“How do you make money while living in a van full-time”?
For anyone living or considering jumping into the “digital nomad” or #vanlife, this question is very top-of-mind. So top, in fact, that it’s the most-asked question we get (usually a few times a week, minimum).
It’s an easy question to answer, but also a tough one: there are literally endless ways one could fund this lifestyle.
What *you* choose will largely depend on your personal goals, current marketable skills, and interests. Some people prefer to travel from place to place, finding part time or contract-based work along the way. Others prefer online remote jobs (ie #digitalnomad work), where you can use your computer and internet connection to earn income along the way.
This year, we’ve tried a bit of both.
We financed our first year of mobile living through an eclectic mix of in-person freelance, contract jobs and online, remote work. We’re giving it to you fully, no holds barred.
Here are all of the ways we earned money in 2017, broken into in-person and remote work:
Matt’s a photographer and, well, to take a photograph you *do* need to be in person. This year, we’ve traveled to a few gigs that Matt booked in California, including a 3 day art/landscape shoot, where we stayed on-location so Matt could capture the property in the best light.
Odd jobs like events, Production Assistant (PA) & retail work
In early 2017, both Matt and I worked as production assistants for a ~3 week Vice Media shoot based out of the Palm Springs & Coachella Valley area.
Matt also picked up a quick in-person gig for The Tennis Channel.
Both of us also lived/worked for 2+ months in Lone Pine, CA, where we helped our friends launch their mobile ultralight gear shop, 2FootAdventures. (We wrote about some drama that unfolded while we were there too, which you can read about here).
Farm work & trimming work at a (legal) medical marijuana collective
During the summer, we met an older, retired gentleman (fun story: he used to be a cop!) who now runs a small medical marijuana collective, growing CBD-heavy strains and was looking for help with farm and trim work. Since our retail work with 2Foot ended early, we were able to pick up a few more weeks of work and income. I suspect a good number of traveling and van-dwelling folks who are in California in the fall do this kind of work, even if it isn’t widely discussed or advertised.
Selling used gear at the Bishop Gear Shop
If you’ll be in the area, The Bishop Gear Consignment Shop can help you lighten your van, downsize, and make money.
How it works: you list your gear at a price of your choosing (the staff can help you decide if you want) and then they sell the gear for you.
You can get paid two ways: real, live cash money check or store credit. If you choose cash you receive 75% of the sale value, and if you opt for store credit that gets bumped up to 80%. You also receive a 10% discount on gear you buy either at the used gear/consignment or awesomely-stocked Mammoth Mountaineering retail store.
We sold about $500 worth of gear and clothing that we were no longer using. We then used the money we earned to help buy much-needed new gear like La Sportiva climbing shoes (Amanda got almost new Katanas at a steal, Matt got some retro/classics called “Megas”) sun gloves for our JMT hike, and a RAB tarp tent.
Matt: Photo-retouching and video-editing
While you need to be in person to take the photos, you definitely don’t need to be in person to help with post-production. So, Matt has specifically focused on securing photo-retouching and post production work (for us non photographer types this really means he does high-level photoshop work). He’s retouched product photography for companies selling things like hammocks, prosthetic devices, and jewelry.
He also helped saved a couple from an engagement photo shoot disaster. (Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating but the photographer literally did not disclose that the couple would need to pay extra to have photos retouched, edited or delivered in raw format. Only after lots of begging did they get an un-retouched jpg. And all of this on top of an obscenely high shoot fee.) It’s still hard to find high-quality companies who need retouching work, so Matt’s always networking to find more clients. He recently started a Facebook group to help others find these jobs and hopes to build the community there this year.
(On a side note: do you need help with getting your photos looking awesome? Perhaps you want some color corrections? Or to remove that weird looking hair from your face? If so pop on over to his fine website here).
Amanda: Copywriting, editing, marketing & social media strategy
Before embarking on this vanlife journey with Matt, I worked in consumer tech marketing in Silicon Valley: more specifically I worked in-house at a little company called YouTube, where I was in charge of all creating and approving all consumer-facing emails (and mobile notifications). I joined YouTube at a very exciting time: within two weeks of starting, we launched YouTube’s first consumer-facing marketing initiatives.
The things we learned from those launches led to major insights that helped inform company-wide strategies that they’re using today (including insights behind launching the separate gaming and kids apps, YouTube Red, and YouTube TV). I worked on major international, multi-market campaign launches with multi-million dollar marketing budgets. I wrote and A/B tested email strategies ad nauseum. I learned a heck of a lot in that role, but after two years, I was burnt out. I had moved to Silicon Valley to work in tech because I truly believe technology and entrepreneurship are much more efficient ways to enact social change quickly ( (versus government, or academia). But, I spent my days growing watch time, and optimizing for clicks on an email, and my week to week tasks remained more or less the same. I felt my learning and growth stagnate. Once I started questioning to what end was I doing this I knew I had to leave. I couldn’t keep living that life.
