I've Lived In A Van With My Family For The Past 6 Years. Here's What My Life Is Like
Six years ago, I was living with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) in a funky waterfront apartment in Venice Beach, California. While my boyfriend ran his outdoor adventure Internet business, Outdoorplay, from our home, I worked as a sales representative for a large corporate conferencing company in a cubicle in West Los Angeles.
Despite making a six-figure income, we lived quite modestly. I drove a used Volvo S60. We cooked at home nearly every night, and my wardrobe consisted of vintage clothing and hand-me-downs from a couple of fashionista friends. Cost of rent aside, we were not the picture of luxury and excess.
Downsizing is more a shift in attitude that affords you the resources to live your passion.
So if someone had challenged me to downsize my life back then, I would have balked. Trimming the fat off of my strenuous routine would have seemed an act of austerity, an ascetic denial of small pleasures, a cruelty set to make me even more miserable than I was. And boy was I miserable. I constantly worked overtime, my anxiety levels were soaring, and I couldn’t sleep at night.
Then, without fanfare, the ax dropped.
I was let go from my fancy, soul-crushing job in the fall of 2009, during the height of the Great Recession. Without my income, we could no longer afford our apartment, and I scrambled to find a job with equal or greater pay. Within two weeks, I was on my third interview for a position paying a quarter of a million dollars a year.
As I lay in bed the night before the final interview, I worried about my no-win dilemma. If I didn’t get the job, we’d have to move inland and give up our seemingly idyllic life — no more sunsets on the beach, no more shopping for organic fare at Whole Foods. But if I did get the job, things might be worse. With larger salaries come long hours, endless internal meetings, and unyielding corporate pressure to do more, more, and more. I might just lose my mind.
The next day, I came home crying. I’d been on enough interviews to know I didn’t get the position. My boyfriend, who had a keen understanding of our situation, held me in his arms and consoled me, but he didn’t give me the proverbial get-back-on-the-horse pep talk. Instead, he lobbied for us to do something dramatically different.
“Let’s go on a road trip,” he said.
“Sure, okay,” I whimpered.
“To the tip of South America,” he added.
Six years and 18 countries later, we haven’t stopped driving.
We quickly dispatched all furniture and appliances to friends and Goodwill, and gave away our extra clothing. Old trophies, journals, and photo albums were put into storage, and the rest — a couple of bags of clothes, 10 pairs of shoes (mostly mine), five surfboards (mostly his), and some kitchen supplies — were packed into our Sprinter van.
We drove through Mexico and Central America, shipped our van from Panama to Colombia, and drove down the Pacific side of South America to Patagonia, and then continued back up the Atlantic side through Brazil. It was — and still is — the trip of a lifetime.
The Sprinter had a bed, a small two-burner stove, a tiny fridge, and some storage space for gear. Without a bathroom, we peed in a bottle (thank heavens for the female funnel) and used a hose to rinse off out back. At first, I often chose to stay dirty rather than take a cold shower, but as we moved further south into Central America, I started to look forward to the afternoon cool down.
Regardless of which country we were in, our routine looked similar. In the morning, we ran our Internet business from coffee shops or hostels and did our other business there as well. In the afternoons, we explored our surroundings, whether they were small pueblos, big cities, ancient ruins, or wild spaces.
At the start of our Pan-American adventure, we lived on $1,500 a month. Given my unemployment and the serious cash crunch that affected thousands of businesses during the last recession, our income had dropped to less than our rent was in Venice; just a hair over the poverty threshold. And, yet, even though we were living in a tiny space in times of financial austerity, we could afford to do things like travel to new places, rock climb, and surf amazing breaks.
We spent countless hours outside together — because, hey, nature is free — doing what brought joy and purpose to our lives. Not only did we not miss the things money could buy, living on the cheap never felt so rich.
People think of downsizing as simply giving things away, spending less, and living in a tinier space. And, while that's certainly a part of it, downsizing is more a shift in attitude that affords you the resources to live your passion. Basically, downsizing your lifestyle means super-sizing your life experience.
Downsizing your lifestyle means super-sizing your life experience.
Perhaps more poignant than the time and geographic distance traveled are the “mental miles” traveled away from who we were when we began the trip to who we’ve become on this journey. Today, our goals are in line with our authentic needs. We’re easier to please, more grateful, and infinitely happier.
So even though the economy has recovered and our online business is again stable, we still choose to live the same downsized lifestyle in exchange for a life filled with intimacy and adventure. We still have no home base, live in a recreational vehicle (albeit a bigger one), and restrain our consumption. We’re able to set aside money we don’t spend on high rent and car payments for our retirement accounts.
Three years ago, we gave birth to a baby girl in Lima, Peru. Now we’re a family of nomads, road-schooling (homeschooling on the road) our way around the world. Next stop, Europe!
Photos courtesy of the author