Reader Case Study: We Have A Van, Now We Need A Plan!
Welcome to this month’s Reader Case Study in which we’ll address Florence’s questions on how to plan for financial independence, travel, and children (in other words, life)! Case studies are financial dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’d be you), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.
P.S. Another way to get support on your financial journey is to participate in my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge! You can sign-up at any time to join the over 12,200 fellow frugal sojourners who’ve taken the Challenge and saved thousands of dollars.
I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.
With that I’ll let Florence, this month’s case study subject, take it from here!
Hi, Frugalwoods nation! My name is Florence, I’m 25, and I live with my partner Anna, who is 26, just outside of Los Angeles in Sierra Madre, CA. We are mercifully debt-free and ready to start planning the rest of our lives together.
Anna and I met when we both attended NYU in 2009 and, even though I transferred to UT Austin (hook ‘em horns!) after one year at NYU, Anna and I kept in touch and have been together since 2015. I studied Hindi and Urdu in college and had the opportunity to live in India for a year during college. I also lived in Santiago, Chile for a year after graduating, where I taught English. Anna studied photography at NYU and worked in Thailand after graduating, so you could say we both have the travel bug.
Why We Have No Debt
Anna was fortunate to have very generous grandparents who paid for her college education in its entirety. Yay grandma and grandpa, we are forever grateful! I graduated with $36,000 in debt because of my decision to switch schools. I moved from NYU to UT Austin in favor of getting a scholarship and in-state tuition thanks to the program I enrolled in (the Hindi Urdu Language Flagship). That made my education much more affordable, allowing me to graduate with minimal debt, almost all of which was from that first year at NYU- ouch!
After graduating, even when I was working several part-time jobs, I paid down my debt aggressively. Once I landed my current job, I got even more aggressive with my loan payments. I also got some help from my generous dad and used all cash gifts I received during that timeframe–along with my annual company bonus–to pay it down. I made my last student loan payment in July 2016!
Our Housing Situation
We’re in a very lucky situation at the moment regarding where we live, which is rent-free in my parents’ guest house. But wait! Before you cry “lazy millennials,” you should know what we did to earn our keep: Anna and I renovated the guest house by ourselves–in order to make it liveable–and are now dwelling here rent-free for 12 months in exchange for our labor.
Indeed, most of our weekends in 2016 were dedicated to working on the house and bringing it from “glorified storage shed with questionable plumbing” to “fully functional home.” We had help at times when it was necessary, but the bulk of the work was done with our own blood (yes, there is some of my blood behind the tiles in the bathroom), sweat, and tears. The goal was to create a habitable rental unit for my parents to rent out once Anna and I move out and we succeeded! Our rent-free existence ends December 31, 2017 and my parents will charge us $600/month after that point.
This project had the secondary benefit of helping Anna and me learn very valuable skills, such as how to use a nail gun, a circular saw, a hole saw, a drill, a tubing cutter… you get the picture. We also learned how to communicate and plan a project, how to tile a floor, how to tile a wall, how to install various hardware and fixtures, how NOT to refinish a floor (don’t worry, it’s fine now), and just how aggravating it can be to work with the city permit office.
I work in tech as an SEO Specialist and Anna is a Photo Coordinator for a popular magazine. This basically means that she runs around all day trying to organize things and I sit on my booty all day looking at charts.
Now that the house renovation project is (mostly) finished, we finally have the space to breathe and think about our future. Neither of us is working our dream job and although Anna loves the logistics aspect of her job, the stress and long hours really get to her. She’d like a job where she can show up, do her work, go home at a reasonable hour, and not worry about it anymore.
Anna has also expressed interest in working as an interior designer/contractor. She really enjoyed the house renovation project (much more than I did), and given her background in logistics–plus her impeccable taste–I think she’d be great at it. The problem is that we have no idea where to start and she’s terrified of being unemployed.
