Smart Money Podcast: Making Your Dream Life

Sean and Liz chat with travel Nerd Sam Kemmis about how he made his dream life possible. Plus, he offers tips for how you can too.

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your real-world money questions.

In this week’s episode, we continue our series about financial dreams, with conversations with Nerds who have accomplished their financial dreams and interviews with outside guests about what they want to do with their money in 2022.

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Our take

Living in a van isn’t for everyone. But defining and forging your own path is something that anyone can pursue. To know what you want out of life, think about your values, the experiences you want to have and how you can bring them to life. If you want to see more of the world, for example, look into how you can minimize your housing costs to free up more cash for travel. You may also want to look into travel credit cards that can give you points for flights or hotel stays.

If you're working remotely while traveling the country — or even internationally — be proactive about managing your tax situation. Depending on how long you stay in one state or another, you might be on the hook for state income taxes. Think about hiring a tax professional to help you sort this out.

And realize that any major life change you make will likely be temporary. If you jump into the digital nomad life and realize it isn’t quite what you thought it would be, you can likely go back to how things were before.

Our tips

  1. Challenge yourself. Know what you want from your life and then break down the barriers that are preventing you from getting it.

  2. The stakes may be lower than you think. If you make a drastic change and hate it, you often can go back to the way things were, and you’ll have an interesting experience.

  3. Let your ideas simmer. Be open to many possibilities when thinking about how to achieve your goal.

More about travel on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.

Liz Weston: And I'm Liz Weston. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected] Hit that “subscribe” button to get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday. And if you like what you hear, please leave us a review and tell a friend.

Sean: Over the next few weeks, Liz and I are releasing a special series of episodes all about financial dreams. We'll talk with a few Nerds who accomplished their financial dreams, and we’ll also have on some outside guests to talk with us about what they want to do with their money.

Liz: And since we're NerdWallet, we'll also discuss the steps you can take to accomplish your own financial dreams, whatever they are.

Sean: This episode, we're talking with Sam Kemmis, a Nerd who made his dream life by living and working out of a van while traveling the country. We're going to talk with Sam about how he accomplished this and what it means to make the life you want for yourself.

Liz: Welcome back to the podcast, Sam.

Sam Kemmis: Thanks, Sean and Liz. I'm so happy to be here to discuss my dream of being a lowlife who lives in his vehicle. I should preface this by saying that I'm not currently living in my van. But I am living with my in-laws, which is my backup dream. Right?

Sean: Well, you're doing that for a very good reason, which we'll get into later on, I'm sure. But now I want to start at the very beginning. How did this all start for you, Sam? Did you know that you wanted to live in a van, or what happened?

Sam: No, there wasn't some moment where I was like, ‘That's it, I've got to sell all my stuff and hit the road,’ which I think is how a lot of people get into the van life thing. But it was kind of more of a step-by-step process of elimination for me. It started because I had a job that allowed me to work remotely. And this was in 2016, so working remotely was actually remarkable at that time. Not a lot of people were doing that.

Sean: This is before NerdWallet, right?

Sam: Yes. Before I worked at NerdWallet. Yeah.

Sean: OK.

Sam: Because I could work from wherever, I started traveling a lot, mostly around the world, but also a lot on the West Coast. And what I realized pretty quickly was that I was basically wasting all this money on an apartment in LA that I was only occupying part of the time.

So I figured that if I wanted to keep traveling, I wanted to get rid of my expensive apartment. And at that time I also needed to buy a new car. And at some point it kind of just clicked that I was like, "Oh, I could live in my car, basically, if it was a camper van." And then when I wasn't traveling abroad, I could live in it and I wouldn't be paying rent. So I sort of got into the van life thing, not because I was super into vans, but because of the financial tradeoffs. It sort of was what made the most sense, given what my goals were.

Liz: I've seen some really, really tricked-out vans, like quarter-of-a-million-dollars' worth of camper van. I'm assuming that's not what you did.

Sam: No. And that's what I quickly realized once I started reading about it. If you buy a brand-new sprinter van, like really high-end ones, those are like a hundred thousand dollars.

Liz: Yeah.

