Every vanlifer we’ve interviewed (and we have interviewed a lot) is confronted with queries about financing their vagabonding lifestyle. It’s a pressing concern, right? Especially if you’re trying to develop a career from within the confines of a vehicle and keep gas in the tank. There are obvious financial advantages to living in a van that give you some leeway to earn a bit less or be a bit more free with your time, but there are also the drawbacks of not having an office or a consistent locale from which to connect with others.
Thankfully, technology and ingenuity have provided vanlifers Sara and Alex James of 40 Hours of Freedom with just what they need to create and nurture a digital marketing business. Under their tutelage, a whole new group of adventurers can shed their 9-to-5s and potentially hit the road without being driven (terrible pun alert) to poverty.
In a short respite from their daily hustle, Sara and Alex sat down with us to talk about their sweet ride (it’s legit lush), the trajectory of their careers, some of their favorite travel spots, and whether or not they’ve had moments of doubt about the life they’ve chosen. We learned a lot about the well-rounded couple, and we think their straight talk gives marvelous insight into the practicalities of the lifestyle.
Read on and enjoy the amazing images of their home on wheels.
Tell me a little bit about your van.
Alex: Our van is a 2008 Dodge Sprinter. We opted for the 170-inch wheelbase version because we are living in it full time. The 144 was just a little too small, we couldn’t fit a bathroom and a shower in there, so we went with the bigger version.
A lot of people that I’ve interviewed don’t have a bathroom or a shower.
Sara: That was important to us. The more we thought about it, we’re like, “Oh man, we’re going to be living in this. We don’t wanna have to always find bathrooms and showers.” So, we decided we wanted to be totally self-reliant and have everything we needed in the van and not have to always try to find somewhere.
I totally understand. When I think about van living the idea of doing it without a bathroom or a toilet or a shower just seems unpleasant, I guess.
Alex: It’s things that you don’t really think of. Like, we went to Crater Lake, and there’s the Umpqua Hot Springs right there. So, we hiked up to the hot springs. It was July or August, and hot springs never smell good. They always smell like rotten eggs, right? We got back to the van and we stunk, so instead of driving another eight hours smelling like rotten eggs, we both took a shower and then we were on the road again, everything was good.
Does the van have a name?
Alex: We haven’t named the van yet; I don’t know. We haven’t come up with something yet. Apparently, Sara says we call it “Big Sexy Beast.”
Ah, you didn’t know that?
Alex: We do, yeah. When we see it parked usually we’re like, “Look at that Big Sexy Beast.”
There are worse things to be called.
How did the pair of you meet?
Alex: Funny enough, we actually met through Instagram, Facebook, and Tinder. Kind of a social media romance story.
Hmm, tell me more.
Alex: Sara used to have a business, an online fitness business with her sister called Super Sister Fitness. At the time I was a personal trainer as well living in Huntington Beach and running my own fitness business. I stumbled upon them on Instagram and happened to leave a comment on their Facebook page, just “You girls are doing great, keep it up.” Then about six months later, Sara moved to Newport, and we ended up being a match on Tinder for each other; our common interest was Super Sister Fitness. I realized who she was and she realized who I was.
Oh, that’s adorable.
Sara: Our Tinder love story.
So, how did you come to the decision that you were going to hit the road and live in a van full time? That’s a pretty big step.
Sara: We used to live in North Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, and we were both working. We had a marketing company, and we both had jobs for different clients that we were working with. We found we were working so much to afford our rent and afford our car payment. We wanted to travel, but we never had the extra time or money to do that because we had so many things that we were working on. We couldn’t leave and hit the road, you know?
But it was one of our goals. We’d been talking about doing this big road trip and at least traveling around for like six months around the country and visiting all these beautiful places.
Alex’s dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 61. That woke us up; like, “We need to do this now.” Like, “Why are we settling down?” We’re recently married, but we don’t have kids yet. “Now is the time if we’re going to do this,” we said, “we have to hit the road.”
We were just going into another winter in Idaho, and I was just ready to get out of there because I get really bad seasonal depression if I don’t see the sun for six months. We decided “Why wait?” We broke our lease and packed up everything. We sold all of our furniture. We bought the van in Idaho and drove it down to San Diego where my parents live. My dad was a custom home builder his whole life, so he helped us build everything. He definitely had the skills and all the tools.
