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 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:
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- Common RV Questions – Yes, I Even Talk About What We Do With #2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! Read more about my road trip here.
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?