People ask us how we afford the luxury of living in a van; this question surprises as much as delights us: we? Living in luxury in a van down by the river?

When I was young, living in a van down by the river was the butt of the butt of all jokes. You could make any statement funny merely by adding in the phrase “in a van down by the river” and everyone would laugh: grandmother, creepy religious uncle, children, and even girls: everyone. Only the absolute dregs of society lived down there at the river’s edge; these people didn’t shave their armpits, wash regularly, or hold realistic political positions. Respectable people climbed the social ladder and at least lived in apartments if not two-thousand square foot, three-bedroom homes in the suburbs.

Times have changed; the middle class weakened and here we are: life in a van has gained a little of the Romantic glow it had before the hippies grew tired of protesting and began investing in the stock market.

People who ask us about the luxury of life in a van obviously assume the van life is another commodity in our economy: one more item to be purchased atop all the other items. Luxury implies that we are the kind of people who rent a caravan for a long, six-month holiday: we buy the bohemian style atop all the other purchases we all have to make. The assumption is that anyone in a van must have a really great income stream: such people are able to buy all the necessary stuff like housing, schooling, food, gas, electricity, and clothing, but they also take a six-month vacation and travel around in a rented van: that is, they buy bohemian style. Wow. Super cool people. What a luxury.

The richer one is, the larger one’s carbon and ecological footprint. The richer one is, the more one consumes. The top ten percent of wealthy people on earth produce eleven times as high a carbon footprint than the poorest half of the population; and, this top ten percent of the world’s population produce half of the whole world’s carbon emissions. This information is from Oxfam by the way.

So, yeah, the question of luxury surprises as much as delights: no, we did not move into the van because we are extravagantly wealthy. On the contrary: we entered the van life because we wanted to reduce cost, reduce impact, and improve our lifestyle.

So, let’s discuss these one-by-one: How do you

REDUCE COST

When, obviously, living in a van has to cost money? When we made the jump from our apartment to the van, we did the math and found we could save a wonderful amount of money, but only if we replaced one lifestyle with the other. We had to replace the apartment with the van. If we kept all other expenses the same, we would save a large amount of money every year. We terminated our lease, sold our car, and bought a van all in the same month.

Here are some average, North American monthly costs:
Rent: $1,000
Electricity: $100
Water: $100 (for 80/100 gallons per day)

We concluded that if we left our apartment and immediately entered the van, we would save $1200 a month.

And, hey, $1,200 x 12 months = $14,400

(The assumption is that your job doesn’t change during the transition: you work online. All you need is a solar panel, sunlight, internet, a computer, and a few hours a day of peace and quiet, food in the icebox, a cafe nearby with cold beer, cakes, croissants, someone to laugh at your jokes, and happiness springs spontaneously out of the footboards.)

But saving money isn’t the only reason to move into a van: we also wanted to

REDUCE IMPACT

On the environment and “be the change we hope to see in the world.” This quotation is also from Oxfam by the way.

Electricity and water are two great examples of how the van life categorically downsizes one’s footprint. You aren’t going to flush a toilet in the van; you aren’t going to shower for thirty minutes. You will use a toilet, and you will clean yourself, but you’ll do it differently. What is the difference? Well, it will just use less water.

If you are using a solar panel and an alternator to generate your power, you’ll be downsizing your usage considerably. You won’t be using a blow drier or a food processor, but you’ll be energy independent.

Thirty-three percent of CO2 emissions are produced for electricity. Driving your van’s alternator with your petrol-burning engine is an example of how the energy company burns fuel to produce electricity. This is not an ideal solution to the whole CO2 thingy, but it is a great reduction. With a solar panel, you can start to feel enlightened, even, and begin to look down on your neighbors, or anyone who lives in a house, for poisoning the earth more than you do. And let me tell you, the moral high ground feels great!

Electrical power is most often used to heat and cool our homes. American homes have been increasing in size over the years: up 258% since the 1950s. The electricity needed to heat those 258% larger homes also has gone up, and, with it, the CO2 emissions.

A moment that really shocked us as we approached our life in the van was the day we marked out the size of our van on the floor of our apartment. We stood inside of a little square in the middle of the living room floor and a deep malaise overwhelmed the entire family and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. We downsized from 1000 square feet to 50 square feet. Our water reduced from about 50 gallons a day to 3 gallons a day. I googled things like “how to bathe in a liter of water” and watched cute videos of little birdies splashing around in a birdbath.

The final reason we moved into the van was to

IMPROVE OUR LIFESTYLE

By moving into a van. Most apartments are far from the city center and they are also far from wind-swept beaches and jungles. In an apartment, one is distanced from culture and nature, both. For us, to move out of the apartment into a van meant we could draw closer to culture and nature: we could drive through the city, see the new art exhibitions and plays, and then drive up into the mountains and hug some trees.

In addition to the culture/ nature thing, the small living space of a van demands we take a minimal approach to our possessions. We just didn’t have room for anything other than the essential. Those essential items must be durable and high quality.

Today it is easy to buy cheap, throwaway items. Forced obsolescence is good business: create a product that fails every couple of weeks and you create a steady income stream of purchases. No thought is given to where the obsolete items end up: in the landfill or the ocean. The van helps with this conflict. Our living space demands we find better gear, and our better gear diminishes our trash considerably, which helps the 100,000 ocean creatures who die of ingesting plastic every year.

A van gives us great work/life balance. Most people work hard and play hard: they work all year and take a hurried vacation on the beach for a week of summer. We park at the beach and work there between early morning walks and sunbathing in the afternoon.

We are more able to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Every time we drive to a new city, we have to practice our foraging skills: we find parking, water, grocery stores, libraries, and swimming pools. The change of scenery pushes one out of the comfortable and this is a good thing. Motion creates emotion; new situations create new ideas. When we enter new situations, we feel different things and some of those feelings are good. Some are road rage and the like, but some of our thoughts are wonderful. In an apartment in a suburb somewhere, presumably, there is some poor fellow right now in the twenty-seventh year of a fifty year emotional state, a state he will remain in until he dies. His petty fights, lost loves, dreams, and sketches of a memoir: all fusty nuts that will hang on his tree until the frost cuts him down for the eternal winter. Oh, well. At least he was “normal” and “did what he was supposed to do” or whatever.

So, in conclusion, no, we did not move into the van for luxury. We moved into the van to save money, to reduce impact, and to improve our lifestyle. I hope this helps someone else reach her goal to live in a van down by the river.

Take care,