The Six Most Valuable Lessons I Learned After 4.5 Years of Van Life

For the next 4 ½ years, my trusty van and I explored everything New Zealand (my home) has to offer. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned on my journey.

woman standing beside a white campervan parked on the road

What do you do with your life if you don’t want to follow the traditional path revolving around marriage, kids, and career?

That was the question I asked myself back in 2017. I was 33 then, and a reluctance to follow in my friends’ footsteps to get married and have kids made me consider the alternatives. Unable to find satisfying answers, I decided to figure it out myself. I quit my secure job, bought a campervan, and set out to explore life on the road less traveled.

For the next 4 ½ years, my trusty van and I explored everything New Zealand (my home) has to offer. Along the way, I met incredible people, stood in awe of breathtaking scenery, conquered obstacles, challenged society’s norms and expectations, navigated a global pandemic – and discovered what life has to offer when you don’t want to follow the traditional path. 

This journey, which I share in my latest book, Life Done Differently: One Woman’s Journey on the Road Less Travelled, changed my life in the best possible way. It challenged me to stand my ground and trust my gut, showed me the value of owning less, taught me resilience, and made me realize that you don’t have to be stuck in an office for 40+ hours each week to build wealth.

Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned on my journey.

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1. The Key to Happiness is Being True to Yourself

woman standing at the back of her campervan parked near the beach
Waihi Beach (Bay of Plenty)

Choosing a non-traditional lifestyle in a society that values conformity and fitting in can be lonely. There certainly were times when I was tempted to give up and follow the traditional path, just so I would feel connected and like I belonged. However, through my years on the road, I’ve come to believe that while there’s no guarantee of happiness no matter how you live your life, not being true to oneself is a fast track to unhappiness.

I learned that even though doing life differently was isolating and challenging at times, following the traditional path, just because everyone else does, would have been even more isolating and challenging in the long run. Life on the road taught me that trusting my gut and following my own path ultimately leads to happiness.

2. Sometimes, Less is More.

woman sitting at the back of the campervan overlooking a beautiful beach
Ahipara, Shipwreck Bay (Far North)

One of the most valuable lessons van life has taught me is how little I need to be happy. Downsizing from a comfortable house to a tiny home on wheels was a liberating experience. The process of shedding unnecessary possessions felt like lifting a weight off my shoulders.

Once on the road in my little van, I quickly learned that having less stuff does not equate to a diminished quality of life. In fact, the opposite held true. The simplicity and freedom of owning fewer possessions brought about a profound sense of contentment.

3. Van Life Isn’t All Fun and Games

woman standing on a mountain top overlooking a large lake
Roy’s Peak (Lake Wanaka)

Most probably won’t be surprised when I say that van life isn’t just that endless reel of adventure, watching sunsets and sitting around the campfire we see on social media. However, some of the challenges I experienced surprised me.

I learned that the constant change, new environments, and new people that make travel exciting can be overwhelming at times when it’s your everyday life. I also hadn’t thought about how tasks I would do on autopilot in everyday life, like grocery shopping or getting coffee, would require much more thought and planning.

In addition, I hadn’t considered how many more decisions I would have to make every day, like where to go next or where to park for the night. Initially, all of that made van life super exciting. But after a few years, I found it tiring and overwhelming at times – though never enough to not love the lifestyle anymore.

4. Van life can be done with almost any budget – but it’s easy to underestimate the cost

woman standing beside a white campervan parked near a beach
Tapotupotu Beach (Far North)

“How much does it cost to live in a van?” I often see and hear that question. Through my own experience and the many other van lifers I’ve connected with over the years, I’ve learned that the answer is: “However much money you have.”

I’ve met people who spent some serious bucks on the campers and who splurge on visiting tourist attractions and eating out. I’ve also met people who live in very simple vans and get by on very little. In that sense, it’s just like living in a house. Some people spend a lot, and others spend little.

However, I’ve also found that it’s easy to underestimate the cost. It sounds cheap to live in a van, but gas is getting more and more expensive, vans tend to have issues and require repairs (usually when you’re least prepared for it), and groceries can cost more due to not having much space to store stuff (so you can’t stock up when it’s cheap).

I also learned that many necessities like food and gas cost more in remote areas – which are often the most fun to explore. Finally, budget-conscious or not, most travelers will sooner or later want to do some tourist attraction or activity, and most of them cost money.

So, while van life can be done on most budgets, my advice to others is to be generous when budgeting – or get very good at living cheaply.

5. You Can Build Wealth While Traveling

woman with laptop on her lap inside a campervan
Te Araroa (East Cape)

Contrary to the belief that financial security requires a 40+ hour workweek in an office, I learned that it’s possible to build wealth while maintaining a flexible, nomadic lifestyle. By reducing my living cost while working remotely as a virtual marketing consultant and seeking help from a financial advisor, I managed to invest, save, and contribute to a retirement account ­– all while working, on average, about 25 hours per week, leaving me plenty of time for adventure and fun.

6. You Don’t Have to be an Influencer to Earn a Living While Travelling

a laptop and coffee mug on a table inside a campervan
Auckland, New Zealand

If you scroll through #vanlife posts on Instagram these days, you would be forgiven for thinking that everyone is making their living as an influencer/content creator or by helping others become one.

While I enjoy following some of them and the content they create, I always knew that wasn’t for me. I just don’t have the personality. Luckily, I realized there are many other ways to earn a living while traveling. More and more jobs can be done remotely, seasonal work in agriculture, tourism and hospitality is available in many areas.

I have even connected with van-lifers who work as travelling nurses, teachers, or tradespeople, staying in one place for a project or set term before moving on.

So, if you’re not keen on being a content creator (or haven’t succeeded yet), know there are other ways to earn money. It’s just that those van lifers are much less active on social media, which is why you hear less from them.

Those are six of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from 4 1/2 years of van life. As I continue my nomadic lifestyle, I carry these lessons with me, embracing the freedom and flexibility as well as the challenges. If you’re curious to learn more about my unconventional life, check out my book Life Done Differently: One Woman’s’ Journey on the Road Less Travelled, subscribe to my blog or connect with me on social media.

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