This is Katie, a 28 year old vanlifer from Portland, Oregon who has been living on the road since 2016. She has a bachelor's degree in Human Development and Family Sciences but has been able to centre her career around work online keeping her as nomadic as she wants at all times.
Katie is a great example of somebody who has decided to stray from the norm and design her lifestyle around what matters to her most. Read on to hear about her van setup, what she does for work as well as how she fills her down time while on the road!
What van configuration did you go with and why?
I own a 2016 Mercedes Sprinter 144" WheelBase High Roof with a DIY conversion. The build includes a platform/stationary bed, 2-burner stove, front-loading style fridge, ten gallons of water, and more. The stationary bed was really important to me. Before living in a van full-time, I had worries about it feeling like camping constantly. I didn't want to have to "set up camp" each night and "tear down camp" each morning. Having a build that allows me to just park and immediately dive into whatever I want to do next is wonderful. I also am able to swivel both seats, set up my small pedestal table, and either enjoy dinner at a table or create a work space for myself.
What do you do to earn an online income and how long have you been a full-time digital nomad?
I earn an online income as a digital marketer and freelance writer. Basically, this means that I am self-employed but often work under certain projects through both short-term and long-term contracts. I focus heavily on digital and affiliate marketing, monetizing both my social media and website, So We Bought A Van. Additionally, some of my more regular and long-term contracts include working as Go-Van's Editor-In-Chief. I handle all their online content, including social media, blog posts, newsletters, and more. I also work part-time for a female-focused adventure company, called Travel Her Way, as a Social Media Specialist. This work includes similar projects, such as social media, managing the website content, and newsletters. I first started So We Bought A Van back in October of 2016 and have been working on the road as a digital nomad ever since!
How do you find people to work for while you are on the road?
Since my work varies so much, so does my answer to this question. As my social media and website started small, I sought out work through resources such as Indeed, Upwork, and Hubstaff. This is where I found my first two contracts, which I'm still working with today (as mentioned above). I'm also now on AspireIQ, which I use to monetize my website and blog. Additionally, I have a "Work With Me" form on my website, that I meet many clients through! Even beyond paid work, I am always looking to collaborate. I absolutely love what I do for work on the road full-time, so any and all collaborative projects I can be part of, whether paid or unpaid, I'm usually stoked about.
Is having an online business more difficult or easier than you had expected?
It is definitely more difficult. But there are certain aspects of it that are as easy or easier than expected. For example, I can work whenever and wherever I want. It is very convenient to make my own schedule and technically be my own boss. However, these benefits definitely come with a cost. I'm extremely passionate about my work and since most of my work focuses around vanlife and travel, it can be hard to set boundaries. It almost feels like any moment is a chance to grab a photo or idea or concept for work, so truly allowing myself "time off" isn't something that ever really happens. The passion definitely plays a role in this though. If I have free time, I'd much rather work than watch tv or go out to drinks. So I'm never really "off work". In fact, I don't think I've actually taken a full day off work in over two years.
Is living in a van cheaper than you had expected?
Living in a van is roughly the same cost I originally expected, but I think this varies for everybody. I have always lived semi paycheck-to-paycheck so I'm extremely good with strict budgeting. I've never been a big spender, so most extra money I come across goes towards paying off debt. The goal isn't to have a cheap lifestyle right now. The goal is to invest in a lifestyle and pay down my debt so that eventually, I am set up with extremely minimal bills and more financial freedom. A newer sprinter is not cheap. It is basically what I would pay in rent each month if I were stationary. The difference is that my monthly payments are going towards something that I will eventually own, sort of like investing in property or real estate. Eventually, I'll own my van outright and then will have the chance to either sell it for profit or live out of it rent free. Without this lifestyle, I would likely be sitting on student loans until I was forty-five plus. Now, I can actually visualize a time when I may be able to live my life debt-free.
If you were to build another van in the future how would your design change?
Surprise, surprise! I am actually in the middle of another van build right now. My partner, Logan, and I just bought a 2016 Ford Transit 148" Wheelbase High Roof! I recently started renting out my Sprinter on the side for extra money, through a platform called Outdoorsy.
My Sprinter has been transitioning more and more towards an investment and existing less as my forever home. Logan also lived in his own Econoline van when I met him and we're so excited to be joining forces. While a lot of the general layout will be similar (stationary bed, similar kitchen location, etc.) there are some major upgrades in the new van build plans! Some of the more note-worthy upgrades include a propane oven/3-burner stove, a compostable toilet, a gas heater, and a dining/work area with bench seating and a table. We are so excited about the upgrades and can't wait to move into this baby in the fall of 2020. We're also documenting the entire build process on our brand new YouTube channel, which you can check out here.
Have you noticed a significant increase in vanlifers since you started living nomadically?
This is a hard question to answer. My first instinct is yes, but I feel as though that might be extremely personalized. People have been living in vans for generations and generations. This lifestyle movement is definitely growing, I don't think there is any denying that. That being said, it's hard to say if it's actually growing in the amount of people living the lifestyle, or if it's just shifting a bit and growing to mean different things. Nowadays, there are so many different kinds of vans that people are converting and living in full-time. So the options for vans have definitely increased in my opinion, as well as the options of what to put inside the build. Now versus even just three and a half years ago when I did my first build, there are so many more options as far as materials and brands to work with for a conversion. I think the RV and sailboat industry is definitely catching on and creating more resources for vanlifers and their conversions.
What do you do to fill your time when you aren’t on the move or working?
Work! Mostly joking but kind of serious. I do work an absolute lot but I try hard to set aside time for self-care. That can mean so many different things for me but right now, it means exercise (I've been running regularly), reading, and puzzling (hard in a van but it is doable!) I'm also an avid hiker and love exploring new areas, especially national and state parks. Since living in a van, I've also tried to put more focus towards skills that I've been interested in acquiring or sharpening, such as cooking. I could barely fry an egg before I moved into a van, but now I cook seven lunches and seven dinners from scratch each week. Having more control of my schedule has definitely allowed for things like this, whereas before any "free time" I had was put towards commuting to and from work, or simply relaxing and being lazy because I was exhausted all the time.
Would you mind touching on the subject of being a mental health advocate?
I've struggled with mental health for as long as I can remember. My mental health really became prominent during my teenage years and I've been on medication for my mental health for nearly ten years now. When I was younger, there was so much shame involved with discussing or experiencing mental health and I've really wanted to change that as I've gotten older. The world has come a long way since then in regard to mental health, but there is still so much work to be done. Depression and anxiety are extremely common, yet still have a stigma. I want to use my voice and time to advocate towards normalizing conversations about mental health and provide a resource for individuals that maybe haven't had a friend or family member they could talk with about these issues. Receiving medication and mental health services while living full-time on the road is also a challenge that I work hard to talk about. It is such a big part of my life and I have no intention of ever hiding it again.
What is your go-to driving song?
Bright Lights by Matchbox Twenty is always incredible. I actually have a playlist with all of my favorite driving songs put together on Spotify. 2019 was a year of a LOT of driving. It was the year that I spent exploring the country in my Sprinter, completely solo and one hundred percent in solitude. I drove a lot of long distances and relied heavily on good playlists and podcasts for entertainment. I pretty much have music playing all the time, whether driving or not. The first thing I do when I set up camp for the night is pull out my bluetooth speaker and put on a playlist. It really helps me get comfortable with the ever-changing environments I'm in.
It is always great to hear the variety of ways people are making a living on the road. I am constantly amazed to see the number of people who are thriving in the nomad world in both their lifestyles and careers. Are you working towards this goal?