One Year of Van Life
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In July of 2016, I picked up my new van from Southern California and headed north. A year later I find myself living full time in a van enjoying my last few weeks in Alaska. It has been a year of mistakes, fun, and learning. Here is a reflection on the past year of life in a tiny van.
One of the main reasons I started this whole lifestyle was to make a nice dent in my debt. I am happy to write that I am really starting to turn my finances around. Now that I have a much better understanding of loans, credit, and student loans I am a little embarrassed to report that a year ago I had somehow managed to rack up $12,000 of credit card debt. I originally was trying to do “travel hacking” using points to get free travel and such. This really only works if you pay off the entire amount every month. Using multiple credit cards for most expenses makes it more difficult to stay on top of your spending and to stay in control. I’m sure some people can handle this, but I obviously cannot. When I first started living vanlife I really didn’t have a specific plan; each month I would pay how much I thought I would be spending on rent and threw some money at my student loans, car loans, and some at my credit cards.
With no clear plan, it was difficult to really see if I was making a difference. Sometime in February, I read The Total Money Makeover by David Ramsey and learned about the debt snowball method. Something about it just clicked and provided me with a specific plan to follow to get a better hold of my financial situation. After 2 months I had paid off and canceled all my credit cards except one. I kept my only one with 0% interest rate and no fees. I only use it for travel as I have a horror story from using a debit card in Aruba. I pay off the card right away whenever I use it and it is MUCH easier for me to keep track and stay on top of only one. In the past year, I have also paid off a smaller student loan. It was exciting! When I called to make the last payment to the bank, the lady yelled “Woo! Congratulations!”. Overall, I have decreased my amount of total debt by $24,000 in the past year. One thing that has slowed down the process of aggressively paying off my debt is taking off in between assignments. However, I find that time getting to travel and to spend time with family and friends worth it. Check out the book here, and more from his website. I do not follow his plan explicitly as I still have one credit card but the debt snowball technique I do follow. I also use the Every Dollar app every month for my budget, which is SO easy to use. I also find it helpful to use Personal Capital to track my net worth; it’s really exciting to watch my net worth grow as I pay off more and more debt. I hope next year I have a better report on my financial situation.
Vanlife Sucks Sometimes
Sometimes Vanlife is not fun. I’ve gone into detail regarding this topic in My Vanlife Fails. I have realized that sometimes you just need a real bathroom and sometimes the weather just won’t allow you to live comfortably. You definitely have to be flexible and willing to adapt and overcome challenges as they arrive. I do really love a couch and as much as I know it’s a waste of money, I really do enjoy cable. I think there is something relaxing about flipping through channels after a long day of work. Probably about once a month I wish I had a couch and TV to return to at the end of the day. There’s also the issue of only being able to really sit or lay down in the van, sometimes you just want to stand up. This is fine when the weather is cooperative but when it’s not, I can find myself a little restless.
I’m still Lazy
So, I have all this awesome storage space under my bed that I do use. However, I like to have everything I use regularly within reach. What this translates to is me sleeping on one side of the bed and having the other side occupied by (but not limited to): random clothes, toiletries, snacks, computer, DVDs, etc. I have a hard time putting things back. Seriously, what is wrong with me? I only really address this if someone will be staying with me or I get to the point I cannot stand it anymore. I have to say Vanlife can be challenging for the disorganized folk like myself.
Things I have learned
It’s okay to live in a van alone if you are a female.
Besides hygiene, this is probably people’s biggest concern when I tell someone my living situation. I’d be lying if I said living alone in a car wasn’t sometimes a scary thought, but I never felt more vulnerable because I am a female. I have pretty much always had a similar attitude regarding traveling as a female. When I was meeting older couples RVing on the road, “You’re traveling by yourself (gasp)?” I can’t help but wonder if people would ask me that if I were a boy. I really don’t fully understand where this mentality comes from but it’s not true. If someone assumes that I am more vulnerable than a man, that’s just simply false. I do my best to avoid sketchy situations. I have a weapon if needed and I don’t stay in spots that don’t seem right. Obviously, anything can happen to anyone but please don’t let the fact that you are a female deter you from solo traveling or living in van/mobile living space.
You need to track your grocery/eating out expenses
I really don’t like cooking (even in a “real” kitchen) but it’s even less charming cooking outside for me. I eat a lot of cereal, pasta, and soup. The worst part about cooking outside is cleaning up without running water. It’s so convenient to just grab a sandwich to go but it sneakily adds up. As stated before, one of my main driving reasons to live in a van is to have a better financial situation. So, spending tons of money on food is not helping. I try to only go out to eat for social situations and try to cook as much as I can to cut down on eating out.
You need to care for your van
This is not just your daily driver, it’s your home. If/when it breaks down, it can be a real hassle. This is one of my biggest fears. I take Vanny for regular oil changes and get the manufacture recommended service recommendations completed. I like to stay on top of things to keep her running for as long as I need her.
There is no need to push you and your van’s limits
Like I posted in my Vanlife Fails, Alaska winter was a real bitch to me and Vanny! From getting stuck in snow once every two weeks to attempting to sleep in a -18 degree weather. Sometimes you just have to do what’s the smartest and not what you want. It wasn’t feasible for me to return to the lower 48 at this time so I had to stay, thus renting a room for the cold months was worth it. If the roads were terrible I rescheduled appts or called off work, it wasn’t worth putting myself in a dangerous situation.
People seem to want to help
When people learn that I live in a van and the reason why, they seem to have positive responses. I have gotten the response, “If you ever need to do laundry or shower, come over.” I always tell people, don’t say that if you don’t mean it haha. I have gotten to know people better by using their facilities and grown a greater appreciation for the kindness of strangers turned friends :).
Having a Legit campsite is better than stealth camping
Working full time has been significantly easier having a “legitimate” camp spot instead of stealth camping in parking lots. I have privacy and am able to cook and relax outside or inside with my doors open without freaking people out. I will be willing to pay a reasonable amount for that “luxury” on my next stops.
I Still Want to Live in a Van
It’s been a great year with many challenges but with many more rewards. At this point I am thoroughly enjoying a more simple life. I am excited to see where the next year brings me and Vanny.
What other questions do you have about Van Life?