Wow. This is going to be the big question that everyone asks you; how are you financing full time travel?
Alex: We had the marketing skill set going into the van, and we understand that you can make money online. For us, it was transitioning out of doing freelance work and instead building our own brand. Through 40 Hours of Freedom, we attract people who are also interested in building their own online business. Then, we help coach them on how to build a brand and how to generate revenue through affiliate marketing. At least, that’s how we make our full-time income now. It’s kind of a combination of direct sales and affiliate marketing.
How does that work exactly?
Alex: Just like with an affiliate marketing, you’re teaming up with brands or with platforms. You’re making a commission off anybody that buys the product through your link or that you bring into a network. We’ve partnered with a really high-quality water filtration company, and through that, it’s a high-ticket offer so it’s not like Amazon, right? We do Amazon affiliate as well, but with an Amazon affiliate, you make like five percent of whatever people buy. If you’re going to make a full-time income off of Amazon affiliate marketing, you gotta have some serious traffic and a lot of purchases. Right now, our commission structure is about 50 percent of a high-ticket product, so we only need to make two to three sales a month to actually have a full-time income.
One thing I’ll say is just a lot of people think that living in a van is going to cheap, I mean the number one question we get is “How do you make money?” and then about our budget. I would say for people who think that they’re going to live in a van and save all this money, and it’s going to be super cheap. It’s not. We put $15,000 into remodeling our van, and as we travel, we still like to contribute to the local economies of the places that we go. It’s not just about living cheap and camping. For us, it’s about traveling and experiencing different places and meeting people, and that isn’t necessarily a cheap lifestyle.
Sara: I think a lot of people think people live in a van for financial reasons because they can’t afford anything else, but that’s not the case for a lot of van people, including us. It wasn’t cheap. It took a lot of time. It was way more expensive than we thought initially going into it, but it’s so worth it. I don’t think that our lifestyle is any cheaper than it was before. We’ve done tours or we’ve gone out to eat. We like to experience the towns that we go to and not just sit in the van and do nothing.
Oh, okay. That’s really nice.
Alex: Our background is in marketing and in business coaching, so we understand business models and compensation structures. We really took our time and explored a lot of different avenues to make it sustainable. Because it’s kind of sad when you see people that are on the road, and they’re like “We’ve saved up enough for a year, and then we’re going back to real life.” Because at this point, I couldn’t imagine going back and working in an office. It would totally crush my soul to experience the freedom and then have it snatched away. For us we knew that we had to make it sustainable, and we knew that there was a way to make it sustainable. We just had to figure it out and put it in place, which we have.
Excellent. So, not necessarily something that everyone else could do?
Alex: I would say pretty much something anybody could do, especially people living van life.
Sara: That’s what we do; we help teach other people how to do this stuff. We coach people to build their own brands and create the content and attract people through Instagram and Facebook. The cool part is that we get to help other people create the same kind of freedom that we have.
Alex: Obviously, we have a very specific skill set, but if you can learn that skill set and master that skill set, then there’s no reason why you can’t generate revenue online.
Awesome. So, the pair of you are sharing your time in a van, are you guys getting the alone time that you need, like your own space? Is that even possible?
Alex: We do. I mean whether it’s even just being at the gym together and having our headphones on and doing our own thing. That’s not something that you necessarily think about as alone time, but for us, it definitely is.
Sara: I think the big thing is that even when we’re together we’re not always talking; we’re kind of in our own zone a lot when we’re working. We have always really liked being around each other, so I don’t think that’s an issue for us. We definitely fight sometimes but then we’re just quiet; we give each other space by just not talking for a little bit. We do definitely have our own routines, like going to the gym and doing that kind of stuff, where we’re not always together, but I don’t know; we really don’t mind being together.
It’s really not an issue for us, for sure.
Good. Sounds like you could spend a lot of time together.
Sara: For a lot of people, that’s an issue, but it’s not for us. We are fine hanging out all day, every day. One of the perks of van life is being able to spend every day together traveling around and stuff.
Speaking of traveling around, what have been some of your favorite travel experiences?
Sara: I absolutely loved going to Banff. We only lived six hours from there, but we never went, even though we lived there for two years and it had always been on the list of places to go. But, then you’re so busy before; we never got to go. That was a huge bucket list trip for me, and it was just so beautiful there. That was my all-time favorite.
