Liz Snyder and Rachel Wood had a good life. They lived in a hip neighborhood in Asheville, N.C., and worked for youth-centered nonprofits. On the weekends, they would camp, hike and bike in the nearby Appalachian Mountains.
But in early 2018, they gave it all up … to live in a van.
Click to read more about how a family of five traveled the world for a year.
How It All Started
Snyder and Wood sold most of their belongings and hit the road at the beginning of February with plans to travel for at least a year. Some friends and family thought they were being irresponsible for quitting their jobs in their 30s and nuts for wanting to live in a van, they said. In fact, the couple admitted that they knew they were taking a risk.
However, Snyder and Wood haven’t regretted their decision. “We both thought we’d like it, but we really love it,” Snyder said. “We’ve been scheming about how to keep it going even longer.”
Why They Gave up Steady Paychecks
Before hitting the road, the couple had jobs that would be the envy of many people working long hours in the corporate world. Wood was the executive chef of Kids at Work, a program that teaches at-risk youth culinary skills. Snyder was the assistant director of Eagle’s Nest Camp, a co-ed residential summer camp.
“People say, ‘Oh man, you worked at a summer camp. That’s what I would love to do,'” Snyder said.
It was fun. But both of their jobs were a lot harder than what you’d expect, they said. “In [an] organization that serves children, you want to give your all because you want it to be amazing for these kids,” Snyder said. But it came to a point where they were giving almost all of themselves to their jobs and were exhausted.
By the fall of 2016, the two realized they needed a break. But Wood said they knew a vacation alone wouldn’t be enough. So they started hatching a plan to stop working for a year and travel across the country in a van. “It came with letting go of our paychecks,” Snyder said. “That was scary.” They had to figure out how they were going to make it work without incomes.
They Prepared Financially Before Hitting the Road
Wood had been living paycheck to paycheck, but she had cash in savings that she hadn’t touched since inheriting it from a grandparent who died. Snyder had been setting aside money for retirement and had a savings account. In the summers while all of her living expenses were covered at camp, she was saving at least 40 percent of her income, she said.
So the two had cash reserves to help sustain them on their travels. Plus, they made a couple thousand dollars selling clothes, furniture, outdoor gear and other items on Craigslist and during a moving sale. Snyder also sold her car and put the money in savings.
They hope not to have to spend all of their savings, though. And they’re not tapping their retirement funds. “I want to have money left over when we’re done with this,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to go back completely broke.”
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They Got a Deal on a Van
The biggest obstacle to turning the dream of living and traveling in a van for a year was finding a van. The couple couldn’t afford a new one, so they scoured online listings for used vans. It took about six months of searching until they actually found a van that met their needs and was in their price range.
It was a 2006 Dodge Sprinter with a Mercedes engine and 199,000 miles on it. The owner had started to convert it into a camper with walls, a ceiling, floor and insulation and was asking $8,000 for it. They took it to a mechanic, who printed out a list of every repair that needed to be made. Then they used the list to negotiate down the price to $6,500. “We made sure we weren’t getting ripped off,” Wood said.
Snyder got a personal loan to pay for the van and pulled another $6,000 out of savings to make repairs to the van and finish converting it into a camper. The couple built a platform bed so they could store their bikes, outdoor gear, clothing and everything else they needed for the journey under it. They turned a bathroom vanity they bought at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore into a kitchen sink, and use a portable two-burner camping stove to cook. Even their dog, Lucy, has her own bed.
View this post on InstagramWe get some questions about our van build, so here it is! There is nothing fancy about our little home, but it’s a comfy space that has plenty of room for two humans, a dog, and lots of outdoor gear. * Neither of us had any real building experience prior to working on the van, but YouTube tutorials taught us the basics and we went from there. The best part of the van? The ever-changing front porch view and adventures waiting at our doorstep. . . . #thenanvan #vanlife #sprintervanlife #womenontheroad #sheexplores #outdoorist #optoutside #forceofnature #thegroundskeepers #vanbuild #getoutside
They made sure to have a few thousand dollars in an emergency fund to cover the cost of repairs on the road, which they’ve already had to make. And they’ve been making monthly payments on the loan with their savings.
They’re Keeping Spending to a Minimum
Aside from van repair costs — which have totaled about $2,200 — Snyder and Wood haven’t been spending a lot on the road. They bought an $80 annual pass for the national parks system, which has cost much less than paying entrance fees at all of the parks they have visited.
Snyder and Wood stay in their van at free campsites in or near the parks they visit. They take advantage of free Wi-Fi at laundromats, coffee shops and public libraries. To bathe, they use coin showers at the national parks, get inexpensive day passes for community recreation centers or hop in a river or stream.
View this post on InstagramJust keeping it real, y’all. * “We’re dirty a lot”, says Rachel in our recent Women On The Road podcast interview (link in profile if you haven’t heard it!). But now that we have a Sun Shower we’ll be less dirty. Maybe. Okay, probably not. . . . #therealvanlife #thenanvan #vanlifeideas #womenontheroad #sheexplores #thegroundskeepers #outdoorist #optoutside #forceofnature #sunshower #moab
It’s by no means glamorous, but it’s a cheap way to live. “What’s so great is that we get to go to these beautiful places, and we don’t spend money to do it,” Snyder said. “That’s what makes the lifestyle so appealing.”
Keep it Cheap: Money-Saving Tips I Learned Road Tripping With My Mom
They’re Picking up Odd Jobs
In addition to relying on savings and being frugal, Snyder and Wood have been working odd jobs on the road. In March, they got a gig through a local staffing agency picking dandelions on the campus of University of Colorado Boulder, which doesn’t use pesticides.
The horticulturist at CU Boulder was so impressed with their hard work, that he asked them to work with him on side projects in the evenings and weekends. Over the course of six weeks, they made about $2,700 each and got free parking on campus, where they camped out each night.
View this post on InstagramEver wondered what it’s like to be a professional dandelion picker? Probably not! But you can read all about it in our latest blog post. Link in profile. . . . #thenanvan #vanlife #sprintercampervans #dandelionpicker #outdoorist #optoutside #forceofnature #thegroundskeepers #whereigottago #altrarunning #ridebikesbehappy #sheexplores #womenontheroad
They plan to pick up more temporary work during their road trip. And they might volunteer with WWOOF — Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. They won’t get paid, but they will get room and board. Plus, they’ll build upon their horticulture knowledge, which might help them get jobs in that field when their journey ends, Wood said.
They’ve Ignored the Naysayers
Giving up steady paychecks hasn’t been the only thing that’s been difficult about deciding to live in a van and travel for a year. Snyder and Wood also had to deal with others questioning their decision. “Some people have been super supportive,” Wood said. “Some people say that’s nice in a passive-aggressive way: ‘That’s great but good luck.'”
Coping with that lack of support and people thinking they were crazy was hard at first, Snyder said. But they had to keep reminding themselves that this was something they wanted to do. “You can’t listen to the naysayers,” she said.
Certainly, living in a van doesn’t come without sacrifices. They gave up a comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina for one that is often uncomfortable. And watching their savings dwindle has been hard. “But what else am I saving it for?” Snyder said. “We both want to live for today.”
Click through to find out how this family of nine can afford to travel the world year-round.
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