I have a pretty typical 9-to-5 cubicle job, and while I like the people I work with and my company has great benefits, I’m bored. I hate going to the same place at the same time every day, when I feel like I could get the job done in half the time and have so much more time for all of my other projects if I were able to work remotely. I knit and design my own patterns, but I wish I had more time to work on this hobby/side business. I also love writing and keep a blog of my own, and again, I wish I had more time to devote to this. We don’t have any pets although we recently adopted some plants and I’m hoping I don’t kill them…
When we aren’t working (which we wish was more often…), we’re usually cooking something scrumptious at home, inviting friends over for wine/cheese/homemade bread, or hiking in the beautiful Santa Monica or San Gabriel Mountains. Anna likes biking when she gets the chance as well as swimming in the ocean. I love horseback riding (expensive…), writing, and knitting. We both love hiking, camping, and being outdoors.
Our Van Plan
Another factor in our lives is our Van Plan. A few months ago, we bought a converted cargo van (paid for in full with cash) complete with a bed, stove, sink, etc. as a step towards our dream of traveling around the country in a van (specifically this van) for a year. We’ve set the start date for this journey as spring 2018, which hopefully gives us time to get some serious saving done (and for both of us to reach the two-year mark at our current jobs) before we depart.
The potential problem is that we’d like to reach financial independence and the van trip might impact that goal because we’ll have to quit our jobs in order to take the trip. I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to find remote work, but Anna is not so sure due to the nature of her job. Ideally, we’d like to earn enough on the road to cover our day-to-day expenses and not touch our savings unless we have an emergency.
We don’t want this trip to completely derail our financial independence plans–perhaps slow them down a bit due to our reduced earning power on the road–but not ruin them. Another idea I’m toying with is pushing back the trip’s start date another year to save more aggressively until then, which would give us a more solid financial foundation.
Where Florence and Anna Want To Be In 10 Years
Finances: In 10 years we’ll be in our mid-30s. By then, we’d like to be financially stable to the point where we don’t worry about money all the time, and an event like a job loss–or one of us working irregular contract work–wouldn’t be a disaster. Ideally, we’d be financially independent or very close to it. I don’t necessarily want to retire early, but I’d like us not to be tethered to our jobs, and perhaps able to work part time.
We plan to get married sometime in the next few years, and after that, we’ll likely combine our finances. Anna has already expressed a desire for me to manage our money, which I’m happy to do.
Lifestyle: We’d like to be living on our very own homestead in the Pacific Northwest. We want to have some critters (goats are the current favorite), a good chunk of land, some veggies growing in the ground, and a couple of human critters as well.
We’ve talked extensively about our plans for children because: 1) we both feel very strongly that we want children, and 2) as a same-sex couple this situation takes a bit of extra planning and discussion. We’ve decided that we want at least one biological child (I will carry) if possible, and we are open to adoption as well. Ideally, we want two children. We know that when it comes to starting a family you have to be flexible and roll with whatever the universe has in store for you, but those are our general desires and plans.
Regarding our lifestyle and future children, we feel we should take our location into careful consideration when settling down. We want to choose a location that is affordable, beautiful (subjective, I know, but we like trees and mountains), and accepting. We want our children to grow up in a community that accepts and embraces our unique family.
Career: Neither of us is 100% sure where we want to be with our careers in 10 years. I envision my dream job as Writer, Translator, and Knitwear Designer. I am very creative and constantly have several projects going on at once, and I want to build a career for myself that facilitates this creativity. I love designing my own knitted garments and patterns and am (slowly) turning this into a revenue-generating side hustle. Anna would like to work in real estate or logistics in some capacity, but she’s not exactly sure what. She knows she doesn’t want to be a stay-at-home parent.
