Let’s take a look at the nomadic Rich Life of IWT employee Jonathan and his partner, Lucy.
We’ll cover everything: How and why Jonathan and Lucy decided to live a nomadic life, their camper van build details, the ACTUAL costs involved in living on the road, a few of their Rich Life moments, and more.
You’ll hear about a skeptical mother, Andrew Garfield, two pit bulls and a shotgun, a pack of 4x4s in a snowstorm, and more.
It’s going to be great!
We’ll go into detail about their specific camper van later. First, I’d like to introduce you to Jonathan and Lucy.
Jonathan started working for IWT in summer 2021 on our Student Success team. When you join one of our programs, our SS team makes sure that you have everything you need to get through the program and start to implement what you’ve learned. The team is one of the best parts of IWT.
Jonathan and Lucy, who have been together for more than seven years, bought their first camper van in 2019. The first van was designed to be an “adventuring” van with tons of storage (for a van) but no real place to work or lounge.
“A month into our year-long trip, we knew that we wanted to keep the dream going,” Jonathan said. So they took it to the next level.
In 2021, they set out to build what they call their “Digital Nomadic Dream Van,” which would allow them to travel indefinitely while also being able to earn an income.
“Our friend Raquel, who introduced us to the nomadic lifestyle, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in summer 2021 and passed away in the fall. She never got the chance to live her Rich Life. It really puts into context why we are not wasting any time living our Rich Life, and every day we are on the road, we are reminded of her life. We named our van Raqi (pronounced ‘Rocky’) after her and hope to continue living the way she would have wanted us to.”
Wow. What a powerful reason for Jonathan and Lucy to start living their vision for their Rich Life! Whatever your reason is, the best time to start living your Rich Life is today.
I love being able to go in-depth and get specific details on a Rich Life story like this. Keep reading to see exactly what it costs each month to live a nomadic life like this — I think it will surprise you.
Jonathan and Lucy (and their dog, Teton) are living their Rich Life while traveling the country in their camper van.
Let’s talk about comments Jonathan and Lucy heard and how they dealt with them.
“My mom was not a fan from the start,” Jonathan said. “She actually came up with a fun acronym for it: ‘FISH’ing.’ Feigning Interest, Suppressing Horror.”
So why this Rich Life?
“With our initial jobs out of school, we weren’t able to do anything fun,” Jonathan said. “We don’t want to be locked down to a city, and specifically a high-rent area. We love the flexibility of going wherever we want.”
“It was a perfect time for us to launch into this new lifestyle because there was nothing holding us back,” Jonathan said. “We were in the beginning of our careers, didn’t have a house, no kids. It felt like a good opportunity.”
They recognize it’s not perfect. Lucy said, “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be in a van — we’d be able to stay in more comfortable accommodations. But for now, we’re prioritizing our love for the outdoors, but it comes with the cost of living in a smaller space and not having everything on hand.”
And the van build itself didn’t always go smoothly.
Their 2019 Ford Transit-350 HD XLT was their base and had a 400-pound wheelchair lift that they had to manually remove, along with all of the passenger seats.
Lucy ambitiously estimated that the build would take 3 months and $20,000.
Seven months and $40,000 later, the van is complete.
Here are just a couple of the unexpected delays and expenses: They ordered the toilet for the van in May 2021, but it did not arrive until October. The professional heating and electrical system installations cost twice as much and took — no exaggeration — 10 times as long.
But Jonathan and Lucy both note that you become used to living in a van very quickly. “It definitely took some adjusting,” Jonathan said. “At first we were bumping into each other and figuring out how to use the space most effectively.”
“But we have the whole world outside our door,” he added. “And we can just open it and get anywhere we want to.”
Here’s how Jonathan and Lucy decide where to go, according to Jonathan:
“We have a general route that we want to take and then find specific things to do as we are traveling through areas. The great part about living nomadically is that we can stay for longer periods of time if we like a certain place. We allow for flexibility in our travel plans because of this.
“During this second trip, we are heading toward Denver to see Lucy’s sister, who recently moved there. We intend to travel slower and more meticulously than our first trip so that we can really take in and experience each place that we visit.”
Jonathan and Lucy are already thinking about all the places they’d like to go soon. Mexico and Alaska are on the list, but even bigger than that. “There are people we’ve seen who have either done van swaps or actually shipped their van to Europe or Asia,” Jonathan said. “We’d love to explore and experiment with traveling internationally while living in a van and working remotely.”
I love it!
OK, now for ACTUAL NUMBERS.
Ever wondered how much it costs to travel the country in a van or a camper? Let’s find out.
Here’s what Jonathan says:
Cost of the empty van: $40,000 after taxes and fee (a used 2019 Ford Transit 350 HD XLT passenger van with around 35,000 miles)
Cost of the build: $40,000, including all materials, appliances, and labor of professionals
Cost to live on the road per month:
Total: Around $2,000–2,500 per month, or $24,000–30,000 per year
I bet that’s less than what you thought it would be.
