Living Out of a Van Is the New American Dream
You could spend your youth grinding away at your job, paying rent and hating your life, or you could just say fuck it and move into a van.
Chris Trenschel and Tamara Murray thought they had the perfect life. They both had successful careers—Trenschel was a budget analyst for the city of San Francisco, Murray was the vice president of a PR firm. They got married, bought a condo. They blew cash at cool, trendy places. There was only one problem: "In a nutshell," Murray told me, "we were dead inside."
In order to support themselves, they had to support a work-first everything-else-second lifestyle. After too many nights sitting at home, eating frozen pizza and watching Netflix, it occurred to them: What are we doing?
"We basically felt we were wasting our youth," Murray explained. "Travel, learning about new cultures and meeting new people, having meaningful experiences—that's what is important to us." So they saved up money, quit their jobs, and took the plunge. After traveling for a year in Latin America, they bought a red Kia Sedona minivan and converted it into a camper. Now, they both work remotely—Murray in the communications field as a freelancer, Trenschel operating and promoting e-commerce websites—while they travel around North America and focus on the things that make them happiest.
While vandwelling—living out of vans, cars, or motorhomes, as a lifestyle—was popularized by free-spirited hippies in the 60s, it's seeing a resurgence among millennials. Some, like Rachel Bujalski, who has wandered around California living out of her Corolla and runs a blog for young people unburdened by permanent housing, have even called it the "new American dream."
"I think that vandwelling is become popular now due to its practicality and its lure of adventure," said Zach Frost, a 27-year-old former vandweller. "Many people my age are drowning in student debt, unable to find a job, and don't necessarily want to live with their parents. Living in a van is exciting, allows for mobility, and doesn't cost terribly much." Plus, he said, "being able to live and work remotely anywhere on the globe is making vandwelling seem very attractive."
The promise of greater mobility and more free time compelled Tom Sennett, a 27-year-old game developer, to ditch his job for life in a van. He was making good money as a product manager at a digital agency for mobile apps, but he just wasn't happy.
"I was tired of deferring from my immediate happiness for the sake of long-term goals that I either wasn't committed to or didn't think were going to happen," explained Sennett. "I hated going to work, so I quit."
He gave his two weeks notice, bought a 2002 Dodge Ram conversion van off of Craigslist, and moved out of his apartment in Jersey City. Now, he's making his own video games—including one inspired by his experience, called Hate Your Job. "It's still pretty early going for me, but I don't regret it so far. I am finally putting most of my time towards making games."
The vandwelling life isn't always glamorous: There are plenty of stories about buying water jugs to urinate in, showering at gyms and rec centers, and just generally struggling to meet daily hygiene necessities. Plus, without the structure of a job or a permanent location, vandwelling can get boring. And not everyone chooses to live out of their vehicle for the romantic promise of a freer, more adventure-driven lifestyle.
In 2005, Christine On had bought a condo in Glendale, California, where she was working as an animation and motion graphics director. She wasn't passionate about the job, but she worked 40 hours each week just to keep the condo, an investment she was quickly regretting. A few years later, when her father was diagnosed with dementia, she knew she'd have to relocate to Northern California, where he lived—but she was reluctant to leave the life she'd settled into.
"I didn't want to rent an apartment nearby, I didn't want to move back in with my parents, and I didn't want to sell my condo because, at that time, it was valued at about 60 percent of what I had paid for it originally," On told me. So she made the decision to rent out her condo and move into a 2004 Chevy Express passenger van, which allowed her to keep up with her mortgage and live closer to her family. "As an added bonus, I would be rid of electricity bills, gas bills, and having to clean three bathrooms."
She tricked out the van, adding a bed, running water from an installed water tank, filter, and pump system, and virtually unlimited electricity through a solar power set-up. Despite her initial hesitation, she ended up loving the vandwelling life. "I think part of the reason why living in a van was so appealing was that it didn't matter if I lost my job, if the stock market crashed, or if the housing market crashed—I'd always have a place to live," said On. "Even better, I could live anywhere."
For most millennial vandwellers, the decision to live modestly and on-the-go comes down to an aversion to work culture. Adam, a 27-year-old engineer (he didn't want his last name used for employment reasons), told me that moving into a van was like pressing the reset button on his entire adult life trajectory. "I went from mechanical engineer with my own office and wearing a tie to work every day to being homeless in my car entirely by choice," he told me.
Adam showers and brushes his teeth at the gym, shaves in public restrooms, parks outside of 24-hour businesses in case of any nighttime bathroom needs, and carries disposable jugs and buckets for rare emergencies. Metropolitan areas and warmer climates are easier to handle, and he typically picks up odd jobs at tourist locations or washing dishes at restaurants. If you're committed to the lifestyle, he says, it's not hard to make things work.
The way he sees it, if you work eight hours per day, plus an hour per day commuting to work, you're spending nearly half your life at or on your way to work. And unless you love your job, that's basically throwing half your life away.
"Why on earth do we settle to only be happy half of the time?" he said. "There is no amount of money which can persuade me to give up half of my life."
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