How I’ve Paid Off $29,000 In Debt By Living In a Van

Michelle’s quick note: Today, I have a great article from Sarah of Tiny Van Big Living about how living in a van is saving her money. She has paid off $29,000 in debt so far by living in a van and is working on paying off the rest. I heard her story and I asked her…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 25, 2023

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Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideasMichelle’s quick note: Today, I have a great article from Sarah of Tiny Van Big Living about how living in a van is saving her money. She has paid off $29,000 in debt so far by living in a van and is working on paying off the rest. I heard her story and I asked her to share it with all of you. Enjoy this #vanlife article!

Hello there, my name is Sarah, and I currently live in a tiny van full-time! I am a traveling Occupational Therapist who has taken on the minimalist lifestyle, in order to pay off student loans and gain more experiences while doing so.

May 2016, I decided to make a leap from a spacious two bedroom apartment in Los Angeles to full-time living in a van in Alaska. This decision was not made overnight. It evolved over time when I became more knowledgeable about minimal lifestyle and personal finance. I have been living full-time in a 2010 Ford Transit Connect for over a year now and have no plans to return to standard housing anytime soon!

Van life and RV-related content:

 

Why am I living in a van?

As a traveling healthcare professional, I typically work contracts at healthcare facilities for 13 weeks at a time. The decision to downsize was initially derived from my inherent laziness. You see, I love traveling but loathe moving.

The thought of having to do less work each time I moved was highly motivating.

Related: The Honest Truth About Van Dwelling: Answers To The Most Common Van Life Questions

 

Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideas

To save money

My first three years (before Vanny), I would pay for short-term furnished housing which was very expensive. Most of the time I found the housing myself and it cost anywhere from $1600-2900 a month. I could think of so many better ways to spend my money so I quickly began brainstorming alternate options. The revolution of tiny house/home living that I had been reading about had me very intrigued.

I started to become more concerned with finances after working as an OT for a few years. I work primarily with older adults and it’s terrifying how many people are ill prepared to get old and sick. The quality of life of those older adults who are well prepared and not prepared at all, is night and day. It breaks my heart to work with older patients who need continued care but are being forced out of facilities and cannot afford the care they need. This typically results in further decline, constant rehospitalizations, and a really miserable experience for the patient. Seeing this situation time and time again made me became a lot more serious about becoming more financially responsible to avoid situations like this as an older adult.

I originally wanted a travel trailer but after some research, I realized the upfront cost of a travel trailer would take a few years to break even. I decided it would be better to place cost as the priority when deciding a mobile living situation.

 

To have more adventures

Being born and raised on the famous “Jersey Shore”, I have spent many days on the beach. Everyone loves a stroll on the beach, but then I moved to Arizona and California for travel jobs in 2014. I started hiking and quickly fell in love with it.

The phrase “great outdoors” is truly an understatement and I became addicted to spending as much time exploring outside as possible. I began camping and hiking regularly (hanging out at REI because I mostly had no idea what I was doing), and city (LA) life became more annoying to me by the day. I thought the van would be a perfect “adventure vehicle” that would allow me to spend much more time outdoors and would make camping a lot easier.

Thus, in conclusion, I live in a van in order to have an adventurous and inexpensive lifestyle now and have a more comfortable life in the future. I feel living in a van will help me accomplish this! Read more about why I live in a van here.

 

Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideas

My Van Dwelling Build

Vanny Devito is a 2010 Ford Transit Connect that I purchased in May of 2016.  She is an awesome sufficient tiny van that is my daily driver and home.

Vanny is way smaller than most might think, it’s basically the size of a standard sedan- just taller. She fits into a compact parking spot and gets excellent gas mileage (25 mpg). Driving Vanny feels like any other car, it does not feel like I am driving around a huge van as others might experience with larger vans. Read more details about my van build here.

 

Power and Insulation

My initial conversion cost a little less than $5000. I have Renogy solar panels and an inverter, as well as an auxiliary battery to store power. I have one 100 watt solar panel and 1000 watt inverter. The walls are insulated with reflectix and there is a fantastic vent fan on the roof.

 

Bed

Originally, I had the build out which was essentially a platform bed with storage. As of only a few days ago, I changed that part and I’m very excited about it.

I now have a ‘couch” that pulls out and makes a larger bed (about a twin size). It’s a serious game changer to be able to reach everything in the van without having to go outside to do so. It’s really difficult to know what conversion will work best for you until you actually live in it.

The change only cost me about $300. I approached a few van conversion companies and they all had at least a $10,000 minimum. I decided it definitely wasn’t worth spending that much money. I took a shot and put an ad on craigslist to see if someone could help with this one project. There must have been 20+ legit responses to this job post on craigslist! It was definitely worth $300 to be able to sit and relax more in the van in the “couch mode” instead of pretty much having to lay down whenever I was in the back.

