Three Things I Learned from Living in a Van for a Year

A couple of weeks ago, I started the next chapter of my life. After spending 351 days living in a van, I have finally moved on. For those of you curious, I sold the van to a friend who will continue the legacy of Man Jose Van Jose for at least a few more months. Check out his YouTube channel if you want to see some amazing videography and keep tabs on the van.

My life has been quite a whirlwind over the last couple of months. In that time, I: quit my job, accepted admission to UMass Amherst for an MBA/MS Sport Management dual degree, sold my van, gave a talk at TEDxUIUC, and started booking my travel for another 3-month solo backpacking trip. Things are on the up and up; things are looking swell.

I am very grateful that things have worked in my favor as of late. I went from being an uninspired, bored to death cubicle monkey to having so much to look forward to. I finally was true to my word and broke out of the corporate mold…at least temporarily.

I have my friends, family, and the immense amount of time I spent in reflection while living in the van to thank for my career change. For the first time in a long time, I am authentically pursuing my passion: a career in the front office of a sports franchise.

As I look back on the year that I owned and lived in my ’97 Dodge, I wanted to share some of the key learnings I had as a minimalist and van dweller overall:

1. Relationships > Experiences > Status and things

Living in a van, there’s no room for meaningless possessions. In the past, I would thoughtlessly purchase some gizmo or article of clothing from Amazon virtually every other day (damn you, Amazon prime!). Living an intentionally minimalistic lifestyle forced me to evaluate every purchase.

When I started to get to the root of why I was spending all of my disposable income on these purchases, I started to realize I was often just indulging in instant gratification or, in the case of clothes, masking an insecurity. Hardly healthy behavior.

When I got to the bottom of these habits, I took a moment to reflect on the happiest moments of my life, my fondest memories. They all had two things in common: they were experiences shared with people I really enjoyed. While I certainly spent money during some of these escapades and occasionally had souvenirs to bring home, each moment was distinctly about being present and enjoying each other’s company.

This analysis lead to a hierarchy of how I wish to spend my time and money. Relationships come first and foremost, novel experiences second, and finally a pursuit of status and material wealth.

2. Always live below your means

A long time before moving into the van, I spoke with a successful entrepreneur over coffee. During this Q&A we talked about some of my friends that took high-paying jobs at large tech companies and banks. I had always heard that “it was all about the money”, so I inquired about his thoughts on six figures salaries right out of undergrad.

“To me, that sounds like a death sentence,” he explained. “The entire remainder of their lives, they will be accustomed to a six figure life. Their car, apartment, vacations — everything — will be what that money can afford. And once you start driving a new BMW, good luck going back to a used Civic.”

He made a great point: when you live within your means, your expectations and desires shift to that level. If you’re making $100k a year at a job you hate, would you take a 50% pay cut to work at your dream job? All of us would like to say yes, but if you’re paying $2k a month for a bougie apartment in River North, have a $400/month car payment, and like to go trips across the country once a month, half of your salary isn’t going to cut it.

The solution: live below your means now in order to ease the pain down the road. Get roommates if you don’t have them; hell, even live with your parents if that’s an option. Use ride shares and public transit or get a used, reliable car if you need one. There are so many areas of your life that you can reduce your expenditures and still have a happy life (refer to point 1).

Worst case scenario, you’ll start to accumulate a massive nest egg to retire early, quit your job and pursue your passion, or gain financial freedom. Best case scenario, you live a happier life and have the bandwidth to take more risks.

3. The worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as you think it is

All too often, I would (still do) chicken out and pass up opportunities because I was scared of failure. We’ve all been there: approaching the hottie at the bar, speaking up in a meeting, quitting something you hate. One of the biggest reasons people flinch and don’t play to win is because they are deathly afraid of the worst-case scenario.

People think that everyone is watching and will laugh at them if they strike out when they hit on the bombshell. They think people will judge them for their stupid ideas, consequently loosing respect. They think that if they quit their soul-sucking job, they’ll fall flat on their face and end up broke on the streets. If they aren’t thinking these things, they at least cross their mind.

The only way to get over this fear is to acknowledge the risk, stare it in the face, and courageously proceed anyway. This is obviously difficult, so one of the best ways to neutralize your unfounded fear is to simulate the “worst case scenario”.

This can take many forms and, in my case, this was what living in a van was all about. I realized that even if I got fired from my job or quit to pursue something riskier that I loved, the worst case scenario would put me right back where I was. I know that I can get a van on the cheap and move into it again, with minimal costs, if I were to go broke tomorrow. And I know that it wouldn’t even be that bad. In fact, I enjoyed it!

When you no longer fear the worst-case scenario, these negative thoughts and self-sabotage have no power over you.

I was thrilled and honored to speak at TEDxUIUC last month. Video coming soon!

Living in a van for a year was a wild time. While certain aspects of my life took a backseat over the last 12 months (cough, dating life), I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Living in the van — for better or worse — will always be a part of me. It solidified some of the most important lessons inside of me and gave me a new perspective on life.

As I transition out of the van lifestyle, I often get asked if I’m excited to move on. In a word, yes, but that is not a simple question to answer. I try to always welcome change in my life, yet cherish the old chapters. I already miss the freedom and simplicity that the van brought my life and will constantly be battling to remain minimalistic going forward.

Minimalism is a daily work in progress. It’s more about the journey than the destination. The process of decluttering my life taught me more about my motivations and insecurities than any other exercise. By practicing minimalism, I got to the root of what really made me happy instead of filling the voids in my life with meaningless possessions. And, for that, I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to live in a van.