Update: Ken Ilgunas, a van dweller and featured in this article, recently published his experiences in a wonderful, detailed book called: Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom.
Seemingly borne from Walden Pond, a new movement that converges minimalism with frugality is upon us. More and more students are choosing to live in cars, vans, and automobiles to skip the rent and save a boatload. In this era of debt and student loan worries, saving $400 to $700 per month looks plenty appetizing, but should you consider it?
“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Over the years, I entertained the idea of moving into my car (or buying a van) to avoid the monthly punishment of the rent check. A variety of factors prevented me from ever going through with it. The biggest concern was for my safety. If somebody found out you were living in a van or saw what was inside, they may be tempted to rob the vehicle (whether you’re inside or not). On top of that, it can be legally questionable to park a vehicle and live out of it.
About a year ago, a college friend started sharing on Facebook about his recent decision to move into a van for his senior year. Now, he’s a week away from graduating and saying goodbye to the lifestyle. The crazier piece: He’s not alone (Read the Thor-eauvian van-dwelling experiment in NYTimes). This is a movement towards extreme debt reduction and an attempt to attack the status quo of poverty via education.
With the debt collector ready to pounce, maybe it’s time to get proactive. College is only getting more expensive, as state budgets are being slashed and the students’ share of tuition becomes more burdensome. But before you go for it, here are five points to consider:
1. Big Savings
No doubt, this is the biggest reason to extricate yourself from the bounds of four walls. Utilities and pointless tchotchkes be gone! As mentioned earlier, this could save you anywhere from about 400 to 700 dollars per month (depending on where you live), plus electricity costs. Even cooking costs plummet, as your options for food diminish. Most van-dwellers have some sort of backpacking and camping experience. Knowing how to use a portable, backpacking stove or gas can is key to cooking warm meals. And while you can cook, most of it will likely be soup. Get used to it. Most of the furniture we fill our homes with won’t fit. Selling the extras and/or avoiding the purchase can keep more money in your pocket.
Savings: $400+ per month.
2. Little Space
This would obviously depend on the “living quarters” that you choose. I can imagine campers being a relatively easy way to live, but many are choosing cheaper options. For about 1,000 to 2,000 dollars, students can buy a beat up, junker, passenger van. While they may not be reliable or start whenever you like, you can usually fit a bed, chair, food, and clothing inside.
Cost: $1,000-2,000 (one time).
3. Questionable Hygiene
Living in a van down by the school might suggest shower-free weeks and body-odor-ridden clothing, but that doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Campuses tend to have great recreational facilities that have showers. Usually, if you’re a student, you can just swipe your ID and you’re free to shower and prep for the day. Laundry facilities tend to dot the landscape of college towns, and as long as you can transport your laundry to one of them, you’re fine. By using public facilities for showering and cleaning, you’ll be saving money and being green, which would otherwise go to utilities.
Savings: ~$50-60 per month.
4. Mostly Safe
Living in an unguarded shelter is a daunting task, and seems to attract more men than women (perhaps for obvious reasons). In a way, a vehicle is no different from an apartment – someone could break into either one of them and rob you. But a vehicle is open to dangers from police, crooks, and environmental (flooding, storms, etc.) considerations that you generally avoid in formal housing.
Cost: Possibly your sanity.
5. Sometimes Connected
Being connected means far more than having Wi-Fi, Internet, and electricity. Fundamentally, it’s about human connection and the comforts of a social life. By choosing this lifestyle, it might preclude certain friendships and relationships from developing. It’s hard to invite guests over to your van for more than just the voyeuristic spectacle. As for mail, getting a P.O. box or choosing a friend’s address can work. Going to campus or the library can be your perfect way to study and surf the web, as well.
Cost: As low as $14 (for P.O. Box).