 

Kitchen

My Kitchen is composed of two main components. The first would be a small two burner propane camping stove and a Yeti cooler. I honestly don’t cook too much, never have even living in an apartment. Thus it wasn’t a huge priority for me to have a kitchen. My typical meals are oatmeal, salads, pasta, and anything prepared meals at the grocery store.

 

Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideas

When Van Life is Not Fun

If you search the hashtag “van life” on social media you will find tons and tons of photos of people lounging in the back with majestic mountains or the ocean in their backyard, or some other ridiculous photo. It’s true, there are some days like that for me, but there are also so many just regular mediocre days.

I am a little different than most van dwellers I meet because I have a “regular job” for most of the time. I typically go to a building for 40 hours a week, and don’t have the luxury yet of traveling full time. When I am in between assignments tho, I do get to enjoy this type of freedom.

For the sake of full transparency, getting ready for work every day in a van sucks. It’s hard for me to get out of bed anyway, add it being cold or having to go outside to use the bathroom it’s even harder for me. Its very difficult to control the temperature in my van, so when it’s below freezing at night, it can be difficult to sleep.

 

Is van life really worth it?

Last night it was 16 degrees out. I am so happy I recently purchased a heated blanket because otherwise, I wouldn’t have slept at all. I was grumpy this morning because it was cold and I was having a “why the hell do I live in a van” day. I went to work, had a mediocre day and went to a local coffee shop after to find warmth and work on my computer a bit.

It’s the end of the month so I can make my “extra debt” payments for the month. I am excited when I get to make the extra $1800 payment to my loans this month which is $500 more of an extra payment than last month.I smile and assure myself that the girl this morning was just a wus and it was all worth it.Now I am having an “I’m so happy I live in a van day.”

As you can see, there are definitely some days where I wish I didn’t live in a van but it’s few and far between. I think this is mostly because I made minimal spending my biggest factor when determining my van and build. I’m sure if I had a bigger Van with a heater that I could stand up in I would have most of these days, but it’s just not a priority right now.

 

Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideas

 

Am I really saving much more money than living in an apartment?

Living tiny comes with a certain automatic decrease in expenses. Previously I had to establish short-term furnished housing for work which could cost anywhere from $1600-2800 a month. Aside from the high cost, there is also a risk with short-term housing. I would have to sign a lease for at least 3 months in most cases.

I am a contract worker, thus I basically fill a short-term need for whatever reason. If the facility hired a permanent Occupational Therapist or census dropped, my contract may get cut short. If I am unable to find another contract in the area I would still be responsible for paying 3 months rent no matter what. This has only happened once to me but it’s very frustrating and can be incredibly costly.

Now, I typically stay at campgrounds. Campgrounds monthly rates are usually reasonable and allow month to month payments. I don’t require any hookups ( I have solar power) so I can usually get an even lower rate. I have also posted ads on craigslist and parked on people’s properties for monthly fees as well. My “rent” while on assignment in the past year has ranged from $200/mo to $450/mo. Thus this is over $1000 savings in rent per month! I do not have hookups so I do not pay for utilities.

Vanny is much better on gas mileage than my prior car, so that’s an automatic $50-100 a month.  When traveling in between assignments or exploring on my days off I can almost always boondock (camp for free), which saves me tons of money as well. I recently spent three weeks driving from Alaska to Colorado, I saved hundreds of dollars by not needing to stay in hotels!

Related: How To Camp For Free, Even In Beautiful and Desirable Places

 

Van life is helping Sarah pay off her debt. Click here to learn more about living in a van and how she built her van dwelling. #vanlife #vandwelling #vanlifehacks #vanlifeDIY #vanlifeideas

The not so obvious ways van life saves me money

There are more subtle ways I am saving money by living tiny. The days of wondering around Marshalls or Target and just filling a basket are over. Whenever I buy something, I seriously consider it.

The first question is do I NEED this? The next is where am I going to put this?

Space is minimal in Vanny so I really need to think about something before I purchase.  I have 5 work outfits that I rotate and then about 3 pairs of pants and 8-10 shirts. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything that wasn’t food, gas, or toiletries.

 

Should you start living in a van?

I think most people could benefit from living a more minimalist lifestyle. If you googled minimalism right now you’d find a plethora of articles of all the benefits of living a more simplistic lifestyle. I obviously take living tiny perhaps a bit to the extreme but it fits really well with my current lifestyle.

Living more minimal could be as simple as emptying a storage unit, decluttering, moving down in car, or going out to eat less.

