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The New Nomads of VanLife Reflect an Enduring Divide (jstor.org)
47 points by benmarks 50 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

I can empathize with these people. It feels like a form of Stockholm's syndrome, where we're starting to come to grips with the idea that we will never escape an economic situation that I can only describe as tap-dancing on quicksand.

If we can never achieve a stable life anyways, why bother seeking one? And if tomorrow is probably going to be harder than today, why put off the things that people used to put on their bucket lists?

It doesn't have to be a bad thing. My ex-girlfriend and I spent over a year in Australia, most of which was circumnavigating the country in the campervan I built. It was amazing, I would without a doubt do that kind of thing my whole life if I could be a 20 y/o until the day I died.

We only spent about 500 usd/pp/month and were really comfortable. We had most of what we wanted and ate well. Learn how to cook, don't buy junk food and the best things, like surfing, are free. I made money on the van since I did all building and repairs myself.

Doesn't lend much gravitas, but it was a good life and I hope to build another campervan to use in the future. I'm quite scared of this in America though with our culture, crime, and police. I can also believe it is certainly not for everyone.

> I'm quite scared of this in America

Don't be. I've done it for 7 years and counting. Have met awesome people and never hassled or bad interactions.

Yep I've been rambling about 23 months now. Savings went from - balance to 5 digits not blowing it on rent. No problems, whatsoever. The key ia to not loiter in one place too long, don't leave a mess(cleaning up helps, alot) & be courteous to randoms & LEOs. It would be a reduced SoL to rent again, IMO.

*I do have a job that requires travel(paid), so I drive across multiple states or fly out of the closest airport qhen required. When I'm not working, I want to be out hiking/paddling/skiing, anyway.

>> Don't be. I've done it for 7 years and counting. Have met awesome people and never hassled or bad interactions.

Did you have this experience as a minority?

Don’t pay attention to the hyped news. America is very safe

I've realized that my level of financial safety I feel is directly tied to the amount of margin for error I have.

I'm from rural Indiana and grew up in with a comfortable but relatively low standard of living. Going out to eat was spending $3 at Wendy's. All dollar amounts any business talks about still feel mindblowingly large.

Then I got a computer science degree and got into remote freelance web development. At first it was hard, but with shared rent at like $120/month, it didn't really matter. I could keep trying until I succeeded in freelance without much risk because I had margin for error. Rent was covered in a few hours of work, and every subsequent hour built my buffer.

My rate went from $50/hr to $90/hr to recently $125/hr while still living in this low cost of living area, and my margin for error increased even further. I think I got used to this and didn't realize how much margin I had compared to many people. I realized I could live a comfortable life working only 10-20 hours of billable work a week, and combine that with regular recurring clients and there was very little need to hustle for new work. Life was pretty chill. When my first girlfriend told me that "you make more in a day than I make in a week" I didn't really know what to say. Of course we were talking about something like $900.

I never understood how people could say that $100,000 a year wasn't enough money until I moved to Chicago. I kept the same relative amount of income at around $60k working 10-20 hours a week, but my cost of living probably quadrupled. I loved it there but there was so much less margin for error. My finances started to drain and my stress increased, and I had to take more work that I struggled to complete to pay my now $1080/month rent and buy $30-$40 dinners when going out with friends. And there were people around me making much less somehow surviving. I lived like I had margin but I didn't, so I recently moved back to Indiana.

My real goal is to spend more time working on my business anyway, and hopefully if those take off it will give even more margin. But until then, freelancing a few hours a week and living cheaply gives me infinite runway and no financial stress. Sure this town has 6000 people in it and the most exciting thing to do is walk around the local park, but I once again have margin for error.

All that to say, the van dwelling people seem to be experiencing something similar, as you describe. If finances feel like quicksand, there are interesting options for ways to gain leverage, especially as a developer.

Some of the most free and wealthy (in terms of purchasing power) people I know do this. Compare the person who can't pay all the bills with $20k a month (a figure I recently heard from a real person!) with my friend also living in this town who is extremely frugal who spends $1000 a month and built up $40k in savings from a job. She is now writing novels and basically doesn't work unless a good freelance gig comes up.