Florence and Anna’s Finances
Yearly Take Home (Net) Income
|Florence||$40,206.40||After taxes, health insurance & 401k deductions|
|Anna||$31,200.00||After taxes, health insurance & 401k deductions|
|Groceries||$400.00||Bloop. We like cheese…|
|Restaurants/Eating Out||$400.00||Yeah we need to cool it… really trying to cut back here!|
|Travel||$200.00||We have a weekend trip problem|
|Random Stuff||$200.00||Gifts, impuse purchases, etc|
|Hobbies||$200.00||Florence has expensive hobbies, eek|
|Anna Car Insurance||$91.67||A 2009 Toyota Yaris Anna owns outright|
|Van Insurance||$90.00||A 1975 Ford E-250, a beauty that’s fully converted with a rebuilt engine|
|Anna Cell Phone||$90.00||Verizon, womp womp. She’s searching for a different carrier. Any suggestions?|
|Gas for cars||$80.00||Anna’s car is very efficient and Florence only drives a teeny bit (her work pays for public transit)|
|Clothing||$75.00||I’ve instituted a 100% clothing buying ban (including shoes) so this will be closer to $0, but this was the average in the past|
|Household||$50.00||Cleaning products, detergents, shampoo, lady products, etc|
|Personal Care||$50.00||Haircuts, waxes etc|
|Florence Cell Phone||$25.00||Still part of the ol’ family plan. Riding this out as long as I can…|
|Medical||$20.00||Anna’s prescriptions, occasional copays for both, and Florence’s dental|
|Amazon Prime||$8.91||Paid once a year, but this is the monthly cost|
|Anna Savings||$19,000.00||Recently inherited, going to invest some soon|
|Florence 401(k)||$11,802.01||6% match, contributes 11%|
|Florence Vanguard||$3,576.10||VTSMX (Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares)|
|Florence Computershare stocks||$2,518.84||Gift from dad for 25th birthday|
|Anna 401(k)||$2,194.43||4% match, contributes 6%|
Florence’s Questions For You:
- Anna doesn’t see how she can save more money given her relatively low income. She tends to bleed little bits of money here and there and stress about big purchases, while I’m more of a tightwad on the small things but once I’ve finally decided to make a big purchase, I don’t stress about actually doing it. How can I help her see that little bits of money spent here and there add up, and that she absolutely has the ability to save more?
- How can we take our year of van travel into account in our savings strategy in order to not get completely off track in achieving financial independence?
- Should we push back the van trip another year so that we can save up more money?
- Have any of you had expensive medical procedures or treatments done while pursuing financial independence? We know that starting a family will come with some extra expenses for us since we are both women; but, anyone who had difficulty conceiving might be able to speak to these costs. How can we plan for this so that it doesn’t derail our FI plans?
Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
I am so impressed with how well Florence and Anna are doing! No debt, healthy savings, teaching themselves how to renovate a house–I am in awe! Very, very, very well done. I also love that Florence paid off her student loan debt so quickly. I commend them for being so thoughtful about their future because it takes great maturity and forethought to map out the type of life you want, but it’s well worth the effort. Kudos!
I think Florence and Anna are in the research and development phase of their lives and wow, what a good position they’re in for this experience. Without the burden of debt or the responsibility of dependents or pets, they can take this opportunity to examine where they want to live and what jobs they want to pursue. They should also view this as a time to save huge, huge amounts of money, which brings us to…
Florence’s first question: How to save more money?
This is my favorite type of question!! Although Florence and Anna are doing well and living a somewhat frugal existence, they have excellent opportunities available to them to save at a much higher rate. Since it sounds like Florence gets this but Anna needs some assistance, I highly recommend they take the Uber Frugal Month Challenge together. I think discussing the questions and prompts that come up over the course of the month will open up a world of savings for them both and help them refine their vision of what they want out of life.
It’s also true that their current savings rate would be fine if they both planned to work standard career-track positions until they’re 65+. However, it doesn’t sound like that’s what they want to do. If they’re serious about reaching financial independence in the next ten years, they need to slash their spending.
In combing through their monthly expenses, here are the areas I identify as opportunities to save more:
- Restaurants/Eating Out: you know what I’m going to say… this needs to be eliminated in its entirety. That’s a whopping $400/month (aka $4,800 per year!!!!!) saved. For tips and motivation, here’s how Mr. FW and I broke our eating out habit.
- Travel: $200 every month on travel is rather steep. I’m all for experiences and I too love to travel, but, this is a question of priorities. If they want to go on their van trip, and reach financial independence, and have kids, and buy a homestead, then I’d start saving this amount every month.
