The question we see asked the most about doing full-time travel as a family is “how do you make money while traveling?”
Stepping back for a moment, one of the reasons we even ever dreamt about long-term travel as a family was that my work in the web development world naturally lent itself to full-time travel. We feel extremely blessed to be coming to our adventure from that position, rather than having the dream of extended travel first and then struggling to find a way to fund it.
While traveling we had six streams of income:
- Activities for some of our sponsors
- Sales of our ExpressionEngine (software that powers websites - including this one) training materials. We have a book available in print and electronic versions as well as some screencasts.
- Affiliate income from a few select sources including (as you might guess) sales of ExpressionEngine licenses.
- ExpressionEngine classes.
- Web development for clients through Boyink Interactive.
Overall the engagement provided only a token stream of money but rather allowed us to slow our spending on gas/campgrounds and freed up time for doing client work. I’ll leave you find the other “lessons learned” in the complete post linked to above.
We’ve been asked a lot about our sponsors. I think many people see an RV as a big empty rolling billboard and hope they can sell ad space on it and make an otherwise financially impossible trip do-able. I think that would be a tough sell - if you can’t measure the impressions of an ad, if you can’t track inquiries it triggers, if you can’t provide demographics for the people who will see it, you’ll have a hard time selling the idea of a high-priced ad.
For us the sponsorships mostly started with companies we already had existing relationships with. Garmin is a client, ExpressionEngine is software we use and wrote a book about, etc. Even then, I’d say overall they were a failure. In one case we didn’t write as many blog posts for them as we should have. In another case we video recorded & submitted some user interviews that never got edited & posted to the web, and then the whole plan of doing those monthly fell apart.
- Sponsorships will be easier and make more sense if your trip has higher purpose (philanthropic, missional, or sales-based) that potential sponsors can buy into.
- Putting logos on your rig won’t be enough - you’ll need to create web content or build community around the sponsor product by attending or creating events as you move around.
- Potential sponsors are going to want a schedule, a list of cities, some kind of a plan for what you intend to do - which may be at odds with the type of unplanned, serendipitous trip you have in mind.
The book and screencast sales took a lot of upfront production effort (we spent a significant part of 2010 updating the book before we left, it was actually a main driver of our launch schedule) but once in place sell with little to no involvement. The affiliate sales are almost the same, although returns will start to slip if I don’t periodically publish new articles with affiliate links. Income from these isn’t enough to live on, however, so I still needed to do client work and classroom training.
- What people call “passive income” is often really “delayed income” in that you do a lot of work upfront but don’t see the financial returns until sometime later.
- Passive income streams are awesome but aren’t predictable, require substantial prework and weren’t enough to sustain us.
- This type of income can often be more profitable than straight “bill by the hour client work” - but only over long periods of time.
- We want more of this type of income on our next leg of travel.
- There are many reasons to distrust PayPal, but it does provide an easy way to get paid while traveling.
Over the course of our year on the road we did ExpressionEngine classes in Atlanta GA, Richmond, VA, Scottsdale, AZ and San Francisco, CA.
- Of all of our income streams the classes had the most impact on our trip because we had to know where we were going to be at a certain time. Other than the classes and a couple scheduled visits with family we never had any other reason to worry about where we were going to be and when - we just chose our direction based on what was around that we wanted to see and what the weather was like.
- Inclement weather can turn kill the profits from a week of classroom training.
- From an income perspective we experienced mixed success - from little better than breaking even to doing reasonably well.
- Financials aside, we still love doing the classes for many reasons - cool people, great conversations, lots of eating out, seeing past students be wildly successful, seeing new business partnerships arise between students and more.
- While we intend to keep doing the classes in some fashion we’re also exploring other training delivery options.
Our most significant source of income for the past year was still “bill by the hour” (or by the project) client work. Websites like this one were coded up while sitting in public libraries, outside national parks or in coffee shops across multiple states.
- It worked best if a given day was either a travel day, a sight-seeing day, or a work/school day.
- Moving west allowed exceptions to that, as I mostly stayed on Eastern time, getting up in the 5:00 hour and getting a solid day of work in before noon, leaving the afternoon to explore.
- We had to be purposeful about finding a place to be that had internet service so that I could work.
- Clients didn’t mind me being mobile and in fact found great interest in asking “where are you today?” when communicating.
- Worries about being too distracted with sight-seeing were kept in check by the giant sucking sound of the checking account.
- The flexibility of RV-based travel is awesome - for all of the issues we had with our workamping experience it remains a viable option for times when the financials are tight and work is piling up.
- Freestanding furniture in the RV helped - on heavy work days I could face a chair into a corner to tune out the rest of the family.
- Some days I had to either kick the family out for the day or leave myself to get a solid focused day of work in.
- Headphones are a requirement.
- Given all the variables of location, timezones, and available internet having any idea of a “set work schedule” was impossible. I ended up working early mornings, weekends and late nights at different times.
- We didn’t boondock as much as others can mainly because I needed to be plugged in to work. In the future a generator or laptop with longer battery life may change that.
- Frustrations with not being able to get out and sightsee were mitigated by remembering that the alternative was being at home in Michigan, in the basement
Note what you don’t see in that list of income streams - and that’s income from the rental of our house. When we looked at the expected costs of taking this trip we decided we could make it without renting the house (doing so also would have necessitated a re-mortgage as it would no longer be an owner-occupied dwelling). We decided instead to see if our family adventure could also be a blessing to someone else so found a friend who could benefit from a year of living in our home rent-free. She paid utilities, sorted & forwarded our mail, and took care of any little repairs that came up.
It worked, but we also had a major and unexpected trailer repair come up (it needed a new roof). We came home with a much bigger balance on our credit card than we want. Paying that off is one of our winter goals, and between that and selling our house we hope to have much less overhead on our next leg of travel. We want to have an “activity fund” for doing more of the fun stuff (water parks, zip-lines, boat tours, etc) that we had to pass on this past year.
Speaking of which, I need to wrap this post up and get back to the work that pays the bills. If you are considering a similar family adventure I hope here are some nuggets in here you find useful in your planning!