Careers, debts and children seem to be prime reasons for delaying dreams to travel the world or begin a lifestyle design journey. It is difficult to change your life when you have substantial obligations. Difficult? Yes, but definitely not impossible. The Denning family has found a way to make a nomadic lifestyle work with five children while traveling across the Americas in a vegetable powered truck. Read about their story in this interview.
It sounds like you did very well with your real estate investments?
Real estate was a great tool for helping us to break out of the ‘9-5’. We began investing in it while my husband still had his corporate job. We purchased rental properties, and later ‘flipped’ homes. The additional income it provided instilled confidence and helped us make the leap to quit my husband’s job and pursue the life of an entrepreneur, which eventually led to a life of travel.
Real estate can be a good investment vehicle if done correctly. FamilyonBikes.com actually used real estate investments to fund a major portion of their bike trip from Alaska to Argentina.
Did you manage to get out before the crash?
No. We began investing near the height of the real estate market, and while it proved lucrative for awhile, we lacked the long term experience to predict market trends. We were hit hard by the economic crash, and suffered severe financial losses.
What was the impetus for liquidating your possessions and living a nomadic lifestyle?
It started with a ‘second honeymoon’ to Mexico. It was one of my first experiences traveling outside of the U.S. We attended a local church, and I had such an incredible experience being immersed in the language and culture that I knew I wanted this for my family.
We’d talked before about moving abroad ‘someday’, but after that trip, we both knew we needed to do it know. At that time our investments were still doing very well and provided a location independent income. We rented out our model home (along with our other investments), sold our opulent furniture and personal belongings (except for our books and mementos), and made plans to drive to and live in Costa Rica.
A year later, the real estate and stock markets crashed, forcing us to return to the U.S. to find an income. Being hit hard by the economic crisis, we ‘lost’ or liquidated our real estate holdings, and lived more simply, really reducing our personal expenses. This change in our personal living expenses has really led to our nomadic lifestyle. Before our financial losses, we believed that we had to ‘keep up with the Jones’ and then try to finance travel on top of that.
After nearly losing everything, we realized what was really important to us (family time, travel and adventure) and began focusing on spending our money and time on those things, and eliminating everything else. The less we owned, the more freedom we had and the more nomadic we became.
Now we realize that we can live (and travel) on a monthly budget that is less than what we used to spend on our monthly mortgage payment in the U.S.
Tell us about your road trip to Costa Rica
It was incredible! We had an amazing experience, and it helped to expand our reality of what was possible for us and build our confidence for taking even bigger and more challenging adventures.
Did you encounter any problems on the way?
Yes and no. We did actually drive all the way to the border of Nicaragua without any passports for three of our children (you can read here how that interesting experience happened). As a result, we were ‘caught’ at the border of Nicaragua and were ‘stuck’ in Honduras for about ten days until the U.S. Embassy could have our passports expedited.
Once we crossed to Nicaragua, the roads were so bad near the borders, it was like the worst jeep road you’ve ever seen. We had to maneuver around potholes the size of VW bugs. Nicaragua was also the only place where we were stopped by police who tried to get us to pay bribes.
One policewoman blatantly asked for money. We didn’t have any cash, and told her so. She said we needed to give her something. We had just bought two sub-style sandwiches, and told her that was all we had. “Okay, I’ll take them,” was her response.
The next time we were stopped, the officer charged us with some bogus offense, took my husbands driver’s license, and told him he would need to appear at court to pay a fee before he could get his license back (this is a common tactic, the hope is you’ll say, ‘Can’t I just pay the fee to you right now?) We literally didn’t have any cash to give to him (it was the same day as the sandwich lady), and we’d prepared for the driver license situation by purchasing an International Drivers License from AAA. My husband told him he didn’t care if he took his license, and he wasn’t going to court, we were traveling on. The officer was so upset that we weren’t cowering from his threats that he eventually threw the license at my husband and told him to get out of here.
We thought it was pretty funny. But it shows that if you’re not intimidated by their threats and refuse to concede, there’s really little they can do.
Would you recommend driving through Central America to other travelers?
Absolutely! Many people have done it and are doing it. The roads are great, and the countries are safe. When we began our trip to Costa Rica, we found very little information about any families that had made a similar trip. But now it seems more common and sometimes even ‘trendy’.
How much do you think people should budget for a road trip to Central America?
It totally depends on what experience they are after. We were making a lot of money when we went down the first time, so we stayed at nice hotels and all-inclusive resorts. We ate (unfortunately) at places like KFC and McDonalds (lame, I know). That trip was very expensive. I think we spent close to $6,000 just to get to Costa Rica (including gas, hotels, food and adventures like these).
