Extreme Living – Home in a Van

by Frugal Brian


Whether the economy is driving you out of your home or you just want to cut living expenses to the bare bone, going homeless is not a necessity. Some years ago I found myself in the situation that I could afford either a home or a vehicle but not both. The solution I found, which I maintained for five years, was to combine the expense into a van I made into my home.

While it is good if you can get it, a conversion van with all the gimmicks of civilization would have been nice (although quite more expensive than my budget allowed), my wife and I learned to do very well in a simple panel van. This won’t work if you have children. It is not that kids aren’t flexible enough that they may do better at it than you, it’s just that our government will not let you.

The first thing we did when we began our van odyssey was to get rid of all the excess junk we had accumulated in our home. This was mostly through flea marketing and roadside sales but that is for another tale.

For storage areas I wired some cheap metal shelving to one side and fastened strips of paneling across the bottom few inches of each. I got cardboard boxes that fit the shelves and cut the tops off to make bins. Since the “house” would be mobile, this kept all our possessions from flying out at every turn. A futon pallet mattress worked quite well as a bed and had the added benefit of being rolled up during the day and used as a comfortable seat,

For food storage we picked shelf-stable products. Without an electric refrigerator we learned to do with powdered milk and eggs. For short-term storage of perishables on grocery day we had an ice cooler. Meats were mostly canned or jerky. Admittedly, cooking required us stopping somewhere and breaking out a small metal barbeque grill. Charcoal is expensive so I got good at gathering a bit of dead fall wood from the area for fuel.

Water was kept in refillable gallon jugs. We got very good at finding and utilizing public restrooms but for only a couple hundred dollars the more “private” person can find a miniature chemical toilet that would sit in the back of the van. For bathing we sometimes used public showers at gyms and swimming pools and other times just used a wash basin and cloth to keep the dirt down. A camp washer was used to keep us in clean clothes. Living small doesn’t mean you have to live filthy.

We didn’t have to go to sleep with the chickens. A couple of candles worked quite well and much less expensively than battery lights. Now you can find the solar-powered lights that are used to line sidewalks. These are safer and even better light than the old ways.

Insurance on the conversion vans is usually at least twice that of an ordinary panel van. While you had to keep up with local ordinances, an ordinary looking van won’t draw nearly as much attention as a recreational vehicle. There was also the freedom of changing your front yard whenever you wanted.

The biggest disadvantage was the winter time. While moving further South could solve some of this problem you have to be careful. Florida for example has a powerful hotel lobby and has made it illegal to sleep in a vehicle unless it is in a paid RV park or campground.

This type of living arrangement won’t fit everyone but for those who like a slightly more mobile lifestyle it offers greater freedom and less expense. It is much better than having to rely on homeless shelters to keep the rain off your head. Once you get used to it you may not want to go back to house living. I know we stayed on the road in our van for two years longer than our financial fortunes required.

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