- Random Stuff: here’s another sum of $200/month (or $2,400 per year) that can and should be saved. I recommend combing through this line item to identify exactly what’s included in here. Some of it might not be able to be eliminated, but I’m willing to bet it can be drastically reduced.
- Hobbies: again, this is a question of priorities, which is why I so highly recommend going through the exercises in the Uber Frugal Month. There is nothing inherently wrong with spending on one’s hobbies, but much like travel, short-term pleasures may need to be sacrificed for the longterm gains of financial independence, homesteading, kiddos, and the Van Plan. This would be yet another $200/month saved.
- Car and Van Insurance: I recommend shopping these around just to see if there’s a cheaper provider available. Can’t hurt to investigate!
- Anna’s Cell Phone: Definitely time to find a low-cost provider! I use Boom Mobile, which is $19.99 per month; other popular low-cost carries are Ting and Republic Wireless. Assuming Anna can find a similarly inexpensive plan, that’ll be $70/month saved.
- Clothing: I’m thrilled to hear they’re instituting a clothing ban! Hooray! That’ll be another $75/month saved. Here’s how I went three years without buying any clothing or shoes (and yes, I worked a professional office job and went all the way through a pregnancy in that time frame).
- Personal Care: Florence and Anna, if you managed to renovate a house by yourselves, you can definitely DIY your haircuts and waxes. Trust me on this one. That’s an easy peasy $50/month saved. Here’s how Mr. FW cuts my hair at home.
- Entertainment: $15/month isn’t a huge sum, but, depending on how hardcore they want to be–and how quickly they want to reach their goals–this is an easy one to chop out. Here’s how we watch TV for free.
If Florence and Anna made all of these cuts to their budget, they’d be on track to save a massive $1,210 per month, which would be a whopping $14,520 per year!!! Even if they only incorporate some of these changes, they’ll still have the opportunity to substantially boost their savings. Since they’re living rent-free right now, they’re in a fabulous position to take advantage of this time in their lives to save at an astronomically high rate.
The other great thing about spending less money is that you save more money AND you need less money to live on, which would make the van trip/pursuit of other career opportunities all the more feasible. The less you need to live on, the less you need to earn, and the lower your stress levels are around money.
And now, here’s my favorite response to the question: why should we bother saving so much money? Florence, show this to Anna to help illustrate how small amounts of money saved now equal major dividends in the future:
If Florence and Anna were to save that $1,210 per month and put that amount into low-fee index funds every single month? In 30 years, they’d have $1,380,781.45 (based on a 7% return, which is considered an average annual return over the longterm from the stock market). Yes, you read that correctly, if they were to invest $1,210 every month–instead of spending it–in 30 years they’d have $1.38M dollars. Note that you do have to remain invested through recessions and downturns in order to reap these dividends and also decrease the risk in your portfolio as you near traditional retirement age–here’s more information on investing. This is why I say that every single expense merits consideration–it really and truly all adds up. If you’d like to perform your own calculations, here’s the compound interest calculator I use.
Florence’s second and third questions: van travel?
I love the Van Plan! It sounds adventurous and stupendous! And so good to do before they own a homestead/have kiddos. While not impossible to do a trip like this in the future, it’s awesome that they wouldn’t need to pay rent on a place they’re not living in/find a housesitter/juggle kid school schedules/find someone to watch their goats while taking this trip. From a lifestyle standpoint, if this is something Florence and Anna want to do with their lives, they should do it sooner rather than later. There’s no way I would’ve been comfortable in a van while pregnant or nursing a tiny infant. Just saying.
From a financial perspective, I think the van trip is a perfect chance for Florence and Anna to explore other career options. Since neither of them is working their dream job–and they don’t have any debt or dependents yet–I don’t see a lot of downside to testing out new paths.
I think there are two different ways to approach this trip:
- It’s an extended vacation that’s hopefully revenue neutral and Florence and Anna return to conventional office jobs afterwards.
- It’s a test drive of their future homesteading lifestyle in terms of remote work. In this scenario, Florence and Anna try to earn (and save) money as they would on their future homestead with the thought that after the trip, they can transition into homestead life. This second option is predicated upon building up their remote work capabilities.