When I started freelancing, I had no idea what I was doing. To be honest, I still don’t always know (fake it ‘till you make it is … unfortunately so accurate). But, I’ve learned so much over the last 1.5 years. Now, I get to pursue clients I am passionate about working with. I get to decide what types of work I do on a weekly or daily basis. I’ve learned that I prefer projects like copywriting and editing (but never on the same project!), and I’m working on making sure most of my work is to that end. I’ve worked with some amazing tech companies, life coaches and solopreneurs over the last 1.5 years, and I know I’m *just* getting started.
You may have noticed that once in a while we include affiliate links (right now exclusively to amazon) throughout this site and on our YouTube Channel. If you click on one of these links, and purchase something within 24-hours, we receive a *very small* percentage. (Full disclosure: we made less than $20 TOTAL form affiliate links this year). Right now, this is absolutely not a way for us to finance our lifestyle, and that’s okay by us.
Any product that we link to is one that we have fully vetted: we only recommend products that we use personally, or that we have read about extensively and trust. We also don’t let affiliate income dictate the types of articles we write. We write about things that we personally find interesting and things that you guys have asked us about either here, on instagram, or on YouTube. If you like what we write or found a post informative, one way to support us is by clicking on these links before completing your amazon purchases.
Licensing photography/ Getting published in an upcoming book
Last year, a German publisher who found us on instagram reached out to us regarding a book they would be publishing in 2018. They wanted to feature our story and photography (mostly Matt’s photos, but also a few of mine too!).
We’d never worked with a publisher before like this, so we learned a heck of a lot through the negotiation process, probably enough for a full stand-alone article, but here’s my quick summary:
First, they didn’t mention payment terms at all in the initial outreach, which looking back is somewhat surprising to me. I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t even think to ask how much they would be compensated and thus received either no pay or a much lower rate.
If you find yourself in the same situation, remember that this is a book that will be making income for the publisher. Your work will help them make that income, so you need to make sure you ask how much they will be paying and realize that this initial rate is a starting point that may be negotiable. Do your research and ask questions that can help you better arm yourself in the negotiation, things like: how will the images be appearing in the book? How many copies will be printed on your first run? Will printing rights be sold to other companies?
In the end, we will be receiving 700 Euro and two free copies of the book, and in exchange they will be using 11 of our photographs, plus a little blurb on our story. Although this is still substantially below market-rates for high quality images, it is more than 3x their initial per-image offer. Of course, we could have turned them down completely, but we liked the book pitch, possible exposure, and after some discussion we decided that we did want to be included.
That pretty much sums up *all* of the ways we earned income in 2017.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to figure out how *you* will finance your digital nomad or vanlife is that you do not need as much monthly income as you may be used to since you won’t be paying rent or a mortgage.
Although expenses vary pretty dramatically depending on your interests, if you stay in urban vs. remote locations, you can easily make daily decisions that help save you money: move more slowly or stay in areas longer to save on gas, opt for free or cheaper sleeping arrangements (we very rarely pay for camping), choose free or inexpensive entertainment (nature is *mostly* free!), cook your own meals (and prepare your own coffee and tea!). This doesn’t mean we completely for-go “luxuries” but more so that we have reimagined what luxury means for us right now. We buy organic, fresh foods, and even enjoy a good avocado toast once in awhile! (#millennials)
As we think about our goals for 2018, both Matt and I are planning to focus more on growing the “remote” side of our income. Some other things we may try out this year include:
We don’t currently make money for sponsored posts (we’ve gotten free product though) but we’re interested in working with brands we love and trust (especially those looking to make a positive difference environmentally.)
Matt may consider a full-time role in the Advertising world. We have no idea if this will happen or what it will mean for the “vanlife” but neither of us is about limiting the other persons’ goals or interests, so if he decides to go that direction we will discussion our plans going forward.
We’ve thrown around the idea of working with some awesome designer friends to set up a little online store and sell original artwork in the form of stickers, T-shirts, enamel mugs, etc.
Things are ever-evolving for us, as we’re learning new skills, and pursuing new interests, and right now that’s just how we like it. I’m not going to sugar-coat things. Freelance or remote work, or running your own business is not easy. Some weeks, we find ourselves spending more time than we’d like inside coffee shops or our van working to earn money to pay for our gas and food. But at the same time, it’s a very empowering life: to a certain extent, you’re fully in control of how much time you spend working, and how much income you make.