Another friend moved to Lithuania and teaches part time at a college for a visa and worked remote tech support for a US company and made $60k a year and saved nearly all of it. Now he does whatever he wants.

Nomading is another way to get that same leverage. There are others if you are creative. I'm always excited to read about people doing interesting things like living in vans, because I've found there to be so many more options if you are willing to look outside the normal ways of doing things. Many are even pretty comfortable. You may not want to move to Indiana or Lithuania, but it is an option.

> Some of the most free and wealthy (in terms of purchasing power) people I know do this. Compare the person who can't pay all the bills with $20k a month (a figure I recently heard from a real person!) with my friend also living in this town who is extremely frugal who spends $1000 a month and built up $40k in savings from a job.

Those two extremes both sound very unappealing. The obviously superior middle ground would be to make $20k/month and spend $5k, which would allow you to both save massively AND live very comfortably without pinching pennies.

Sure, but my ultimate goal is to escape the rat race, and if I have to spend my whole life stressed to get there that sounds like just a different extreme that is unappealing.

I guess what I'm more saying is, the default seems to be stressed out about money, and in order to avoid that you need leverage of some kind. One option is to work a ton, another is to take a high remote rate in a low cost of living area. It allowed me to work 20 hours a week right out of college instead of waiting until I retired. I also freely acknowledge that this is harder to do with a family.

I pulled the ripcord, sold my house, and moved to SE Asia in 2015. My biggest expenses by far were flights back to the US to pick up meds not available in asia, said meds, and Western insurance that would cover me abroad (which means non-ACA, thus no med/pre-existing coverage).

By 2017 I needed a job as much for the money as for sanity. Now I have a fully remote one. I still hop back and forth between VN and the US.

I keep thinking I should pick a place and settle down, but I think in doing so I would feel suffocated. When I feel stress about the pollution and corruption in VN, I comfort myself with the thought that Americans have done enough “good” in VN, and I should leave it be. When I feel stress about Trump’s judicial appointments or our fractured culture, I think, “Welp, I’ll be leaving soon. So long and thanks for all the cheese.” (In Asia, I do miss good cheese.)

I worry that this detachment will isolate me over time. I work hard to stay in touch with friends. I often reroute to cities to which my friends have themselves scattered.

My expenses, aside from flights and meds, plummeted. When everything must fit in your suitcase, a purchase must be evaluated in terms of what similarly-sized item you can lose. Only in the past few months did I finally take a one year lease in Saigon. It is cheaper than 5 months of short-term rental. It is nice to finally be able to buy a desk and a proper monitor. But I hurt a little giving up the satisfaction, maybe sense of superiority, in being self-contained.

I don’t know what is next for me. Maybe that is what I like about my lifestyle. But I take comfort in knowing that I have come by it honestly.

Have you learned Vietnamese language? Do you have local friends? Any interest or activities you like that's transcultural - like gearheads, hiking, cooking, arts? Just curious.

I learned Vietnamese well enough to have basic conversations about who I am and what I am doing in Vietnam. I had to study 20 hrs/wk for 3 months, though. Learning VN made learning Spanish seem preposterously easy.

I do have local friends. Some through dates that turned into friends. Some through a running group. In general, I found it hard to make VN friends, though I think that is more about my introversion than anything.

AMA: I've lived in cars and now a VW for almost a decade.

(Disclaimer: The nick is an ironic attempt at humor, not trolling.)

It's expect many people to have these questions:

Why did you start? Why have you continued?

What's your current setup? Are you happy with it? What's your routine?

Where do you shower, use the toilet, and do laundry?

What part of the world are you in? Any legal/climate/social challenges?


1. Saving money then and now. It's paid for itself every year, even with maintenance. In general, I'd rather be considerably poorer than a stressed, servile servant to the 1%. My motto is: it's easier to not spend a dollar that it is to make it.

2. Early water-cooled VW Vanagon / Type 2 (T3) Westfalia. It's currently having a no out-of-pocket warranty engine swap. Also, it will need some bodywork and a paint job at some point, but it's alright otherwise. Doing over again with a larger budget, I would get a GMC Savannah or an early 90's Westfalia just before the move to the Eurovan, and one that has a GoWesty 2.3L motor and EMS. In general, I maybe biased, but a compact van has been more stealthy, convenient and practical than monstrous RV's I see all about.