Gas can be more expensive – while we lived in Costa Rica it was about $6.00 a gallon – that was almost four years ago. Diesel is usually less, and many more vehicles run on diesel south of the border.
When we drive it this time, we’ll be camping most of the time with occasional stays at hostels and inexpensive hotels. We’re also driving a veggie powered truck which we hope to fuel with waste vegetable oil, if we can find it available south of the border (this is a new experiment for us).
We’ll be eating the local foods – locally grown fruits and vegetables, and at local restaurants.
We’re totally confident that we can live and travel this way spending less than $2,000 a month on average (we’ll be traveling very slowly though).
What is Costa Rica like?
Costa Rica is very amazing. It is like the Garden of Eden. Flowers bloom year round. You can grow fruits and vegetables nearly all year. I once read about Costa Rica that if you put a stick in the ground, it would grow. It’s literally true.
There is so much to see and do, we never did it all, even after a year. There’s waterfalls, volcanoes, surfing, beaches, cloud forests, turtle preserves, zip lines, bungee jumping…it goes on and on.
While we lived there, we stayed in the Central Valley, where a large majority of expats live. As a result the infrastructure is better, but the costs are higher. We stayed in a nice house with three bedrooms plus a loft room, and an amazing view of the Central Valley, for about $1500 a month plus utilities which ran about $200-$300 a month (internet, water, electricity). The floors were tile (most places are south of the border, carpet molds). It had two bathrooms with ‘normal’ toilets and showers and sinks that had hot and cold water. It also included a kitchen with a U.S. size stove, and a larger size (for Costa Rica) fridge.
What is a comfortable budget to live in Costa Rica for a year?
Again this depends on the type of experience you want to have. Do you want to live like an expat, enjoying familiar foods that are imported from your country? Imported foods are more expensive. But if you want to eat local foods – then you can visit the mercado and buy 100 oranges for US$2.00 and pineapples for US$.50 each.
As far as housing goes, you could live in a ‘nice’ house like I described above in the Central Valley, and pay for it. Or you could live on the outskirts, on the beaches or in the campo and pay about $350 for a furnished house that’s a little more basic (maybe it would have hot water, and your appliances might be ‘tico’ size). But that’s okay. You’re going for the experience of living abroad, not living in ‘little America’ in Costa Rica.
If we did it over again, I’m pretty confident that our family of seven could live quite comfortably on US$3,000 a month or less, including a maid.
Do you work or earn money while you are traveling?
We’ve tried a number of strategies to fund our travels. With each location we’ve taken a different approach. As mentioned before, living in Costa Rica was funded by our real estate and stock investments.
After returning to the U.S. for work, we set out again a year later, this time to the Dominican Republic, using personal savings, supplemented by a small amount of online income from freelance work, etc.
When that ran out, we returned to the U.S. again for work, this time to Atlanta, GA where we spent six months before accepting a position with a non-profit organization that took us to India. After India, we flew to Atlanta, bought a vehicle and drove to Alaska, where we had baby number five, and spent the last year.
As we set out on this next adventure from Alaska to Argentina, we’re using some savings, working along the way, and most importantly, building our online business so we can become location independent again.
Please tell us about your experiences in India.
My husband was offered a position with a non-profit organization in India, and we eagerly accepted it. For us it was a chance to see the ‘other side of the world.’
Originally it was a long term commitment – several years. But soon after arriving I realized I was pregnant. We ended up leaving (it was a mutual agreement) after only 5 months, so we could have the baby in the U.S.
Our children did enjoy living there. They had a lot of friends, because we lived on the campus of a ‘boarding’ school which housed nearly 200 students ages 4-14. But we were in a very rural part of India, which proved some difficulty in getting ‘non-Indian’ food (the Indian food didn’t agree with my pregnant belly).
The steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle, and they drive on the left side of the road – it was very confusing, I never quite got used to it. We also had a driver who did all the driving for us – the driving is crazy there, and they use their horns A LOT. Cows literally wander the streets like stray dogs do in Latin countries.
What were your living expenses in India?
We lived on campus, and so many of our expenses were covered by the non-profit organization (i.e. electricity, water, internet, housing).
We purchased our own food, IF we didn’t want to eat the three Indian meals that were prepared everyday for the campus. Fruits and vegetables were very inexpensive. A grocery bag of veggies cost about US$2.00. Clothing, textiles and services (like haircuts) are so ridiculously cheap it’s crazy.