Sam: So that's not actually financially liberating, right? And because I'm a cheapskate, I basically was like, "OK, so how can you do this for the least amount of money?" And I found these imported Japanese vans called Mitsubishi Delicas, where the steering wheel's on the wrong side. And they run on diesel and they're just super weird. And because they're so weird, there's not as much of a market for them. And so you can get them way cheaper, like under $20,000.

Liz: Wow. OK. Did you put the steering wheel on the right side, or did you leave it as is?

Sam: No, it stays there. It's over there, which is legal. That's the question everyone asks.

Liz: OK.

Sean: You mentioned that this was the right fit for your goals. I want to hear from you how you decided and landed on what your goals were.

Sam: The basic goals were, I wanted to travel a lot. I wanted to see family and friends who were scattered across the country, and I didn't want to spend a lot of money. I think those were the limitations — or, I wanted to spend as little money as possible.

Liz: When you were thinking about letting go of your apartment, were you worried about that? The idea that maybe you couldn't find an affordable place if you came back, or was that not even part of your decision-making?

Sam: Yeah, no. I mean, I was sort of just like, "There's going to be an apartment somewhere if I need it, and so if this whole thing just blows up in my face, I'll just kind of go back to the way things were."

Liz: That's a little different from selling a house in LA, because whenever you do, there's always the risk you'll never be able to buy again. You know, you get shut out.

Sam: Oh yeah.

Liz: There is that concern if you want to buy a house someday. Did you ever feel that pressure, that at some point you have to get real estate, or is that not part of your calculations?

Sam: Oh, God. I feel like we could do a whole separate podcast about that. You know, for a long time I've been like, "Oh, I'll just do this rent-and-live-frugally thing and I'll save some money. And you know, at some point it'll make sense for me to buy a place." But that has coincided with the real estate market perfectly keeping pace with my ability to be involved with it. So yeah. I still have this sort of like, "Oh, one of these days it's going to make sense for me to buy." That's kind of the wild west right now.

Sean: I want to hear about the day-to-day life of living in a van because yeah, you're not paying rent on an apartment, but I imagine there would be some expenses, especially if you're putting diesel into the van. What was that like, managing your finances on a day-to-day basis?

Sam: In terms of finances, there's some tricky parts. I would actually say food is one of the trickiest parts because you're not able to cook. You know, it was a very minimalist setup that I had. So I wasn't able to cook in the same way that I could in an apartment. So I ended up eating out a lot more than I usually did or buying a lot more pre-made food. So I was a little surprised how much food played into my budget.

And the other piece is just how much you want to travel. Obviously, if you're driving 400 miles a day in a big van or something, you're going to spend so much on gas or diesel that it's not going to make it worth it. How much do you want to travel versus how much are you going from spot to spot and spending a long time there? I found I enjoyed spending more time in one place for longer periods of time. So that was sort of an easy tradeoff for me.

Sean: So national parks? What kinds of places were you staying at?

Sam: Yeah, it was a mix. I mean sometimes it would be national parks or trailheads. I would do a lot of that, just spend the night at a trailhead. So I could be the first on the trail in the morning. But then as it went on, I actually found myself spending a lot more time in cities or towns. I was working and I generally found it easier to work at coffee shops, or at co-working spaces, or things like that. And the other part is just, you get a little bit lonely when you're doing it alone. And if you're out at a national park for a month, you sort of start losing touch with reality. And I'll be honest, the other piece — this is getting into the less glamorous parts of this — is I needed to shower. I don't have a shower. So a lot of it was finding places to shower. And those are usually in towns or cities at gyms or yoga studios, or wherever I would go.

Sean: I was going to ask about that as well. I watched a lot of "Tiny House Hunters" during the worst part of the lockdown. And a lot of folks just kind of hop around from place to place with their tiny houses. And they would mention that showering would often be a challenge, so many would get gym memberships. Is that something that you did too?

Sam: Yeah, I did. I had a membership to a super-cheap chain of gyms that were all over the place. So there was a good chance that I could go to one.

Sean: OK.

Sam: At one point I was living in Santa Cruz, and there was not one of those. Living in Santa Cruz, my van was in Santa Cruz. And the only place in town that I could find that had decent showers was a hot yoga studio, and they only taught 90-minute hot yoga classes, which if you've never done are super intense.

Sean: Right.

Sam: So I actually ended up getting really into yoga because it was the only place I could shower.