Alex: We did a little loop up the Central Coast. I love Central Coastal California. Big Sur. Those areas are just beautiful. To do it in a van, where there’s just so many little vista points that you can pull out and check out right along the shore and right along the beach, and this time of year especially where it’s a little bit cooler and there’s not crowds, I love that area.
Yeah, Coastal California is gorgeous.
Alex: Death Valley was amazing also. We just went up there, too. Death Valley, when it’s not a hundred and five degrees, is a lot of fun.
I was thinking, “Death Valley? That sounds very hot.” But I guess it’s not year-round.
Alex: It’s funny. You start to realize that within this mobile community there are certain areas where you go during the summer; everybody goes to Canada or they go North. They go to Banff. They go to Michigan. Then in the winter, everybody’s in the desert. Everybody’s in Death Valley; everybody’s exploring White Sands in New Mexico or the Grand Canyon or Southern Utah. It’s pretty cool to understand how this mobile community travels based on the seasons.
Like migratory birds.
Alex: Yep. We’re all very young snow birds.
Have you guys, in the time that you’ve been doing this, ever kind of questioned the mobile lifestyle? Are there ever moments when you’re like, “Oh, this is not for me”?
Alex: I would say in the first month that we were on the road, I didn’t question it, but there’s some mental aspects that you have to get over. For example, as a male and the provider, the protector in the family dynamic, those first few nights where you’re parked on the side of a road in a neighborhood, and you’re going to bed and you’re telling yourself, “I am not a failure even though I’m parking on the street and going to bed right now.” That was a little bit of a mental hurdle to get over. I think as I personally embraced I grew to love it, and I love the freedom that comes with it.
Sara: Yeah, going into it, we really didn’t know if we would like it or not. We spent three months building out the van every day. It’s like “We can’t wait to be done, so we can hit the road and see if this is actually a lifestyle that we’re going to enjoy.” We thought we would, but we didn’t know. I was definitely afraid of that, but once we hit the road, I fell in love with it. We were committed to doing this for a year. It’s been six months, and I think we’ll probably go for more like two or three years. Just because I can’t imagine now settling down and being stationary in one place and having a house, I’m not ready for that again.
You definitely foresee yourselves continuing doing this long term?
Sara: I think we’ll always keep the van. It’s not something we would ever sell. It’s something that I know we’ll keep, and when we do have kids, we will still take trips and explore with them and have the van that we can all be really comfortable in. It’s very homey; we have everything we need, and I don’t miss anything about having a house.
Your van is gorgeous.
Alex: Thank you.
Like exceptionally attractive, so I can understand why you’d wanna stay in there, it’s very pretty. What do you guys have planned coming up? What kind of stops and locales?
Alex: For New Years, we’re actually going to be caravaning with a few other Instagram friends down to Baja, so we’re going to be heading down into Mexico for New Years. After that, we’re going to be doing a big road trip to the East Coast. We have some people that we work with in Texas and Florida and Tennessee and Georgia and Virginia, so we’re going to do a big Southern East Coast swing.
Sara: We’re in San Diego right now. We’re going to stay in this area. I’d like to stay in California and probably hit up Joshua Tree and go back up the coast and do some of that. My family lives in San Diego, so we want to be around this area for the holidays.
That makes sense. What do your family and friends think about what you’re doing.
Sara: In the beginning, I think everybody thought we were totally crazy, like “You guys are going to live in a van?” When you tell people that, or even when you meet new people and you tell them, “Yeah, I live in a van,” they think it’s pretty weird. But then you show them pictures and they’re like “Whoa, this is so nice!” I think everybody, in the beginning, thought we were totally nuts, but then when they saw the van done, they were super jealous. A lot of our friends want vans now, and they want to be able to do the same thing. It’s just funny how in the beginning, they were like, “Wow, you guys are crazy.” But now they’re like, “Wow, this is so awesome.”
Well, now you’ve started a movement. Everyone’s going to want one. And then you can caravan with your friends and family.
Sara: It’s crazy how much van life is growing in popularity, and I feel like especially for our generation, it’s very trendy right now. There’s a lot of people building vans, but it’s super fun.