3a. Shower: Gym and I also have lots of Dr Bronners.

3b. Toilet: Gyms or whatever is open nearby. For rare real emergencies, also carry biobags and empty bottles that can be disposed-of in trash. I think the improper disposal of biowaste is one of the greatest sources of community conflict because people with under-treated mental illnesses or lacking personal hygiene are rarely/never proactively assigned social workers to potty train them / make biowaste disposal bags available to prevent gross situations. (perhaps it's viewed like drug needle exchange programs "any help enables")

3c. Laundry: Coin-op laundry. I haven't been very far from civilization in a while, so haven't had to use a bucket and clothesline in a long time.

4a. Silicon Valley.

4b: Legal: There were prohibitions in the past and still exist in many areas, but not in the locations I'm usually at. The Ninth Circuit ruled regarding California, and the majority of cities don't want to risk big lawsuits by harassing people because there are many pro-bono lawyers helping vehicle dwellers/homeless maintain their rights and dignity. Instead, they're pushing mostly poor people as a group, in subtle ways, further to the margins and further into desperation by passing ordinances based on vehicle height, parking time-of-day and requiring parking permits.

4c: Climate:

Summer: It gets hot inside for a couple of months, so it's good to find shaded or garage parking.

Winter: It's relatively mild weather here, but I have a -40 sleeping bag if it gets too cold. I suggest anyone with electronics they'd like to keep working sleep with them to prevent condensation corrosion and Li-ion low capacity issues.

4d: Social: No one wants an old, fugly, ADD on the spectrum. Trust me. Invisibility is best.

4e: Deliveries: It's a pain when a vendor wants to deliver to a physical address (think food, large mail items or prescriptions). There are workarounds.

I’ve been doing van life for about 15 months across CA & US.

Being thrifty, with plenty of savings, it’s an easy life.

But I’ve met lots of people along the road trying to live and work in a van. Most recently in New York (Williamsburg).

Some are doing well, it’s a choice. Others have nearly been forced into it due to some unlucky financial situations. And I fear for them, they’re one more financial upset from homelessness. And apparently we’re in a booming economy.

I can understand the nomadic life as an economic necessity, but I'm kind of disgusted at rich, entitled hipsters playing homeless for the romance of the Bohemian lifestyle. Especially in a country that lines their public spaces with spikes and guillotines[0,1] to drive the actual homeless out of sight and out of mind.



Whats the rundown on CoL to do something like this?

$800-1200/month if you have no payment for the vehicle.

If you've got a cushy valley tech job you can do it for _way_ less than this.

I work out, shower, eat, charge all my batteries, use the internet, etc at work, and then park overnight on Shoreline, so there is essentially zero cost of living.

Im not counting the cost of things I would still be paying for if I lived in my cupertino apartment though, so like gas, car insurance, car maintenance, health insurance, laundry, etc.

I think my one cost would be about $10 worth of bulk silica desiccant every month to keep the moisture in the car under control while I sleep in it.

> bulk silica desiccant

what? i have never heard of this. what happens if you dont do this? mold? and is this just due to extra respiration from you sleeping in it?

It's a bit for mold mitigation, but mostly for personal comfort.

Cars aren't 100% airtight, but there is essentially zero circulation while parked. Over the course of sleeping for ~7 hours your breath will humidify the air enough to build up pretty significant moisture on the insides of your windows. Which if the reflectx cutouts in every window didn't give away, definitely let's passersby know theres a person in there.

So to mitigate against that and not wake up sweaty in a super muggy car, I buy these little things at the dollar store that are essentially plastic cups with a one way moisture membrane over the top of them and several ounces of silica desicant.

I also made a foam board cutout thing that slots into the sunroof space in the headliner. Then made cutouts for two USB fans (intake and exhaust) that I run off a 20,000mah USB battery.

With the air circulation and the desiccant it stays relatively comfortable temp/humidity wise, or at least no worse than it is outside.

Is Shoreline a specific place?

Shoreline Blvd is a street in Mountain View, CA.

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