10 Ways to Adventure Full Time on a Shoestring

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Since committing to the “dirtbag lifestyle,” I have had many old classmates, coworkers, and friends pop out of the woodwork to ask me what’s your secret?! How are you traveling full time? The truth is simply…

I just did it.

I wish I could say I saved my money for years and this was all apart of the grand plan – but that’s not the truth. I hopped in my Subaru with an incredibly sad savings account and some extremely vague idea about what I was doing. And yet, I’m making it work… And here’s how:


1. Never pay for camping or lodging.

I never drop a dime on a place to sleep. There is an astounding surplus of free places to camp around the United States and Campendium makes those spots easy to find. Don’t be shy and hit up your pals in distant lands for a guest room, couch, backyard, or driveway. Make a Facebook post a few days before you head into town and you’ll be surprised at all the people who are down to host you! It’s a great way to catch up with old friends, or even build a new relationship with that person you met at your friend’s Superbowl party four years ago. Lastly, I built a bed in my car to use as a last resort. This enables me to create a home wherever I park it! In some states, like Oregon, you are able to sleep in your car on public streets. Wal-marts (in any state) are notorious for welcoming overnighters, as well as rest areas and truck stops.

2. Don’t be afraid to “take,” but give back in the ways you can afford.

When friends and family hear about your adventure, they may kindly fill you up with a good ol’ home cooked meal during your visit. You may leave their house with your arms full of generously donated leftovers and unwanted dried goods. If you’re like me, taking things without some sort of payment feels weird, sometimes wrong. It took getting used to, but I realize now that it’s because these people care about me and I try to repay them in other ways… Like postcards from the road, cooking for them, washing the dishes, making a mental note to get them a bombass birthday gift, or just paying it forward to the next person.

3. Be smart at the grocery store.

This is something I’m still working on. I love buying all-natural, organic, and local (you can take the girl out of Portland…), but the budget of a vagabond can’t always accommodate those items. I try to shop at grocery stores like Fred Meyers, Sprouts, or Trader Joe’s which have affordable organic options, but I make sacrifices for the right prices – like I’ll choose the $.79 non-organic banana over the $1.09 organic one. There’s no cheat sheet to shopping cheap; just think about your purchases, do the math, and always compare all your options. Buy in small doses, frequently, so your fresh foods are less likely to go bad. Always keep inexpensive, easy-to-make staples in your pantry, like Ramen, Annie’s Mac, Stove Top, Lipton or Knorr Pasta Sides, or Tasty Bites for the days you’re feeling lazy.

4. Get used to cooking.

Just like in the “real world,” cooking versus eating out for each meal saves you money. Treat yourself to a double burner propane stove to ease the task of making your favorite foods on the road. Take a cooler so you don’t have to rely on only non-perishable food items. I built my car out to have a little “counter” area as well, so I’m not always searching for that perfect spot to set up my kitchen.

subaru impreza build out camper van life

5. Don’t fall for convenience.

Convenience always equals money; we pay for convenience in big ways. Set yourself up to avoid wasting your money on dumb things, i.e. make coffee every morning so you aren’t tempted to pull off the highway and drop $5 at Starbucks. Keep your snacks in arm’s reach so you don’t get lazy and buy a bag of Cheetos while using a gas station restroom. Don’t buy fast food because you don’t feel like cooking the food you just bought at the store… Ok, ok, you can do that once in a while.

6. Take advantage of all those perks cards.

Get every grocery store card ya can, or always shop at the same places. Safeway, Fred Meyer, Price Chopper, etc. offer big discounts to card holders. Sometimes you’re able to sweet talk a cashier to scan a card and give you the deals, but just get your own and reap the benefits! Some grocery stores partner with gas stations, so the points can be used interchangeably and save you money on the two things you spend most of it on while road tripping: fuel and food.

7. Think before you spend.

It seems like common sense, but it needs to be hammered into your brain. A nutritionist once told me that, while grocery shopping, hold every item in your hand and think about it before tossing it into the cart – sure, he meant think about how healthy and processed it is, but it’s a lesson you can apply to purchases on the road. Think hard about everything you’re buying. Ask yourself, do I absolutely NEED this? Will my life be improved significantly because of this? Is this a reasonable price? Can I get something similar for cheaper? Can I get this cheaper somewhere else?

8. Avoid alcohol and going out.

As we all know (and usually choose to ignore), alcohol is expensive and going out can drain your bank account. Just the other night I ended up in downtown Denver and between drinks and an appetizer, I dropped a smooth sixty buckaroos – that’s two full tanks of gas! However, don’t sacrifice opportunities to hang out with friends – you can go out and enjoy yourself without burning cash at the bar. First: stick to cheap drinks; yes, I know how painful this is, craft beer drinkers. Second: limit yourself to one or two; less (beer) is more (money). Third: when available, stick to chillin’ where you can BYOB like a buddy’s house, a park, or the river.

9. Free fun is good fun.

If you like the outdoors, then you’re in luck… Because most of it is free to enjoy! Opt for activities that don’t have a price tag like hiking, backpacking, trail running, bird watching, swimming, or just reading a good book in the comfort of the woods. Save your pennies for visits to National Parks – and on that note, if you plan to visit more than one park during your travels, definitely splurge on the $80 Interagency pass which pays for itself in two or three visits.

10. Optional: Get a credit card.

I specify “optional” because I don’t want to be at fault for anyone’s debt. With that being said, having a credit card can offer a lot of financial security for someone on the road. Mine has come in handy for unforeseen car troubles or an unexpected hotel room when the stars (and weather) don’t quite align. I use the CapitalOne Venture card because all of my money transfers to points that can be redeemed for flights, hotels, and more travel-related expenses. I also recommend cards that give you cash back on groceries or gas; like the Chase Freedom Visa or REI Mastercard (get money back on REI purchases too!).


If you’re going to take anything away from this, let it be this…

Don’t let money stand in the way of you and what you want to do – like a cross country road trip.

subaru rocky mountains yakima box road trip

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Seriously. Take it from me – someone who went from a stable, “normal” life to full-time adventuring within two weeks.

However, if you want to actually be smart about your future on the road, I recommend planning,saving, and all that boring stuff. I am a big fan of SheExplores’ guide to “saving for a big life change.” If you adore Excel sheets even a quarter as much as I do, you’re gonna love this approach to preparing for long-term road tripping. Believe it or not, I was in the process of saving up for my trip and I used Gale of SheExplores’ guide to get me on track… Of course, life doesn’t always work out the way we planned.

Are you living on the road? What are your tips to keepin’ your wallet heavy?


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