This millennial quit his job to travel the U.S. in a converted school bus: Here's how he made the money work

“I had no student loans and no rent or mortgage. Basically, it was like, ‘Don't fumble the bag.’”

Phil Risher.
Courtesy Phil Risher

Phil Risher is not a millionaire millennial, but he's bold and knows how to budget.

As a new college grad, Risher buckled down to pay off $30,000 in student debt in one year on a $48,000 customer sales rep salary. Then he saved up $60,000 in two years to pay cash for his first home, a condo outside Washington, D.C.

So when it came to his next big goal — traveling the country in 2018 with his dog, Tuney, in a school-bus-turned-tiny-home — Risher's financial slate was clean.

"I was, kind of, not fulfilled with the job I was doing, and I knew I wanted to travel," recalls Risher, who is now 31. "I had no student loans and no rent or mortgage. Basically, it was like, 'Don't fumble the bag.'"

Planning the trip: 'I wanted to save, save, save'

Risher's first step was preparing financially. In the years since he paid off his student loan debt, his income had steadily grown. By the time he started planning his trip in mid-2017, he estimates he was earning more than $70,000 between his salary and commissions. "I wanted to save, save, save. I maxed out my 401(k) and set up my budget to increase financial flexibility."

Risher decided his trek would last three months and set a budget ceiling of $15,000, plus another $30,000 in emergency savings in case anything went wrong.

"I had an Excel spreadsheet and basically it outlined everything, so I knew how much it was going to cost," he says. By the time he was ready to travel, "I had the money set aside already and that gave me peace of mind."

Finding a 'normal' bus took five months

Then it was time to find his transportation. Risher called car lots everywhere for five months looking for one that would sell him a used school bus.   

"I wanted one of the smaller ones, and I wanted gas-only because if I'm driving around, I didn't want to have to search for diesel," recalls Risher. "I just wanted a normal, straight-up bus."

School bus.
Courtesy Phil Risher

He finally found one in New York. The 12-year-old ride had just under 67,000 miles on it, recently had an inspection, met Risher's required specs, and came in at a total cost of $5,000.

A $2,000 budget to turn the bus into a home

After buying the bus, Risher had $10,000 left in his trip budget. He set aside $8,000 for gas, food, and miscellaneous expenses. The remaining $2,000 in his budget went toward renovating the new wheels. While the bus was in good driving shape, he needed to mold it into something livable.

"We stripped all the seats out, put down plywood and then vinyl flooring," says Risher. He and his brothers built kitchen counters and cabinets that sit above a small pump sink. By the back, there's a couch and composting toilet. In a separate area, there's a bed and solar panels for charging electronics.

School bus.
Courtesy Phil Risher

Quitting his job at an opportune moment

Risher's three-month trip from March to June 2018 would take him 15,000 miles across 45 U.S. states, including the scenic sides of New Mexico and glacier-made waterfalls in Oregon. When he wasn't driving, he'd sometimes camp out in Walmart parking lots. And on special days, he planned to meet up with his mom and friends in cities along the route.

But before taking off, he had to do one last thing: quit his full-time job. "I had been at the same company for six years out of college. The only thing I knew was this job." At the same time, "there's no way I could have done it and travel together. So I decided to quit."

Risher left the day after his work anniversary. Staying at the company for at least six years meant he was fully vested in his 401(k), meaning he could leave with 100% of the funds in the account.

Risher's top money advice: Map out your goals

After his trip, Risher launched his own marketing company, Phlash Consulting, which works with local service businesses. He still owns the bus and is keeping it warm for future travel.

Risher isn't the only millennial who has used time on the road as a smart financial move. Van-lifers Stephanie and Nate Yarbrough bought a tricked-out 2007 Dodge Sprinter that they called home and traveled the country in, while running multiple businesses. Jillian Johnsrud lived in a camper in her late teens and early 20s so she could reach financial freedom in her early 30s.

This travel nurse earns $7,000 a month in Hawaii

Video by Helen Zhao

Across the country, younger Americans are opting to live in RVs and converted vans to travel and save. If you want to hit the road to work remotely and see the country or escape exorbitant housing costs, Risher has advice.

"Get very narrowly focused on exactly what you want," he says. "You could buy land and build a tiny home, you could have a van and live in it, you could turn a 'Scooby Doo' bus into a house." However you decide to spend your money — and your time — he says: "Make a plan, save, and really focus on your goals."

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