Earning

7 Years as a Vagabond: How I Saved and What I Saw

Herd of bison

I suppose I have a restless spirit. I love the thrill of being somewhere new – meeting new people, and seeing things that look entirely foreign. For seven years in my twenties, I fulfilled this vagabond dream. I lived in seven states, and had something like fourteen different addresses.

It started at the height of the financial crisis, when I graduated from college and struggled to find a job. It was the hardest year of my life, but that’s a story for another time. The result was that I ended up working seasonally in national parks and resorts, which had nothing to do with my degree, but turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I signed contracts that lasted anywhere from 4-6 months, and at the end of the contract, I’d load up my Subaru and drive to the next job. I owned only what could fit in the back of my car, which I’ve now driven across country four times.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about financial independence. I didn’t have a retirement account or any investments, and it hadn’t crossed my mind to do anything more than squirrel away what I could into a savings account. I’ve always been frugal, though, so even though I didn’t make a lot of money, I managed to save more than you might expect. I also saw some incredible sights and to me, the whole experience was absolutely priceless. Once I reach financial independence, I may end up doing it all over again –  only by then, I’ll have health insurance and a nest egg.

Denali, the tallest mountain in North America
Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

How I Saved

Room and Board

The great thing about working in some of the most beautiful places in the States is that you also get to live in them. Almost all of the concessionaires I worked for provided employee housing and an employee dining room. The housing was rustic – usually dorms with two to a bedroom and a shared bathroom down the hall. The dining rooms provided three meals a day, and the quality varied. The cost of room and board was automatically deducted from my paychecks, and was typically heavily subsidized by the company. I averaged about $450 a month for meals and lodging, which is way less than I spend now that I have a “real” job.

There were very few private homes in the parks where I lived (and they were typically only allowed because they had been grandfathered in when the park was first established). Tourists would have to pay thousands to stay in a hotel all summer long, so getting to live there for next to nothing was a really unique opportunity. The same goes for the resorts where I worked – most were in very expensive towns, and my rent by comparison was an absolute steal.

Activities

Another amazing thing about working for national park concessionaires and resorts is that many of them allow their employees to participate in activities and excursions for free on a space available basis. The hotels and resorts typically offer a wide range of activities, and I would make it my goal to do them all at least once before the season ended. I did everything from white water rafting, to wildlife tours, to snowboarding, and all it cost me was a tip to the guide.

Transport

The employee housing is typically on site, so you can easily get by without a car at many seasonal jobs. I ended up buying my car after about four years without one because I wanted more freedom on my days off. If you don’t have a car, the concessionaires and resorts sometimes plan employee excursions to the nearest town or other points of interest. Some of them also offer free airport transfers at the beginning and end of the season.

What I Saw

Photo of store called Wal-Mike's in Trapper Creek, Alaska.
Mike’s motto is “If I don’t have it, you don’t need it.” He has everything, from dried moose brains (?!) to a hand in a jar (?!?!).

The Seasonal Community

One of the most interesting parts of the whole experience was the people I met along the way. The seasonal industry attracts all kinds – it is by far the most diverse workforce I’ve ever been a part of.

I worked with college students and teachers on summer break. There were retirees who were doing it more to see the world than to make extra income. There were twenty-somethings like myself who were still trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up, and middle-agers who’d left their jobs in corporate America for what they saw as the good life. Some employees lived in their own luxury RVs and others lived paycheck to paycheck.

My dad’s favorite quote was from one of my managers who said, “We’re all the bottom of the barrel here. There’s a lot of different barrels, but we’re the bottom of every one of them.” It’s a bit harsh, but it’s true that to enjoy that transient lifestyle, you have to enjoy being off the grid. If you happen to be a little weird, too, you’ll fit right in.

Wildlife

I love animals, so one of the highlights of the experience for me was seeing animals in their natural environment. My favorite memory is of one morning, when a friend and I woke up early and headed out to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. It’s an area known for wildlife, and we’d heard a grizzly had staked its claim to a bison carcass. When we arrived, the grizzly was laying on top of the bison, and a pack of wolves was hanging out nearby, hoping for a meal. The male grizzly never let them near, but as we watched, he did allow a female grizzly and her two cubs to help themselves. It was an incredible sight.

Grizzly bear by patch of snow
I came across this grizzly hanging out beside a road in Wyoming.

Road Trips

After each season, I’d pack up my car and drive to the next job. Sometimes it was in the next state over, and sometimes it was on the other side of the country. I really enjoyed planning the trip I’d take to get there, and tried to see the sights along the way. A few of my favorite stops were Graceland, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, and Washington D.C.

The Seasonal Industry Might Not Be for Everyone

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a seasonal employee, it wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun. The hours can be long and the pay is low. There are typically no benefits, so you’re on your own for health insurance and retirement accounts. From a FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) perspective, I’m not sure anyone would recommend it, but from a life experience perspective, it’s extraordinary.

Would you consider leaving everything behind for seasonal work?

I spent seven years working in some of the beautiful locations in the U.S., including national parks and resorts. Here's how I saved money, and what I saw.

4 thoughts on “7 Years as a Vagabond: How I Saved and What I Saw

  1. Started my early years as seasonal worker – was great! Agree, that’s how you get so see some amazing parts of the country, via a work vehicle that will also pay per diem and places to stay! I only did it for 2 yrs as I needed a permanent job with benefits and the college debt also was heavy. I have a great friend that stuck seasonal work out until her early 30s. She built a great reputation and found a way for her employer to assist her financially getting her PhD now, and when she’s done she’ll have a permanent job with them as a researcher. Seasonal work isn’t for everybody – there are pros and cons for sure!

  2. Such an amazing life experience!

    There was a bit in there where it sounded like the Mexican fisherman story where you had a life a lot of FIRE folks (myself included) strive for when they hit their number, only to get a job to earn enough to eventually get back at it. The story is sadly not really attainable, so I understand the need to get a job and nest egg to make the vagabonding thing more permanent. Regardless, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I like your comparison to the Mexican fisherman story – I loved what I did, but I know having a little more stability will make it less stressful my next go-round!

Comments are closed.