The Real Cost of Life on the Road

On trading paradise for “van living”

About Schmidt

My husband, 19-month old daughter, and I have been living on the road for over 100 days in a 1990 Toyota Warrior Winnebago Camper that’s only 12 years younger than I am, and I am almost 40. We had no idea that pursuing the grand adventure of “van living” meant we’d discover how expensive living on the cheap could be — on both our bank accounts and our psyches.

Before we moved from our home on Kauai in Hawaii, my husband owned his own little Waldorf school and I cared for our daughter full-time, sometimes taking on freelance writing projects. We were able to live in an expansive and historic house, buy organic foods, and generally afford one of the most expensive places in the world because we supplemented my husband’s income with either having housemates or renting our bedrooms on AirBnB.

When we first started letting people know we were moving, they replied, “Why are you guys doing this?” Our friends admired and supported our decision, but also seemed a bit baffled by our choosing to leave paradise.

“We want to bond as a family,” my husband answered.

He didn’t tell them that I was getting island fever and needed more mental stimulation, so this trip would prove an opportunity for us to go on summer vacation together, then allow us to switch roles so I would become the one who’d support our family while he became the stay-at-home dad. He also didn’t say that our marriage needed dire attention, since we had been under duress since becoming parents. We were excited to explore America in a whole new way, especially because it would be the first time our little `ohana (family) would be together, just the three of us. What better way to bring everything to a climax of clarity than squishing our existence into a small space within constantly changing environments?

“How are you guys going to afford it?” was often the next question.

“We’ll live off savings,” he told them. “We’re okay going into a little debt if we have to. We know we’re employable people and can find good jobs again.”

In a three-day long garage sale, we sold virtually everything we owned, including two cars and all of our furniture. The only things we kept were what was both essential — mostly baby things — and would fit into a 24’ space. The profits jumpstarted the funding of our adventure.

For less than $500, we then bought two one-way tickets to California (our daughter sat on our laps). The friendly Alaska Airlines staff took pity on the fact that I was on crutches, having just gotten surgery on my foot to repair a detached tendon a week before we left, and their sympathies saved over a hundred dollars on excess baggage fees.

Once we arrived in San Diego, we rented a car for $150 for the week and stayed with a friend to figure out next steps. I like to have a plan, so I immediately set to finding our rig. Two days of Craigslist searching later and we found her: a 1990 Toyota Warrior Winnebago for $10,500.

My friend drove me an hour inland to check out the van. My husband stayed back to put our daughter to bed. I was the first person to actually show up to our agreed upon appointment, given the previous appointment had flaked. By the time I was done test-driving the rig, another couple had cash-in-hand ready to buy. Turns out that these rigs, while older, were collectibles.

I put down a deposit, which included borrowing cash from my friend, because our money was tied up in a Hawaiian bank account. Then I returned two days later with my husband and daughter, amount in full, ready to sign the papers. My husband and I named our camper Summer, a nod to the movie The Endless Summer, and to the idea that we could discover our own road to happy.

While we did negotiate the price down slightly, we also ended up putting in almost $2000 of upgrades and repairs. It was only the start of our journey, and it seemed we had depleted a large chunk of our liquid savings, so we aimed to be mindful of how we continued to spend.

Then we set off.

Our hopes were high. The photos we saw on Instagram of couples living on the road showed idyllic images we wanted to imprint upon our minds and that of our young daughter. Those experiences would be priceless, we thought.

We read about “boondocking,” in which one clandestinely finds a place to park overnight for whatever reason — the campgrounds are full, you’re tired and simply need a place to crash, you’re looking to save money — but we ended up doing that less frequently than we thought. Hot nights meant we wanted to be plugged in to electricity to keep our daughter cool. And, as exciting as we thought driving up to back roads for hiking would be, we forgot one small detail: my body was still healing. We were also still learning our rig, so we didn’t know how much capacity it had for real adventure.

We also soon discovered that RV’ing is indeed a national and even international pastime. The summer was chockfull of RVs on the highways, taking up every empty spot available, often with reservations booked months in advance. Often we had to plop down anywhere from $35-$85 a night, even when we felt like we were in locales that looked more like refugee encampments than state parks.

Yet every time we pumped gas, we felt grateful for this home on wheels. It brought us to visit friends and family. It brought us to serene lakes and radiating sunsets. It brought opportunities for my husband and me to figure out how to function as both a family and as a couple.

It became vital to have a routine and a system. In such small living spaces, we needed to know who would be taking care of what. As evenings approached, we figured out who would be making dinner and who would watch the baby, who would be tidying up dishes and setting up her makeshift crib while the other took her for a quick sink shower. And we learned that our biggest indulgences aside from camping costs came from how much we invested in the foods we ate.

Since it was easier for our rambunctious daughter to eat if we cooked and dined at our picnic table, we avoided spending money at restaurants. But my husband used to own an organic fast food restaurant, so we’d become accustomed to eating well. We regularly spent $150 on shopping trips to organic markets 2–3 times a week.

Without any opportunity to be away from each other, our marriage also reached a critical point. “I need a break from you,” my husband said to me at one point, and I agreed I needed the same. I took our daughter to visit a friend for the week while he took our rig and lived in it like a bachelor.

I didn’t worry what he spent then and he didn’t ask what I was paying for. We experimented with what a separation would look like. When we came back together, we were honest.

“I don’t know if we’re the most compatible people for one another,” he said. Again, I agreed. “But I think we’ll figure it out in time.”

It was around this time that we also realized we needed a break from the road. Constantly having to figure out where you’ll spend the night, how to level your rig, and what the next day’s agenda will hold can be taxing.

“My friend has a motel in Idaho we can stay at for awhile,” my husband said to me. “It’s been run-down for awhile, so he could use our help in managing it in exchange for free rent.”

While I never imagined ending up in Idaho, living in an abandoned motel beside a highway has proven the best way for us to continue to thrive. It’s not only free, but the stability is also helping us to have time, room, and space in our hearts to resolve conflicts. We have opportunities to explore building our careers once more to replenish our savings, as we figure out where we want to plant roots and how to build a foundation of family. Best of all, our daughter loves the fact that she can see trains streaming past our living room window multiple times a day.

We still drive our rig around daily. We recently took it to Montana. The first night, the campground was full, so we stayed at a nearby rest area beside a city park. We continue to figure things out. And that resourcefulness is probably the most valuable lesson we’ve learned, making the biggest imprint on us behind the scenes of the pretty pics we post on our Instagram.

Judy Tsuei is a freelance writer, author of Meditations for Mamas: You Deserve to Feel Good, and holistic coach.

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