Sean: That's so funny. I guess I didn't think about how your lifestyle has to be really malleable depending on where you are and what amenities are not there.

Sam: And of course COVID. Part of why I'm not in it right now is COVID totally messed that all up. You aren't going to go to a hot yoga studio or to Starbucks or whatever. So yeah. It really changed the dynamic.

Sean: And you also had a kid.

Liz: Yeah. Your relationship status changed. Can you talk about that?

Sam: Yeah. I mean, that was an interesting piece of this whole puzzle was I bought a van for me, and then my relationship status changed and added a partner and a dog. And then eventually a baby. Even the two of us plus a dog was way too much for that van, though. We did it for a while. It was an interesting challenge with no bathroom, and two people and a dog, and one twin-size bed, basically.

Liz: This woman sounds impressive. I'd like to meet her.

Sam: She is.

Sean: What a great way to test your compatibility. Problem-solving, trying to find bathrooms, trying to find places to sleep, trying to find Wi-Fi. And you really had to solve a lot of problems together, I bet.

Sam: Yes. That's a very optimistic way to put it. I like that. I like that attitude.

Sean: Yeah. Well, I mean, I still know couples that don't want to move in together until after they're married. And I just think that that is very risky because you don't know if you're OK with the way they load the dishwasher, and these are important things to work out before you commit to someone for your whole life.

Liz: I had some friends that actually waited until well after they got married to move in together. They kept their separate condos for quite a while.

Sean: Interesting. Well, I guess it's nice to have your personal space.

Sam: I kind of think everyone should just live in a van together right off the bat and then you can just work out all your issues.

Sean: Well, I also want to talk a little bit about your work life. You said that you were working for a company where you could be remote, and in NerdWallet, it allowed you to do that as well. So how did you manage finding Wi-Fi and completing assignments when you were potentially at a national park or somewhere remote?

Sam: That was a really interesting piece of it. I ended up building my thinking about where I was going to be based on where I could work. I had a good hotspot with Wi-Fi where I could get good internet access, and that wasn't really a problem. And so for a bit in there I was freelancing. And so basically all I was doing was sending in assignments, and it was great for that. But then I ended up moving into a role where I really needed to be on calls, more often Zoom calls. And for that I really needed more reliable internet. And so I needed to be more at co-working spaces. It works really well if you don't need to be on Zoom all day, but if you do, then you got to be pretty creative about it.

Sean: Was there any way to set up Wi-Fi on the van, like a big satellite or anything like that?

Sam: I had a cell phone range extender, which is what it sounds like. And so I would use that with my hotspot, but it's not really a magic bullet. It doesn't make service appear where there is no service. It just makes it a little bit better. So you can't be out in the middle of the Mojave Desert trying to be on Zoom or whatever.

Liz: Hey Sam, did you ever wind up gypsy camping or being somewhere you really shouldn't, and having to dread that knock on the van door?

Sam: I would say I mostly was staying in places where I was worried that I would get the knock on the door. Incredibly, I never got hassled. I read a fair amount on Reddit — you know, there's a whole community of people who live like this — about just some strategies for avoiding that. Don't just set up camp in some neighborhood for a month and make a nuisance of yourself. But it was sort of in the back of my mind a lot. And I did spend a lot of time trying to find a good spot to stay for the night, but it didn't seem like I would get hassled. And it's just an interesting paradigm shift in how you think about yourself. I don't know how to explain that, but to be kind of this borderline outlaw at all times. Yeah, it's interesting.

Sean: I also wonder about other aspects of managing your finances. You had to have some kind of tax base, if you were a 1099 or W-2 employee. How did you think about that and get that sorted out?

Sam: The short answer is, it's super complicated. I actually ended up finding an accountant who specializes in digital nomads — so people who don't have a permanent address. And part of that is just because the tax situation is so complicated that it's really hard to figure out on your own. Obviously I'm not providing tax advice here.

The long and short of it is that every state has its own rules about when they will tax you, how to count as a resident. So I ended up keeping basically an ongoing summary of how many days I spent in every location. And I sent that to my accountant at the end of the year, and he figured out, "OK, so you spent 14 days in Idaho. What are Idaho’s rules about this? Do you need to pay taxes there? Do you need to then do a deferral for the taxes you would've paid where you were domiciled?" — which is the official name for where your home is. So it gets complicated in a hurry. And basically, yeah, I kept my mailing address in one place, and that was my domicile. But then I tried to be on top of paying taxes in all the places I needed to.

