Ask a Genius: How to budget for a walk across America



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published September 26, 2018 | 5 min read

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Army veteran Jake Sansing became homeless in 2013. He decided to walk across America, raising awareness and money for charities, including the Wounded Warrior Project and Shot at Life. He ended up traversing the country three times, covering 10,000 miles while battling post-traumatic stress disorder, knee problems and a diagnosis of liver cancer.

He also wrote and self-published a book: "Jake Does America: 10,000 Mile Trek," which he sells out of his backpack while on yet another cross-country journey. We talked to Sansing about how he survives on the road and what his travels have taught him.

Our conversation with Jake Sansing is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people.

How did you first become homeless?

I opened a recording studio after I got out of the Army, but later shut it down and began working from home to save money. I lost a lot of my customers when I did that and was forced to live out of my car until I found a new job and cheaper rent. It was maybe two weeks later when a tornado came through and tossed a tree on my car. No car means no job. No job means no house. (Read our guide to car insurance for veterans.)

How did you pay for medical care when you had knee problems & cancer?

I still haven’t had any work done on my knees, but my cancer treatment was handled by (Veterans Affairs). I have insurance now but didn’t at the time. Not that it’s the best insurance, but it’s better than nothing. I pay for it myself. I'm not on anyone else's plan or get it from an employer.

How do you distribute your book from the road?

My books are printed by Amazon. Twenty at a time, I have them shipped to the nearest post office. Then I load them into a second backpack, which I strap across my chest, and walk around selling them to people on the streets. It’s difficult to start conversations with people on the streets, though. Especially when you’re carrying a couple of backpacks. That’s why I have two signs, one on the back and one on the front, that read, “Walking America. Ask about my book.”

I also autograph and ship them to people all over the world. I have them send the money through PayPal, then I wrap the books with shipping paper and drop them off at the post office. It probably sounds harder than it is, but I’ve shipped about 4,000 books this way and have had no issues.

How do you budget?

I’m really cheap, but only because I have to be. I even stopped eating just to save money. If I didn’t sell at least two books in a day, I wouldn’t eat unless it was something that I hunted or foraged. I did that for a whole year and was finally able to buy a Jeep, but the transmission went out so I’m back at square one. The only things I really pay for is my phone bill, food, insurance and my books.

I guess you could say that I splurge on my phone. It’s kind of expensive to pay for unlimited data, but I work from my phone, so it pays for itself so long as I don’t slack on my sales. Oh, and coffee, but I buy coffee with the change that I pick up during my walks.

What have your travels taught you about money?

Everyone always asks me about money. People often assume that I’m either loaded, pocketing money from the charities (which is impossible because it goes straight to them) or begging for change on a corner. The truth is, I spend about $500 a year and I make that by finding odd jobs (ranch hand, helping people move, making and selling hunting equipment, construction, etc.)

How do I feel about it? I think we’d all be better off with less. Money makes people crazy. I’ve never bought anything that I actually need. You might say, “Well, you need food,” but there’s a thing called hunting. “What about guns? You have to buy a gun.” I don’t hunt with guns. I craft my own atlatls or bows. “What about your backpack?” That’s true. I bought my backpack, but I would have made one if I had to.

From your head down to your feet, money just makes everything convenient, but was it worth it? The only thing I’ve ever needed money for was medical care. Every charity that I’ve helped to raise money for was to help cover medical expenses. If our taxes went toward free healthcare I think more people would feel like their work has some meaning.

I feel as though the argument about money will never end. I also think the less you have and the less you worry about it, the less of an impact it will have on your life. As far as I’m concerned, every penny in the world could disappear and I wouldn’t give a damn. Until then, I’m just holding on to a sinking boat like everyone else. The only difference is, I know how to swim.

Where do you expect to be a year from now?

Hopefully, I'll be living on the road out of a van. I really want to be able to put backpacks together for people. I'm not going to be able to do that without a vehicle. That brings us back to that question about money, doesn't it? I know. It's terrible. Maybe I'll get sick of worrying about it and wander off into the mountains. Who knows?

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Image: Jake Sansing