Transitioning to Vanlife

I have never been very interested in obtaining a horde of material goods. I am content with living a more simple day-to-day existence. Getting a brand new car, the latest new shoes, or renting a lavish apartment just wouldn’t be me. One of my first thoughts would be, “what else could I spend this money on that would bring more value to my life?”

I was lucky enough to be the first person in my family to attend university. The first year costs were covered by grants and my parents. The years that followed though, I had to cover myself. This involved taking out tens of thousands of dollars of student loans, and even stacking up some credit card debt in order to cover the costs of my books and a laptop for class.

After graduation, I accepted an internship that took me to Seoul and Manila. It was a short term contract and just covered the cost of living and minimum payments on my credit card for the 6 months I was there. Upon returning to the US, I had to begin paying off my student loans. I worked with my father for the summer, doing drain and sewer cleaning, in order to get by. While I knew it wasn’t my career path, I really valued all the time I got to spend with my father that summer.

After that, I worked as a data technician and then as a support technician for a software company. Both of these positions were less that full time(so that they didn’t have to provide me with healthcare benefits), so it was difficult to pay off my debt at the time.

That being said, at the time, I definitely spent money on things I wanted, in place of just paying off chunks of my debt. A 3 month trip to Colombia, 2 season tickets for Detroit City FC, and a newer laptop to help start a blog. I could have used that money to wipe out my credit card debt, but I didn’t, and I am honestly happy with that decision, since I had so many amazing experiences in both Colombia and Detroit.

Fast-forward to January 2015, and I had just moved to Los Angeles. My mother’s cousin offered me a place to stay on his sailboat down in San Pedro, while I was getting set up with my life out here. A few days after arrival, I was offered an eSports position, paying $1,000 a month. I was incredibly excited to be working in the videogame industry, so I accepted the offer as soon as it came through.

I was still paying the minimums on my credit card and student loans, but I was doing work I enjoyed and living on the west coast. That was something I had dreamed of since I was younger.

I worked 40-70 hour weeks for the first few months, just getting the company ready for launch, always eager to learn and improve whenever possible. Around this time, I made it my goal to improve my credit. I downloaded a pretty great free app called Credit Karma, and was able to see everything, including tips on how to improve my credit.

I was sitting at a credit score of about 580, and I had two negative marks on my credit history; one was an error and something that wasn’t accurate, and the second was from my time abroad. My old roommate was supposed to pay the final month of utilities after I sent him the money, but he just never did. Since it was in my name, it unfortunately hit my own credit. I found out that I would be able to improve my score tremendously by just continually making payments on time and by lowering my credit card balance.

After about 4 months of living on a sailboat, I had to find a new place to live. I looked at other liveaboard situations, but ended up settling on a living situation that was much closer to work, and quite reasonably priced. The only catch was that I would be renting out a living room in someone else’s 2 Bedroom apartment and that would be my residence for 6 months.

I never spent much time at home when I lived there, since there was never much comfort in being there. It was mostly just a place to sleep, shower, and eat. During my time there, my salary got cut to $700 per month. With rent at just over $400 per month, I was cutting it close, trying to manage my student loan payments, credit card payments, and still finding money to eat.

I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and didn’t have the money to do anything besides work and attend the occasional LCS event. Lets just say that during those months, I probably ate my weight in ramen.

In the fall, I was officially given new responsibilities at work. I had picked up the slack when the team lead had left, and I took over that role to ensure projects were done efficiently and finished on time. Along with the official increase in responsibilities, I was given a bump in pay as well, so I was finally making above minimum wage.

At the time, I thought that what I wanted was to find an apartment with a room of my own. I spent a month living on my cousin’s living room floor in North Hollywood during my search. I found a guy looking to sublease out the second room in his apartment and after meeting him, I thought it was perfect. The cost was just over half of my income, and I thought I would be fine with that.

After 3 months, I came to the realization that I was blowing way too much of my money with no real return. The thing I spent the most money on each month, was a room I still only spent sleeping hours in. I struggled to find a more reasonably priced apartment in Los Angeles, the one I was living in was considered cheap by LA standards.

January of this year was one of the most stressful months of my entire life. After making the realization that I had almost zero money in the bank, credit cards close to maxed, and just barely getting by, I decided to make a change.

I had spent over a month researching van-dwelling. It is a term used for someone who lives in their van instead of paying for monthly rent in a traditional apartment. Some people resort to van dwelling out of necessity, and some do it in order to better accomplish their goals or connect with nature and travel a bit. The subreddit r/vandwellers and #vanlife on Instagram became my inspiration. I tuned in on a daily basis to keep looking into the options and hear stories from other people who have made a similar transition. Web developers, business owners, vagabondes, and everything in between were abundant. It made it seem like a bulletproof idea. Why hadn’t I done this earlier?!

I found a cheap van on Craigslist that was actually walking distance from my then-current apartment. I immediately set up a time to go over and check out the van.

The interior wasn’t in the best condition and the outside had some issues, but the engine seemed to run just fine, and I could make changes later. My main interest in this particular van was the low cost and the heightened ceiling. I was able to stand up straight inside with no problem, at 6 feet tall, that’s pretty convenient.

I spoke with the owner and told him that I wanted the van, but wanted a trusted mechanic to check out the engine for me since I am not well trained when it comes to vehicles. I had been using a local shop to get tires and shocks changed recently, so I went with them. They said that it ran quite well for an ‘83, but the engine was covered in oil. They recommended I get the engine steam cleaned and give it a few days so they could see if there was a leak or if it was just oil buildup from maintenance over time.

That ended up costing me around 160 dollars, and I didn’t even own the van at this point. I didn’t actually have any assurance that the owner was going to sell it to me at all. This is a step that some people may have skipped, but I wanted to give myself peace of mind. In the end, the shop gave me the thumbs up and I made an offer of $1700 on the van. By the 29th of January, he accepted the offer and I had the van in my possession, and on the 30th I moved all of my things out of the apartment and into it.

On the 31st, I moved the van to the neighborhood that my office was in. I work in a residential neighborhood, where only about half of the residences have driveways, so there is free street parking for several blocks with alternating street cleaning dates. As long as I am aware of where I am parking and mix it up between a few spots each week, then I expect that I will have no major problems.

That night was the first one I spent in the van. It was much colder than I expected that first evening, considering I was in Los Angeles. No worries, I just bundled up and slept under several blankets.

The total cost of the van, including the engine cleaning and mechanic’s checkup came out to $1950. In comparison, this was just over what I would pay for two months of rent and utilities in my apartment. If I were to take the security deposit into account, it would be just a few hundred more than my first month in the apartment.

I almost immediately broke even and have since been able to do a lot to stabilize my personal finances. More than just financial freedom, the emotional freedom this change has allowed is incredible. The major stressors in my life had seemed to melt away, and I was left with a new adventure to look forward to and the perfect vindication.

Originally published on Restless Reserve.