Think about it this way: It costs them less to live on the road than it did to rent a small apartment in Massachusetts. Everything is less, not just rent.
“It isn’t actually as expensive as people would think it is,” Jonathan said, “because we’re not paying toward a mortgage, we’re not paying toward taxes. All we’re paying toward is insurance and our van loan.”
He explains another way they think about it:
“When we were traveling around and stopped in places like Jackson Hole or along the California coast, we’d be camped out right next to multimillion-dollar homes — and we had the same view. And we were staying there for free or next to nothing.
“It shifted our mindset. Experiencing the country was much more attainable. We were able to have the same views as people who had stationary homes. Except we could change it all the time.”
Yes! Similar reasons to why I like renting and not owning.
We asked Jonathan a few other questions:
What about campsite expenses? “On the East Coast, it’s really hard to camp for free. But once you cross the Mississippi, there’s more Bureau of Land Management land where you can camp for free for up to two weeks at a time.”
Unexpected expenses? “You can’t just have regular auto insurance. And many camper insurance policies wouldn’t cover us since we built it ourselves. So we had to navigate that process — basically tracking every single purchase, keeping detailed receipts, and sending that to the insurance company to get a custom policy.”
Sightseeing and other experiences? “We have a guilt-free spending amount that we like to stay at, but we do stay flexible. If there are things in certain areas that we want to do, we might say ‘Well, that goes above budget, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so let’s do it.’”
“After the initial build is done, the expenses are very predictable,” Lucy said. “You can also move the budget around. So if it feels like things are getting too tight, you don’t have to drive as much. It’s very manageable.”
This is a great example of how to think about money differently in order to live your Rich Life.
A Rich Life is your ideal life — one where you look at your personal relationships, your finances, and your ordinary days and say, “Wow!”
It’s a life that is full. A life lived intentionally, proactively, and abundantly.
Here are a few specific examples of Jonathan and Lucy’s Rich Life from traveling over the past couple years.
“Before the trip started, we were just dating. We weren’t engaged yet. We both knew that we wanted to pop the question at some point during the trip, but we didn’t know where we were going to do it or what the context was going to be. So over the course of the trip, we were finding all of these beautiful hikes, and I was thinking, Oh, is this going to be a good place to do it? Is this going to be a good place to do it?
“We both started talking about this one specific hike in Zion called Angel’s Landing. It’s supposed to be like the scariest hike in the U.S. So I thought, That sounds like an amazing spot to do it. It’s this big hike that we’ve both been talking about the whole trip.
“When you get there, there’s a sign about how many people have died in the past 10 years.
“When we got to the top, I loved the views and was getting ready to ask the question. But I didn’t realize that there were tons of people crying and stressing out and breaking down because they had just made it there. I just thought it was the best time to ask. So I went to Lucy and said quietly in her ear, ‘I have a very important question to ask you.’ But the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Not now, Jon. I’m not ready for this.’
“So we made our way a little farther out on the landing and had the most incredible view. No one was crying at that point, and I was able to ask the question.”
Lucy said, “My answer was actually ‘If we make it down. If I survive.’”
“I took it as a yes,” Jonathan said.
Lucy recalls a particular hike they went on:
“In another park, we biked in. We started chatting with the guy that we had been biking with for a little bit.
“We came back from a hike and the same guy was there. He had just finished the hike. Jon struck up a conversation with him, and he was talking about how he’s traveling around in a van.
“So we talked a bit, and I said, ‘We also have a van.’ We were telling each other about our lives. I asked, ‘What do you do that allows you to be able to travel all the time? Do you have a flexible work schedule?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m in film and theater.’ Then he said, ‘There’s a great campsite I’m staying at east of Zion. You guys should check it out. It has showers. We could hang out and have a campfire.’
“But I said, ‘No, we have to go pick up our puppy from doggy day care. We’re staying on the east side. We’re totally fine. It was nice meeting you.’ So he biked off. As he biked away, Jon said, ‘That’s a really famous actor.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘That was Andrew Garfield.’ I didn’t know the name. As soon as we got service again and he showed me a picture, I said, ‘Holy crap. I just talked to that guy for 30 minutes.’ I treated him as if he was a tourist because I thought he was British. I told him that he should go to California and see Big Sur and places like that. He never gave up his identity. In the back of his head, he was probably thinking, ‘Yeah, I know where to go in California. I own a house in California.’
“It was such a fun moment to meet an A-list celebrity in the most out-of-context place. He was such a normal, regular guy, just doing a hike the same day we were doing the hike.
“So that made us realize that you don’t need to have millions and millions of dollars to live your Rich Life. We were having the same experience as a celebrity.”
Another story from Jonathan:
“One time, we went to a site near Yellowstone. It was an abandoned dirt road. We lost service after five minutes on the road and were still 30 minutes away. When we got to the spot, there was only one campsite and there’s someone already there. I politely asked, ‘Hey, we’re already out here. Do you mind if we just stay over here for the night?’ And he said it was totally fine.
