When Laura Greenland, 33, from Cornwall, was made redundant in 2020, she worried how she would afford her rent, let alone pay off her debts. But within 18 months she’d cleared £15,000 of credit card debt and loans, saved up £10,000 and set up a thriving business.
Before I ditched conventional living in 2020, I was a Senior Marketing Manager for a global travel brand – which was not a good thing to be during a pandemic. Being a travel brand, we knew it was going to affect us for a lot longer than other businesses and our whole office was furloughed.
The jungle drums of redundancy started fairly quickly after lockdown and I was the main breadwinner for our household by quite a long way so financially, it was a big worry. My husband Karl was furloughed from his job as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, too.
I thought, ‘I need to make something happen here because I may not have a job to go back to.’ It was made even scarier because we had £15,000 of debt that we couldn’t clear.
Drowning in debt
There were hefty credit card repayments of several hundred each month, which was really just interest on the £12,000 we owed, plus we had two cars on finance. We were also paying £2,000 a month to keep the roof over our heads in rent, utility bills and council tax on our home in Saltash, Cornwall, without considering food bills and other costs like broadband.
I'm not a risk-taker... so my boyfriend obviously caught me on a reckless day
Ironically, we probably could have afforded mortgage repayments, but we couldn’t get a deposit together because our outgoings meant we were financially stagnant for years.
Living in a camper van was my husband's suggestion. We’d thought about van life before but, because we were renting, we had our dog Bear, and we had jobs, it didn’t make sense.
But one day in May 2020, he said, ‘We should talk about the van plan again.’ He obviously caught me on a reckless day and I thought, ‘Alright, why not?’
I’m not a risk-taker so it was a huge leap of faith, but the whole plan was to massively streamline our expenses. We called it ‘the van plan’ and put together a spreadsheet to figure out if this completely crazy idea actually made sense on paper – and it did.
We were coming to the end of the tenancy on our flat so, from talking about it to hitting the road, we would have two months.
Taking the plunge
We actually went a further £15,000 into debt, taking out a loan for the camper van, which was crazy but we viewed the loan a bit like a ‘micro mortgage’. We figured that the difference from renting was that we actually had an asset. So rather than spending £2,000 a month and having nothing to show for it in our rental place, we would own the van, which would retain value. It would be our first home, on four wheels.
We bought a 2006 motorhome from a couple who had really looked after it and converted it so that it was as economical as possible to run.
We were already £15k in debt then borrowed another £15k to buy the camper van which was a bit crazy
We changed the gas supply from Calor to LPG, which was much cheaper and cost around £15 for a six-week supply, put solar panels on the roof, added LED lights and refitted the bathroom. Our living costs would reduce to around £300 a month, including van insurance and breakdown cover.
By June, I was made redundant and given a three-month pay-out of my £35,000 salary – a lump sum of about £5,000 which I used for doing up the van.
I’d already thrown myself into launching my own marketing support business, which was a real panic response. I didn’t need to be in a fixed location, so we upgraded the wifi for the van so I could work on the road.
The next month, Karl left his job and we walked out of the flat and locked the door behind us, with our dog in tow. Realising we didn't actually have a house anymore was truly terrifying, but also liberating and exciting.
We drove over into Plymouth and handed our keys back to the estate agent. That was a very weird feeling, but also wonderful. We then went down to one of our favourite beach spots in Cornwall for the first night and I remember being ecstatic. I’m smiling now just thinking about it.
We spent the next 18 months travelling around the UK, mostly around the South West in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. We’d wake up wherever we had parked and have to look out the window because we would forget where we were.
We tried to find places off-grid because I needed peace and quiet to do Zoom calls and we did wild camping because the whole idea was to save, save, save and try to get ourselves out of this financial pickle.
Adjusting to our new home
Van life meant living in a shoebox with a German Shepherd, so it was intense and there were times when it would have been nice to have more personal space, but we literally had the whole world on our doorstep so we were very immersed in nature. If I needed peace and quiet to take Zoom calls with my new clients, Karl would take Bear out for a walk.
Living in a shoebox was intense and at times I wanted more personal space
We had a little kitchen so we could cook as normal, just on a smaller scale, and the benefit of a tiny space is we only needed one heater and it warmed up very quickly in the winter. We also did some house sitting in the colder months, which we found through Facebook communities, and, in summer 2021, we took on a work exchange for three and a half months in Dorset.
We ran a rustic pop-up campsite in a beautiful setting that was only open on the weekends, so we would do a bit of work on the weekends for them then. It was a win-win for everyone – we had a three-acre field that was ours Monday to Friday, plus we had water and toilets and everything we needed for van life, and they got their campsite run for free – so everyone was happy.
A debt-free life
Over 18 months, because our living costs were so low, we were able to clear all of our debts – and ended up with £10,000 in the bank in savings as well. While living in the van, I built my freelance marketing consultancy into a bigger business and Ebb, Flow & Grow now has a six-figure turnover.
We sold the van in November 2021, making £3,000 profit on it, and are now living rent-free looking after a holiday letting for around 15 hours a week for the owner.
My new business now has a six-figure turnover
We live in an annex that wasn’t being used and don't have utility bills to pay either, which is a godsend and means we can keep saving. We’re feet to the floor with saving more, and should have multiple five figures in the bank by the end of this year.
I don't see us going back to a more conventional way of life. As things continue to progress with the cost of living and the sheer expense of trying to get on the property ladder in the UK, we’re looking to get another camper van next year for exploring overseas. Our lifestyle is fun and exciting – not to mention debt-free.