Florence said she wants to expand her side hustling work and I think she absolutely should! They have a year before their scheduled departure and so I’d get that going today. Make those side hustles revenue-generating (and able to be done remotely) now and they’ll be in a much better financial position for the van trip. I wouldn’t wait until after departing on the trip to do this–get your revenue streams in place ahead of time. Plus, SEO work, writing, and translation all seem to lend themselves to building your own location-independent business.
As for Anna’s career, I don’t know much about her field, but I imagine there’s something she could do remotely with internet access. It might take some creativity and perhaps a pivot into a slightly different field, but in general, photography lends itself well to the internet–especially if you’re traveling around with new scenic spots to photograph everyday. Again, they have a year to get these plans in place, so I’d get cracking now.
If Florence and Anna are able to simultaneously lower their expenses (see above recommendations) and secure location-independent work, then I see no reason to delay the van trip, especially since their longterm goals entail two things that would make traveling the country for a year very difficult: a homestead and children. I also highly recommend they sketch out what they think their monthly expenses will be while on the road so that they have a better sense of how much they’d need to earn while traveling in order to cover their costs.
Personally, I’d be most comfortable if I had a year’s worth of living expenses saved up before embarking on the trip. Vans are notorious for needing repairs and maintenance and so Florence and Anna should be prepared for unexpected costs. Additionally, I think it’s prudent to be financially prepared for a potential extended period of unemployment after the van trip–it might take awhile to get re-employed. Of course if they’ve built up their remote work, this point will be moot.
Florence’s fourth question: kiddos via medical intervention.
I love that Florence and Anna are so mindful about this element of their lives. Planning ahead for kids–financially, emotionally, and logistically–makes the experience so much smoother. Congrats to them for considering this in advance!!
First off, I recommend that Florence and Anna both do a deep dive on their respective health insurance policies to see if fertility treatments are covered by their insurance. Some insurances do provide coverage, so this might be a lot less expensive than anticipated! Certainly worth investigating.
It’s also important to note that some states have laws requiring insurance companies to cover fertility treatments, while other states do not. Based on that, I recommend Florence and Anna explore what fertility benefits are required in the states they’re considering for homesteading.
Other than insurance coverage, my advice here is the same as it is for every other aspect of live: always save more than you think you need so that you can easily afford the miraculous opportunities and challenges that life will inevitably put in your path. If Florence and Anna boost their savings rate now, they’ll have no problem affording kiddos in the future.
I also want to touch on their homesteading goal, which obviously, I love! A key component of this plan for Florence and Anna should be how they intend to earn money while homesteading. Many/most affordable homestead properties aren’t exactly close to population centers and commuting to a traditional job might be tough. Generating revenue from land itself is notoriously difficult, unless you’re able to carve out a niche (I call it hipster-ized) market such as ‘artisanal free range honey goat cheese with guaranteed happy bees’ or something along those lines. Fortunately, there are a bevy of internet-based careers that can make you location independent. I’d start creating a plan for these potential careers now, which dovetails perfectly with exploring remote work for the van trip.
I also recommend that Florence and Anna begin in-depth research on where they’d like to homestead. Purchasing a homestead property is a great deal more involved than just buying a house and there are quite a few more variables to consider. Visiting properties for sale while on their van trip would be a great thing. For more on rural living–and how to vet properties–check out my series on the topic. And in terms of accepting, progressive communities with beautiful mountains and trees, I do have to put in a plug for Vermont here… 😉
One thing I want to mention is the importance of planning ahead in relation to securing a mortgage on their future homestead. Florence and Anna will need to have either W2 incomes (aka traditional jobs) or 2-3 years worth of self-employed income that demonstrates they run a profitable business(es). Without either of these, they won’t be able to get a mortgage. But, if they’re able to start making good self-employed income now, and they keep ramping it up, then when the van trip finishes they might be in a position to secure a mortgage based on their self-employed income.
ENORMOUS congrats to Florence and Anna for contributing to their 401ks and for building up a pretty darn robust amount in savings. And HUGE props to Florence for opening up a Vanguard low-fee index fund account. Woohoo!!