 

Things to consider before you begin living in a van or other tiny home

So if you decide that living in a tiny home is the best choice for you, I have some suggestions. These tips will help you really narrow down what type of tiny living dwelling (such as a van dwelling) might work best for you.

  • Needs- I would suggest starting with a simple list of what you need and then what you want in a tiny home. For me; needs were solar power, storage, minimal cost, and mobile. Other needs might be toilet/shower, heater, air conditioning, etc. This list may alter throughout your process but it’s a good foundation to start with. This will also help limit your choices as there are so many options for tiny living ; ie tiny homes, vans, RVs, trailers, etc.
  • Conveniences– Sometimes people email or ask me about what it takes to live in a van. I always say this really depends on the type of van or tiny dwelling you choose. Mine is VERY minimal. To live in a van like mine you would have to be very okay with having minimal convenience. For example, I typically shower at a campground or gym, thus I have to plan these. When I stay with friends or am at my parent’s house, I think it such a luxury to be able to take a shower whenever I want. As mentioned before you would need to decide what conveniences are necessary for you and which you could live without.
  • Mobility– Most people want to go tiny to be able to travel more but this is not always necessary. A tiny house is mobile but my van is much more mobile. There is a big difference between driving a van and hiring a tow to move a tiny home. If mobility is important to you, it’s very important to consider how often you will want to move.
  • Power Supply– The power supply was something I had to seriously consider when making plans for my van home.  I knew I required enough power to run a small heater/computer/ and lights. If you plan on only needing items like a cell phone charged this won’t be a huge concern. If not I would suggest paying attention to how much power your tiny home can provide.
  • Cost– The general rule is that larger and more amenities the tiny home, the more it will cost you. Keep in mind that if your home needs hookups this will cost you more as one that does not. This also would require that you would need to stay at a campground in order to use anything that requires power. If the rig you choose does not require power you can boondock (camp for free) very easily.

 

You don’t have to live in a van to experience minimalism

Lastly, minimalism doesn’t mean you need to live in an RV or a van. It’s a lifestyle movement based on living with only what you need.  I know those who live in inexpensive apartments in less desirable parts of town to reach financial goals. I know people who live with multiple roommates to get ahead. I chose to live in a van , but there are many ways to accomplish financial and life goals.

I started my blog Tiny Van Big Living to document my travels and contribute to a community that I feel is very welcoming and awesome!. The point of me writing about van life is not to suggest everyone live in a van. I have three main messages; experiences over things, you can live any life you choose, and even an overwhelming amount of student loan debt can be conquered. When I started my repayment plan in 2013, I thought this would be apart of my life until way into my 50s. Now from some education and inspiring stories from others I have a plan to pay it off in 3.5-4 years, and that is incredibly motivating. If you could take away anything from my story I hope it’s that, you NEED to be prepared for the future and being financially responsible will increase your quality of life significantly.

What do you think of living in a van? Could you do van life?


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Good for you going to such great lengths to pay off your debt. How long do you plan to continue van life for? Do you love it and think you will continue once you are in a better financial position? Or is it a sacrifice to accomplish a goal?

    1. Sarah@ Tiny Van Big Living

      Hey Jason! Living this way is a sacrifice but it’s helping me accelerate at reaching my financial goals. I will definitely live in the van as long as it makes the most sense financially for me. I suppose one day I may wake up and not think it is worth it anymore but for now, it’s working for my current lifestyle. If I were to continue living in a van full time after reaching my financial goals I would probably want to upgrade to be more comfortable. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Sarah! I’m glad van life has been working out for you.

    I appreciate you shared the not so great aspects of living in a van. You’re absolutely correct that almost every post I’ve seen about van life has such beautiful pictures that I want to try the lifestyle myself. Best of luck with your future endeavors!

  3. Precious @ LoveNancials

    What? I never knew van lifestyle could be fun and I’m glad it’s working for you!

    I love being frugal and living the minimalist life but sometimes things eats up our money even without we knowing, I’m happy you have been frugal by living in a van!

    Aaaand Sarah! Do you intend to settle down in a house fulltime (in the future)?

    1. Sarah@ Tiny Van Big Living

      Thank you for reading! Some other traveling healthcare professionals ask me very detailed questions about how much money I save. I tell them it’s important to crunch the numbers and pay attention so you’re not spending more money and defeating the purpose!

      Yes eventually I do plan to live in a house. I have no idea what that house may look like lol but I’ve been dreaming about some type of tiny sustainable long-term dwelling when the time comes :).

  4. Thanks for sharing your story and amazing pics! Financial freedom comes from making sacrifices in some areas, while still enjoying and thriving in others. You seem to be mastering this – enjoy the ride!

