, most of us parents who have ever been on a long road trip with a toddler are probably vehemently shaking our heads at the thought of living, essentially, a permanent road trip with a toddler.
But before you rule this would-be dream out entirely, these five families are here to prove that van life with kids is not only possible, it's also the best financial decision for many. We asked these parent #vanlifers all about the cost of living on the road, how they make money while traveling, and whether traveling full-time with kids is at all comparable to raising kids in, you know, a house with a yard.
Family of four OurVanQuest (parents Jake and Gianna, and their daughters Luna and Capri) sold everything in 2018 to travel the United States in a renovated school bus, aka Skoolie. Now, they help others do the same by coaching individuals and families through their transition from "home life" to life on the road.
What (aside from no rent) have you found to be the biggest relief, monetarily, while living in a Skoolie?
G&JB: Living in a school bus is simply less of an overhead—including water, electric, TV and internet bills... A Skoolie is much smaller than a house, so you need less furniture and things. We've been able to pay off (most) of our debt and get into a better financial situation by living this lifestyle.
What has van life taught you about money?
G&JB: We've learned a lot about money while living tiny on the road. We have an affirmation on a Post-It note in our bus that reads: "Money comes easily and frequently." We look at money as a tool, not as happiness... This lifestyle has made us rich on experiences, not things. We have learned to live on less, with less, in exchange for time together and being able to see the country.
Aside from space, what are other ways you live on less?
G&JB: Wardrobe consists of only mix 'n' match necessities, not fashion trends. When you're mobile, you don't do things like take horse riding lessons, ballet class, or play team sports. We mainly spend our time outside exploring and playing together...we do a lot of free outdoor activities.
How do you make money on the road?
G&JB: We do a lot of things...Our main source of income is our consulting business @otrlifestyleconsulting, where we work with people with build and design for their mobile rigs, on-the-road lifestyle consulting (such as how to find fresh water or safe places to sleep), as well as help with transitioning from house life to life on the road. Pretty much anything related to this lifestyle that people want to learn more about. We found the sweet spot where our passions and talents intersected, and we made a business out of it. We also do affiliate marketing for brands that we love and support, write guest blog posts, do sponsored YouTube videos for brands we use, and we have a merch store."
Photographer, musician. and artist Ethan DeLorenzo is the face behind @fatherandforager and @fatherofode. He's a single dad to son Ode, whom he shares with actress Jena Malone. Ethan and Ode live part-time in an '87 VW Westfalia van, and the rest of the time live in an intentional farming community, where Ode attends forest school.
Has van life surprised you with any unexpected spending?
ED: Car repairs are always unknown and can really set you back. I've been on the road with my family and had to get a whole new engine from a head gasket—which is a big job and takes time, so there's an expensive repair and a couple weeks you need to find housing and reschedule your plans.
How has your relationship with money changed on the road?
ED: That's a big question. When I started, I really didn't enjoy capitalism and the rat race of it all. Over time, I realized capitalism isn't necessarily the problem; it's more how we use capitalism. For example, in capitalism we can pay everyone four times the minimum wage, have health care, benefits, and work, let's say, 40 hours a month...and that would still be capitalism. But we have it set up to be so oppressive to the masses that it's really less of money being an issue, and more what our greater morals are as a collective society, what we value over all. Van life is amazing. It allows an opportunity to recalibrate on what truly matters in life, and usually money takes a back seat when held up to the light of what's truly important.
Has van life has made parenting less expensive overall?
ED: My son honestly isn't that expensive. Or I love him so much I don't mind it or notice it... I want him to have a beautiful life, but as I said, we get so much from what earth and being alive has to offer...paying for clothes, food, social opportunities like alternative school options...it's all things I'm happy to pay for. Van life is more affordable when held in comparison to a life in an apartment or a McMansion, yes—utility costs and rental or mortgage costs alone. It's definitely more economical and perhaps valuable to live a van life of adventure in comparison to a life of potential normalcy or over-consumption.
Robin Schannep, her husband, and their five kids live in a converted school bus and are the adorable family behind @contentednomads. They've been living in their bus for five years!
How have you cut costs to accommodate road living?
RS: Well, because we live in a small space, every purchase needs to be carefully considered and weighed. I never was a big impulse shopper to begin with, but living in a tiny space REALLY limits this! We also save a lot on utilities as our bus runs off of solar and water is pretty easy to come by. If we are boondocking (staying for free on public lands) rent is nonexistent, but gas sometimes makes up for what we would be paying for rent.
Has your relationship with money changed since embarking upon van life?
