When you look at Alex and Sara James’ life now—living in their decked-out sprinter van, traveling while running an online business, enjoying breathtaking backdrops such as a San Diego beach—it’s hard to believe that just a year and a half ago, this husband and wife duo had no idea this lifestyle was possible.
Living in a 1,200-square-foot house in Idaho, Alex was working on their marketing company while Sara had taken a job at a chiropractor’s office.
“I was feeling a little defeated,” says Sara, recalling the dreary Idaho winter when everything changed. “It’s just gray every day, and I’m working this job I hated working at.”
That’s when she discovered the hashtag #vanlife on Instagram and decided to bring her idea to Alex, who’d always been obsessed with vans.
“It was kind of like, ‘Something has to change,’” she says. “And vanlife just became the catalyst for all of it.”
Within three weeks of their discussion, they had bought a van, packed up their belongings, broken their lease, and were selling everything they could.
Fast forward to today and the Jameses have built an influential online brand, 40 Hours of Freedom, and are calling Outdoorsy from a state park near San Diego, the city where they’ve just opened their van build shop.
“It’s all part of the adventure,” Sara says with a laugh.
The James’ adventure kicked off in May 2017 when they took their first van on the road. Since then, the couple has built out a second van, a 2014 Mercedes Benz Sprinter they live in now with their two dogs.
While they’ve traveled all over—from the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah to Banff National Park in Canada—rather than travel tips, perhaps the number one thing their followers want to know is this: “How do you make money while traveling?”
How Alex and Sara make money to fund their #vanlife
In a crowd of Instagram vanlifers, Alex and Sara have been one of the most vocal about building an online business to fund your travels. While the couple began by selling marketing services, they’ve transitioned almost entirely to three passive income sources, which they discuss in detail in a video on their YouTube channel.
YouTube ad revenue
Their first income source is YouTube, which runs ads at the beginning of Alex and Sara’s videos, earning them revenue. This makes up about $1,000/month of the couple’s income—and that’s with more than 40,000 subscribers and 2.5 million views.
While the ad revenue from YouTube is small compared to the rest of their income, the indirect benefit of the platform is huge.
“Most people that buy our programs come through YouTube,” Sara says.
Amazon Associates affiliate income
Their second income source is Amazon Associates, an affiliate program that awards them with a commission each time someone purchases a product on Amazon through a link that Alex and Sara provide. To monetize this way, the couple shares affiliate links to products they used in their own van build.
“So many people asked like, ‘Where did you get your sink?’ or ‘What kind of drawer lock did you use?’ or ‘What fridge do you have?’” explains Sara. “And so it’s a way for us to recommend the actual products that we used and earn a little bit of commission on them.”
Amazon Associates brings in anywhere from $250 to $1,000/month for them.
And finally, bringing in the bulk of their income are their two online programs. Creator Academy is an online course that teaches people how to brand themselves online and monetize their work. The Van Layout Guide is a 3D rendering of Alex and Sara’s exact floorplan for those who want to mimic their van build.
Thanks to these three income sources, Alex and Sara have been able to let go of client work, save for a few projects they’ll do here and there for old clients.
Want to make money online to fund your travels? Here’s where to start
If you’re itching to hit the road but need a way to fund your travels, Alex and Sara have advice for you.
First, assess your situation. Why do you want to move into a van? Make sure it’s the right decision for you.
“Don’t rush into it,” Alex advises. “Don’t rush into it because you think you’re going to suddenly be able to make money off social media because you’re in vanlife. Because just in the year and a half we’ve been in the space, it’s gotten really competitive.”
Next, make a list of every skill you already have—whether that’s photography, event planning, or doing handyman work. From there, figure out if those skills are enough to make you money while traveling, or if you’ll need to pivot and figure out a different income source.
“I think the biggest thing people struggle with in vanlife is not actually valuing their own skill sets and their expertise,” says Sara. “So many vanlifers are out there sharing content but not actually getting paid.”
She recommends building your brand on social media early on by providing value. And if you want to monetize your vanlife, Sara recommends treating it as a business by having a routine and putting in the work.
“It comes down to really having a plan,” adds Alex, who says aspiring vanlifers should have savings and a plan B to fall back on if vanlife doesn’t work out.
Where to next? On their new adventure building vans in San Diego
After a year and a half on the road, Sara says, “We’re both ready to be a little bit more settled in one place.”
“With how much our business has expanded,” Alex explains, “it’s got to the point where it’s a little tough to manage all of it and still drive three or four hours a day.”
For the next six months or so, their sprinter van will be parked in San Diego as they open their van build shop. As they embark on this new adventure, they’re looking forward to meeting other vanlifers and bringing their dream builds to life.
“For us, part of our journey has always been checking out new places to eventually find where we want to buy property,” Alex says. “That’s the next step for us, after we finish this first round of builds, is finding someplace that we really want to set down roots and build our shop there and build a property where we can actually invite other vanlifers.”
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