building while broke

Social media is filled with tons of gorgeous custom skoolie/van builds. Vehicles built with live edge epoxy counters, handmade tile, three-figure composting toilets, are commonplace. But the reality is, many people venture into conversion life because they are not in a great place financially. That being the case, many people feel like this lifestyle is out of reach because of the costs, but conversions don’t have to be money pits. Below I will discuss a few of the ways to do a build on a shoestring budget.


In most conversion budgets, a huge chunk goes to tools. People usually go all-in on a multi-piece toolset right off the bat. That can be a large initial investment especially if you just dropped a chunk of change on a vehicle for your conversion. In my experience, while it is great to have a tool for every instance, the very minimum necessary tools are a drill driver or impact driver, a pack of drill bits, and a cutting tool (e.g. jigsaw, circle saw etc.).

If you decide to go the ownership route, one way to ease the sting of these purchases is to look for deals, wait for holidays that will likely bring sales. Be a savvy shopper.

But if you find yourself unable to afford these items or in need of additional tools, a wonderful resource to ease these costs is to join a tool library. A tool library is exactly what it sounds like, a library but a place to borrow tools. Typically, a yearly membership fee is required, but in my area, the memberships were extremely reasonable and merely suggestions, and could be altered to fit a budget as tool libraries are intended to be community resources, not profitable businesses. They are scattered across the country and if you are lucky enough to have access to one, it can save you hundreds in tool purchases/rentals.

No tool library in your area? Ask around. Lots of people have garages or sheds full of tools that they don’t mind lending out. Just make sure to treat it like it’s your own.

The beauty of access rather than ownership is that you do not need a huge space to house tools, you do not need to purchase and store tools you will likely only use for a single project, and you are not liable for the upkeep or repair of a tool if it breaks while you own it.

2. waste nothing (Reuse, repurpose, recycle)

Before you pull up to a big box hardware store and empty your wallet for a load of lumber, hold up a second. The more you build furniture, the more you will understand that the base shape of much furniture is boxes (e.g. bed frames, cabinetry, or shelving). While a lot of build layouts demand custom-built furniture, adapting pre-fabricated furniture to either break down for materials or simply reuse is a great way to keep costs down.

Think about places near you where people are constantly coming and going such as college neighborhoods or campuses. Driving around these areas you are likely to find quality furniture that can be picked up for free from the sidewalk.

Don’t forget, it’s not always about acquiring things, sometimes it’s about making the most of what you already have. When you are deconstructing materials, save whatever fasteners you remove to be used later. Think twice before you toss something in the trash. Try to be creative about how you could use something in a current or future project.

For example, buses are full of wires you will most likely not use. Wires to lights that legally you can’t use, wires to the stop sign on the side that you aren’t allowed to use, wires to speakers that you may or may not want to use. Don’t just remove and scrap them. They can be reused when it comes time to wire your own appliances.

plants in front of a sunny school bus window

3. go find your jim (tap into community)

In the so many skoolie journeys I followed online before embarking on my own, it seemed like everyone would have some random guy named Jim with killer welding or construction or electrical skills. I used to enviously think “I wish I knew a Jim!”. Jims are wonderful people with great skills and super willing to help people out (also not always male or named Jim). Search for these resources around you.

Talk to people about your projects, be open with your challenges. Lots of times you may have someone in your network or not far outside of it. Offer them dinner or drinks, in exchange for sharing their time to answer your questions. Find someone at your local hardware store who knows what they’re doing and doesn’t mind talking to you. Something I was quite astounded with is how willing people are to share their knowledge and efforts. And shockingly just by being open and talking to people, I’ve met a few Jims along the way! If you don’t find any luck in person the online community is also a great place to get insight, just make sure all advice is cross researched and confirmed! If you find yourself lucky enough to have a Jim for a friend, don’t treat them like a human google search bar. Cultivate and care for your community and it will do the same.