  5. Look at the bright side. You built your side hustle business, you endured tough times, and prospered. Don’t you have such a testimony and much to be thankful for? ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hey DNN – is this comment for Sarah?

      1. Oh yes, Michelle. Sarah’s wrote the article I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. You’re welcome, Sarah. Stay inspired! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Good for you for taking the steps to paying down debt and a minimalist lifestyle. The logic and reasoning behind it make sense to me, although I am not sure I could do it myself. I have read similar stories and glad to see you point out the ” not so fun” side of van living. Best of luck to you.

  7. brian @ singledadmoney

    Sarah,

    This is an awesome story. I love reading about vanlife and I’ve been minimalist years ago, not so much now, but I’m planning to getting back to my roots. Nice job being motivated by the thought of paying off your student loans in a couple years.

    Brian

  8. Van life sounds interesting, but there is no way that I could do it in the winter. I pretty much hate cold weather. I’d be miserable every day. Saving the money would be good though.

    1. Sarah@ Tiny Van Big Living

      lol yes being cold is not my favorite part. I often prefer to stay in mild weather!

  9. Sara

    I think if I was single I could definitely do the digital nomad thing. Traveling around the USA is a big goal for me and a van such as yours would be an awesome way to see the country. While we do not live in a tiny home (and actually just increased our square footage) my husband and I are living much more intentionally than we have in the past.

    1. Sarah@ Tiny Van Big Living

      Sounds awesome! I think any USA road trip would be awesome with some type of campervan or RV. Congrats, keep it up ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Tyisha @ debtstodiamonds

    Wow, that’s awesome! i’d love to live in a van for at least a week, to experience it! Thanks for sharing!!

  11. WOW… That’s brave story. You are quite adventurous. I would also like to try to stay in van for a week. Let’s see. :p

  12. This is so inspiring! I don’t think I could live in a Van, especially with a husband and child, BUT we don’t plan on living in a huge house either. We will try to live as small and minimalistic as possible because we really don’t NEED half of the things people say they do lol. Congrats for being able to make such a big change AND paying off so much debt!

  13. shahbaz

    There is no way that I could do it in the winter. I pretty much hate cold weather. Iโ€™d be miserable every day. Saving the money would be good though

  14. A very inspiring story indeed and thanks for sharing with us.

  15. Audrey

    Wow! Kudos to this woman for getting stuff done, whatever it takes.

  16. Josh Vander Werff

    Sara, awesome insight. I’m a PTA looking to travel and possibly use van life to help pursue financial goals. My only question would be do you stay in Alaska for the summers then try to come to the lower 48 in the winter? I’m going to rent a van for a couple weeks and see how things go at my first rotation. Looking in the cooler parts of the country for this summer. And do you think you will get most of your money back when you eventually sell the van?

    1. Sarah

      Hi Josh, It may not be cost-effective to go back and forth. Although companies can “reimburse” you for travel in between assignments it is not really extra money. It is all from the same pot of money, in other words, you would get the same amount of money traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks for an assignment as you would traveling from Seattle to Fairbanks, it’s just labeled differently. Going to and from the lower 48 and Alaska cost me $1100 and I stayed in my Van and cooked most meals in the van too. I would actually recommend staying for a year and just renting a cheap room for the cold months this is what I did! I think I will get most of my money back when its time to sell the van. The van is very small and inexpensive so I think someone would pay for it as a small camper/adventure mobile! Thanks for reading.

  17. lorraine

    Thank you for this inspiring and encouraging post. Like you im also in the field of healthcare and struggling for financial freedom that i want before I get old. I understand your sentiments when old patients are need to move out to a facility due to lack of money.

    1. Sarah

      Hi Loraine, healthcare burnout is real. It may be time for a change, and try to remember why you joined this field in the first place :).

    2. Sarah

      Hi Lorrain, working with the older adult population has really opened my eyes. I hope you find the type of job that works better for you!

  18. Hey Sarah!! This just popped up on my feed! Such an amazing post!!! Thanks for all of the resources and inspiration that you give the travel healthcare community!

    1. Sarah

      Thanks Julia, same to you ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Jennifer

    Thank you for all sides to a story, not just the glamorous view. I appreciate the honesty. I am so glad to see the younger generations understand that there’s another ‘American Dream’ out there & it’s not a boat load of house debt where the banks are getting wealthier. I’m mid 50s & we are 3 years new to the travel trailer concept & contemplating 50% travel soon. There is so much land out there to explore! Like Dave Ramsey says, ‘Live today like no one else so you can live later like no one else!’ Do it while you’re young people! ๐Ÿ˜‰