Before leaving the country we stocked up on clothes – Prada, Banana Republic, Polo and more – super cheap.
Beef was difficult (but not impossible) to find, and more expensive. Any imported foods were crazy expensive (like US$7.00 for a box of breakfast cereal).
We also didn’t have our own car, but used one of the organizations vehicles, along with one of their drivers.
We lived in a very rural area – two hours from Chennai (formerly Madras). We did some of our grocery shopping in Chennai, but as far as living expenses – housing, utilities, hired help – I’m not sure of those costs in the cities.
Tell us about your new road trip from Alaska to Argentina?
After returning to the U.S. from India, we chose to move to Alaska to have our baby, because my mother lived there and it was a place we had always wanted to visit. We knew we wouldn’t stay there though, and so continually had on our minds where we would go next.
We considered teaching English in Thailand, or moving to Colombia. But a major concern for us was having a vehicle. In Costa Rica we had our own vehicle, and we really loved it. It gave us freedom to explore and go when and where we wanted. In the Dominican Republic, we used public transportation, and it really limited our travel within the country. We could only go when and where the buses or taxis went. So that was a major consideration when choosing our next adventure – we wanted to have a vehicle and we wanted to be able to explore extensively – since we realized that’s what we really love about travel, more than just ‘living’ in a different country.
Having already driven Central America, and already owning a vehicle, we thought – Why not just drive all the way to South America and explore the whole thing? And since we were in Alaska already, it seemed fitting to drive from the top to the bottom, don’t you think?
Are you worried about any dangerous areas on your journey?
No. All countries have safe areas and dangerous areas, ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. We visit the safe and avoid the dangerous anywhere we go. It’s that simple.
How did the vegetable oil powered truck come about?
While living in Alaska we became very close friends with the owner of Golden Fuel Systems, a pioneer in the vegetable oil/bio fuel industry. He convinced us to buy our current truck, and to convert it to run on veggie – and we are SO glad we did. So far we’ve paid only about $150 in diesel fuel costs.
You are now traveling with five small children, what is that like?
It is a lot of fun, and a lot of chaos (sometimes). No, they don’t always get along. Sometimes they fight, argue, whine and cry.
But for the most part, they are accustomed to being nomadic. They adjust well and quickly to being in a new place, and they love exploring and spending time playing together. And we love being able to spend time with our children, learning about the world and discovering the wonders it holds.
What do you do for health care, truck insurance, taxes and other administrative issues?
Right now our truck insurance is with State Farm. I’m going to be checking to see if their coverage is valid outside the U.S. I know when we drove through Mexico before, we purchased Mexican insurance to cover us while we were there (I think it may be required).
Our income taxes now are simple (not as complicated as when we owned real estate) and can be easily filed electronically. We are exploring further the tax benefits to living outside the country.
As for health insurance – we’ve always lived by the ‘pay for what is, not for what ifs’ philosophy. In general, we don’t usually visit a doctor. I guess we pursue more ‘alternative’ health care, and for the most part we’re pretty healthy (we eat very well and are active).
We’d rather pay for medical expenses as we need them, than send our money to an insurance company at the amount of $500 -$1400 every month! That’s $6,000 to $16,800 over a one year period. That’s a lot of money for ‘just in case’.
And yes we realize that accidents and emergencies do happen. We’re willing to take that risk. Just last year we were in a car accident in Alaska. Our total medical expenses came to about $60,000. In this case, they were covered by the automobile insurance of the other driver, who was at fault.
But even if they weren’t, our preference (and this isn’t for everyone) would be to owe that debt to the medical industry for services performed, than to owe that ‘debt’ to the insurance companies ‘in case’ it happens. We realize this approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s what we’ve chosen and we feel very comfortable with it.
What is next on the travel agenda after Argentina?
After we get to the bottom of Argentina, we plan to drive north again and visit Uruguay, Paraguay and then Brazil. We may stay in Brazil for a while and learn Portuguese. After that we’re really considering sailing the South Pacific. 🙂
Do you recommend your lifestyle for other families?
Yes and no.
No, because you have to really be committed to doing it, and really have the big picture in mind of ‘why’ you’re doing it, or else you may go crazy 😉 It can take some adjustment to not having a place to ‘call your own.’ But on the other hand, if it’s something you want to try, I say ‘go for it’. It’s wonderful having the freedom to go anywhere we would like, without having the ‘anchors’ (as we call them) of a home, job or bills.
This is an exchange rate we’re willing make – forsaking mortgages and bills for freedom and travel.