RS: Money is a funny thing, especially since my husband is a financial planner and investment manager by trade. We are actually quite comfortable talking about money and the use of it. Money truly comes and goes. It doesn't buy happiness, but it does buy options. I think there is often the misconception that living tiny and traveling will lead to a simple life, but in reality it can actually be costly [to start]. We willingly went into debt doing what we were doing... We have since paid all our debt off and have continued to contribute substantially to our personal investments.
Everyone seems to think parenting is always expensive. Do you agree?
RS: Parenting kids can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. I think I read somewhere several years ago that one child can cost a couple $250,000. That is quite a broad brush and an inaccurate number to put into the heads of people who want to have children but are on the fence—what a great way to scare them off! I have five children and one more on the way, and I can tell you...that with a little creativity and frugality, you can happily meet your children's needs while not going into debt.
We live very simply. Our children do not have their own room, and they have never vocalized dissatisfaction with that... I have really strong views on the clothing industry contributing to slave labor and human rights violations, so I actually purposely buy a lot of our clothing secondhand on principle; kids clothes are really cheap secondhand and usually in really good condition. I could go on and on about my thoughts on children being expensive, and I know my views are likely not popular, but this idea that gets perpetuated for young parents that kids will bankrupt them really frustrates me. We have learned to live simply and therefore my kids don't need to have the latest and greatest.
Kieran Lusk, his wife Sam, and their two boys Ellery and Aubrey are the adventurers behind @talesfromthewild. They're based in Australia and have been living on their converted bus, affectionately named Bronte, full-time since 2019.
Has van life been purely cost-cutting or are there added expenses as well?
KL: Van life is still a trade-off between the need to earn money and finding time to enjoy our travels. We still need to pay grocery bills, phone bills, insurance, fuel and vehicle registration costs. We are very careful with our spending, and we save money by looking for places to "free camp" (a great way to save our money)—although free camping is not possible in highly populated areas of Australia.
What are the costs of the kids' education on the road?
KL: We definitely think that the cost is comparable between our home-schooling in the bus and the state school system in Australia. Although we save on expenses like school uniforms, equipment and term resource fees, we probably spend an equivalent amount of money on resources for our self-designed home-schooling program (workbooks, tablets, online subscriptions for maths and english).
How have you been able to keep working?
KL: We have been very fortunate to be able to combine our existing work with living on the the road. Sam has been able to continue working remotely in her job as a policy advisor and logs on each day for 8-10 hours of work (four days a week). The trade-off for earning this income means that we need to be stationary and within range of a good mobile broadband signal on weekdays, so that Sam can work. It has also meant that Sam doesn't get to enjoy each destination as much as the kids and I get to! She has just started long service leave and will finally be able to enjoy our travels some more. I (Keiran) also supplement our income with photography assignments for government tourism departments here in Australia. I am currently engaged as a content creator for Tourism and Events Queensland.
@hanzianbus (Hannah, her husband Ian, and their two kids Nora and Atlas) are currently building out their second school bus to live in full-time.
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How have you found ways to cut costs on the road?
H: Aside from no rent...no utilities. We have solar panels that allow us to be off the grid, and produce our own power whenever we want. Just in general, having a lower overhead cost of living allows us to be more financially free and be more intentional with our spending and money.
Have there been any unexpected costs with van life?
H: We always encounter unexpected costs, just like in a regular house! On the plus side, since our house is small, our costs are smaller. For example, our biggest unexpected cost so far has been an engine rebuild. And although it was a larger purchase, we think of it like house maintenance. For example, on a traditional house, you have to replace certain things every so many years. So we try to have that mindset with our bus as well, to not be as caught off-guard.
What has life on the road taught you about your finances?
H: Since starting bus life, we've learned so much about money. It started when we began considering the lifestyle, and has continued over the years. Initially we had to learn how to cut costs, bills and debt, to become debt-free before we even moved into the bus. Also with the minimalist mindset, you have to learn that you don't need everything you think you do. For example, you don't need...seven different pairs of jeans [that will] just continue to occupy more space in our tiny home.
Do you make other purchase choices differently as well, now that you live on a bus?
H: We don't really do anything differently...our kids have a crib, stroller, car seat, and all of the main necessities that come with raising kids. We also have the cost of food, diapers, and doctors visits just like kids that are raised in traditional homes.
How do you make ends meet finance-wise on the road?
H: We have two Etsy stores...we sell custom-made shirts and hand-sewn items and apparel. Through blogging our lifestyle, we've gained a lot of interest in our home decor / style of our bus, so more recently we've been "reselling" which is where we find unique decor pieces at thrift stores that have value and resell them. Lastly, we pick up gig-style work through various apps and resources that allow us to seek out events that are in the area we are at. The longer you live on the road, the better you get at finding opportunities to make money on the road, as well as meeting people that lead you to opportunities.