Florence has the perfect allocation of assets:
- She’s contributing to her employer-sponsored 401K in order to take advantage of tax-free retirement savings as well as the match from her employer. More on why 401ks are awesome is here.
- She has an emergency fund of nearly $10K, which would cover around 4-6 months worth of living expenses. Perfection!
- She invested the rest of her money in low-fee index funds. More on investing–and how to do it yourself–is here.
This is 100% what I advise. The only thing for Florence to do now is start saving even more money–all of which she can toss into those index funds. This approach is how you grow wealth, reach financial independence, and eliminate your reliance on a paycheck. A note for Florence: as soon as she hits the $10K minimum investment amount threshold, she should move her money from VTSMX over to Vanguard’s VTSAX as the fees are lower. VTSMX’s expense ration is 0.15%, while VTSAX is a mere 0.04%.
If it were me, I would liquidate Florence’s Computershares and funnel the money into her Vanguard account. The best diversification available in investing are low-fee index funds because through them, you own a little bit of every stock. I’m also willing to bet that Computershare’s fees are higher than Vanguard’s. Plus, the sooner Florence hits $10K in her Vanguard account, the lower her fees will be–transferring Computershares over will bump her VTSMX account up to $6,094.94.
Florence noted that Anna plans to invest some of her $19K inheritance and the sooner she does so, the better. That’s a pretty large chunk of cash to be sitting in a savings account where it’s not doing anything for you. If invested, Anna will start to reap the sweet, sweet dividends of compounding interest. I recommend Anna follow Florence’s model and set aside three to six months worth of living expenses in an emergency fund and then invest the rest in low-fee index funds. I own Fidelity’s Total Stock Market Index Fund (FSTVX) and, as Florence discovered, Vanguard offers a similarly excellent product.
Since Florence and Anna plan to combine finances in the near future, I might just stick with Vanguard so that it’s easier to combine those accounts down the road. And, if they want to get a jump on combining finances now, they can bundle it all together into the lower fee VTSAX.
Florence and Anna are doing fabulously well and are mapping out what sounds like a wonderful future together. In summary, here’s my advice:
- Start saving at a dramatically higher rate.
- Take the Uber Frugal Month Challenge together in order to save more and also refine their longterm aspirations.
- Begin ramping up side hustle/remote work that generates revenue now in preparation for the van trip and homesteading.
- Start researching homestead properties and locations now to get a sense of purchase prices, school districts, well and septic system requirements, mortgage availability, etc.
- Map out plans for when to get married, when to have kids, when to purchase the homestead, etc., then act on those plans and enjoy a financially secure life!
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Florence? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
Updated June 20, 2017 with Florence’s decision:
Anna and I had a really successful “financial date” a week after our case study went up. We discussed a lot of the points readers brought up and our own questions and concerns too. Of course, the van trip and our future homestead and family goals are pretty far in the future, but I do have some updates about decisions we made that day to help us reach those goals, based on advice from you and your readers.When it comes to our savings rate, our weekend trips and our restaurant habit are our two main weaknesses, and a lot of readers gave us great advice on those two fronts. We decided to start by limiting our entire eating out budget to $250 for the next month, and bring that number down incrementally. Simultaneously, we will be upping our meal planning and cooking from scratch game, and bringing our lunches to work every day.We will only be taking camping/van camping or free (to my parents’ beach house) weekend trips, with the exception of travel to meet our new nephew in July and to attend Anna’s sister’s wedding in November (both on the East Coast).We also decided to set up automatic deposits from Anna’s checking account to her savings so that she will be able save at least the equivalent of what we used to pay in rent every month without thinking about it. I will continue dumping ~60-70% of each paycheck either into my savings or Vanguard. Anna also tentatively decided to put $10k of her inheritance into Vanguard, saving the other $9k.I have also started ramping up my side gigs that would be doable on the road, and am happy to report that I already have 3 SEO clients! Finally, we set a departure date for our trip for March 31, 2018! We might not be able to leave exactly on that day, but having a set date is helping us prepare.-Florence
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