“We did a quick tour of each other’s vans because that’s what you do. Apparently, there was a huge shotgun in his front seat. Lucy saw it, but I didn’t. He also had two huge pit bulls. He was traveling with his mom, which I guess is the least scary part of that. That’s the only thing that I took away from it — that he had his mom with him.
“The first question Lucy asked after his tour was about the shotgun. He said, ‘Yeah, I have a shotgun to ward off bears if they ever come by. Do you guys have any weapons?’ Of course I said no.
“Lucy thought we were going to die that night.
“But at the end of the day, he was super nice. He really was just traveling around with his mom and only had the shotgun for bears, and he was super friendly. But now I know to say that we have all the guns.”
“The scariest moment probably was when we got stuck in a blizzard near Bend, Oregon.
“We stayed at a campsite — really, a rest area parking lot — for the night. Everyone else was going back into Portland, but we decided to stay for the night. We figured they’d plow it in the morning.
“All of the locals came out with their big SUVs and Jeeps and started doing donuts around the parking lot.
“Lucy started to get a little bit upset. We may have had a couple of glasses of wine. She said, ‘I’m going to go tell those guys they’re getting way too close and they’re way too loud.’
“I said, ‘I wouldn’t do that. They’ll stop eventually.’
“But she marched out, and said to a guy standing outside smoking a cigarette, ‘You know, you guys are being very loud, and I’m trying to sleep. You’re too close.’”
Lucy continued the story:
“The guy started laughing and asked if we were in the van. I said yes and marched back very proud. Jon asked, ‘What did you do? You told them that we were in the van? You compromised our safety.’
“A few minutes later, they left, and I was bragging.
“But a few minutes after that, they came back in force. They must’ve called all their friends. They were doing donuts within a few feet of the van.
“After about 20 minutes, they drove away. I figure it’s because I didn’t show them that they were getting under my skin. They weren’t getting a reaction and so weren’t getting much fun out of it.
“We told our parents that story and I think it terrified them. But it’s a very funny story now.”
I love these stories because they illustrate a key point of the Rich Life concept. A Rich Life isn’t all about money. NONE of these stories have money as the primary character. The point is the experience.
At IWT, we see money as a tool for designing, enhancing, and enjoying the life you’re meant to live. Jonathan and Lucy have arranged their life — including their finances — to allow them to live the life they want. I hope stories like theirs encourage you to do the same.
“I was looking for a job that was going to allow me to live my Rich Life, without even knowing what that meant,” Jonathan said. “I knew that I wanted to work remotely for a company that was helping people with their problems in their lives.”
So how does working in a van work?
“We are completely self-sufficient as far as electricity is concerned. We have more than enough solar power to keep us going, and we charge whenever we drive,” he said.
“Right now, we’re spending most of the day, say 9:00 to 5:00 in the van working, and then at night we explore the area,” said Jonathan. “With it getting dark sooner, sometimes we have to wait until the weekends to drive to the next spot so that we have daylight to explore the area to find a good place to stay.”
Q: How does the internet work?
A: We have an LTE router and a cell signal booster. Price range can vary depending on your bandwidth needs, but typically can be between $300–$1,000 for the equipment. For the router, you can plug in any type of SIM card, so Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or even international SIMs will work. The hotspot-only plans range from $40 to $75 per month for 40 to 100 GB of data. And we always have the option to go to a cafe if we want or need.
Q: How do you handle being in such close contact with your partner all the time? How do you have your solo/alone time while living in a small space?
A: Communication. Full stop. You need to be completely open and honest with your partner and yourself to prioritize your alone time when you need it. We designed our van with a “bedroom” and “living room” so that we can both have our own lounging/working spaces. Also, taking time to go on solo walks/hikes/bike rides can be very therapeutic. It was important for us that we had been living together for over five years before hitting the road, which built a great foundation for our relationship.
Q: How do you get mail or packages or list a permanent address?
A: It is actually a lot easier than people think. If we are ordering something from Amazon, then we try to find an Amazon hub locker or a Whole Foods store nearby. If we are getting something from our family/friends, then UPS stores will hold a package for you for up to a week. As far as permanent addresses, our parents and siblings have permanent addresses that we can send very important mail to.
Q: What do you miss the most about a traditional space?
A: Unlimited water, especially for dishes, showers, and baths. Not having to constantly think about getting rid of our trash, recycling, wastewater, etc. The space is so limited that the trash seems to pile up even more than normal living. More storage and stable storage — we hit a bump just the other day and launched a full glass bottle of vinegar that shattered on our floor. A consistent place to go home to every night — constantly looking for campsites to stay in.
Q: How do you deal with travel fatigue? Does that even happen since your life is decidedly mobile?
A: While we are living on the road traveling full time, the amount of time that we spend in any place is completely up to us. If we ever feel fatigued moving around so much, we can always find a place to stay for weeks at a time to recuperate. Our favorite example of this was when we were traveling through northern Arizona and southern Utah. There was an overwhelming amount of things to do, and we had never really stayed in one place for longer than a week at that point. We ended up staying in the area for over a month, and it was great to slow down and really experience the place and gain back our energy to travel more.
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