Sean: One of the main unglamorous aspects of living in a van. I feel like there's this image of it on social media, where you are absolutely liberated. You can do whatever you want, wherever you want. And it's not quite the case, but I'm sure there were some parts where you were thinking this is pretty sweet. So can you talk about some of your best moments when you were living in the van?

Sam: Definitely at those times, parking at a trailhead, waking up, going on a hike at 6 in the morning, getting back, doing my work, cooking on campfire. It felt so cool to be out in the woods and getting my work done, getting paid. It just felt like a dream in those moments. And then, like I've alluded to, a lot of it was challenging. A lot of it was like, "Oh, where am I going to find Wi-Fi? Where am I going to find a shower, blah, blah, blah?" And so in the moment it often felt like, "Oh, this is so hard." But when I look back at any given month of time in the van, I had so many stories and experiences and just memories from that month compared to a month in my apartment in LA, which could just go by without anything at all happening. Yes, it's really challenging, but you just get so much out of it.

Liz: And how did you deal with the loneliness? How did you find people? How did you meet your partner?

Sam: So part of what I wanted to do was be able to visit a lot of friends. So I would just drive and spend a week or two and visit my friend and couch surf. But then if I needed to stay in my van, I could do that too. I actually found, in some ways it helped me connect with a lot of people who I hadn't seen in a long time, better than my normal life. And yeah, my partner, I had already met her before. So we sort of rekindled it while I was in the van.

Sean: Sam, I want to go back to what you had mentioned a little bit earlier about the hard work and the great payoff of trying to live this life and living your dream life. Because I think that gets to the core of what is so fascinating about your own individual financial dream, is that it's not always going to be super rewarding. It can be, but you do have to put in an almost equal amount of work. And that's one of my main takeaways, hearing your story.

Sam: Well, another way to put it is if it was easy, then everyone would do it, right?

Liz: Oh yeah. Yes.

Sam: The hard work of doing your taxes as a digital nomad, that's real hard work. And the other part of the hard work is just being willing to give up something that is in your life currently, right?

Sean: Do you ever have a moment of crisis thinking, "Oh no, what have I done?"

Sam: Oh, definitely. I think it was mostly moments of crisis. It was definitely the part of being a real homeless person and realizing that I was indistinguishable from other folks who were living in their vehicles on the street, and just having these moments of, "I'm making this choice to do this." And so many people are forced to do this. Why am I subjecting myself to this?

Liz: What's next for you? Are you going to be staying with the in-laws for a while? Or do you expect to resume traveling full-time?

Sam: The baby and COVID have scrambled this whole thing. And part of my thinking was just, "I'll wait for that all to settle down. I'll figure out how babies work and I'll wait for COVID to be over. And then I'll figure out my next dream." But that has taken a long time to settle down. So I think I'm going to move into a real apartment next, not with my in-laws. And just get this baby older and then figure out what the next dream is. I mean, I'm just that type of person. I was already looking up how to start your own fish farm vegetable garden in the desert, and sending my partner like, "We got to do this. Let's move to Joshua Tree and start a fish farm." So I'm sure something will come along, but I don't have anything set in stone.

Sean: I'm sure we'll drag you back to talk about it whenever you have your next dream in mind.

Sam: Yeah, please. For your next fish farm herb garden podcast, I'll be your guest.

Sean: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for talking with us. And in a kind of change of how we typically do things, Sam, will you give us your takeaway tips of living your dream life?

Sam: Yeah, happy to. No. 1, start with your goal and then ruthlessly challenge your assumptions about what's getting in the way. So for me, it was that the apartment was, in some ways, getting in the way of me living the life that I wanted.

No. 2, the stakes are probably a lot lower than you think. If you make a big drastic change and you hate it, you can go back to the way things were. And in the meantime, you'll have had an interesting experience.

And finally, let your idea simmer for a while to let inspiration strike. Try to be open to many possibilities when thinking about how to achieve your goal.

Liz: All right, well, that's all we have for this episode. If you want your money questions answered on a future episode, turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.