Last November, I withdrew $2,750 from my savings account and stuffed it inside of an envelope. It felt illicit (who carries around that much money in cash?), and it also felt a bit stupid. I was about to give it to a man I’d met through Craigslist, and we weren’t meeting in a neutral place. My dream item was a vintage 1962 Shasta camper, and it was parked in his garage in Warsaw, Indiana, hundreds of miles from any of my close friends or family. Luckily, I wasn’t alone: My now-fiancé, Mark, was with me, and he had withdrawn the same amount of money. Both of us were banking on a dream that millennials co-opted from retirees and hashtagged on social media. You know where I’m going with this: I’ve lived #VanLife every day since January of this year, and I saved up $20,000 in eight months to prepare for it.
It started with a conversation on an icy sidewalk in Upper Manhattan in January 2018. Mark and I had just moved in together, and we’d tossed around a shared love of travel — first toying with the idea of moving into a van and traveling through Europe together. But Europe felt too unknown, and the currency exchange too hard on our wallets. The United States was attainable, it would keep family at ease knowing we were nearby, and we felt we could live the lifestyle we wanted while also keeping a healthy savings of at least $10,000 for when we finished. We estimated the trip to stretch from January to June, with flexibility to extend or cut the trip early if it felt right.
I put money into my savings like it was a non-negotiable bill.
I chose the number, $20,000, after a few months of research and several spreadsheets identifying what we felt were necessities. It meant we’d each put away about a third of our incomes for the rest of the year while balancing bills, family obligations, and the aggressively high rent that comes with living in Manhattan. There were tangible changes we had to make in order for this to happen, like less Uber and Lyft, more subway. I quit my expensive gym and started hiking in Fort Tryon and Central Park instead. When the weather allowed, I biked home from work. The biggest change, though, was in our diets. We had to stop ordering Seamless multiple nights a week and we couldn’t eat out whenever we wanted. Living in New York, the last thing I wanted to do was go to the grocery store and cook after a 10-hour day and a two-hour commute, but by mid-summer, we were cooking four to five nights a week. Then, there’s that pesky task of moving money each time I was paid. I stayed consistent by treating my savings like a bill. Each time I was paid for my work as a senior editor at a small publication in Midtown, I put money into my savings like it was a non-negotiable bill. Rent is due, internet is due, savings for #VanLife is due.
Of course there was fear with these choices. There’s the drastic lifestyle change, the fact that I was about to quit a well-paying job, and the uncertainty that came with owning an ancient piece of metal I now tow behind my car. There was also the understanding that I wanted to leave New York for good. Chief among the reasons I decided to move on is money, plain and simple. It’s a tired story: I was sick of paying mortgage-level prices for a minuscule apartment that became infested with cockroaches and housed a family of rats in the basement. Once, I even saw both roach and rat working in perfect tandem to deconstruct a mysterious piece of food near the basement laundry room. I wanted — and needed — something new.
I’ll tell you what new looks like: Turning the wrong direction down a one-way street in New Orleans. Paying higher tolls in New Jersey because of the extra weight behind the car. Once, we failed to accurately attach the trailer to the hitch. It fell off in an intersection in Columbus, Ohio, and was saved from coming detached completely by a rusty safety chain that has since been replaced. It looks like bug bites on faces, hands, and ankles, getting locked out in the oppressive Florida heat, no working internet in Mississippi, and emptying sewage by hand in Alabama (I’ll let your imagination run with that one).
Of course, there is the good. I’m writing from Galveston, Texas, and I can hear seabirds crying and waves crashing from just a few hundred yards away. Soon I’ll be in Big Bend National Park, where I’ll hike for days and take a dip in the hot springs. Then onto San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park, and the redwood forests. We’re still calibrating where to go after that, but we both work in media, so internet access holds the keys to the kingdom for us. I’m able to freelance for different clients and publications, practice and improve my photography, and focus on my fiction writing. My savings and lifestyle change have also allowed me the time and opportunity to participate in Cornell University’s first fully remote fellowship, dedicated to climate change mitigation and adaptation. That freedom makes every random hiccup on the road worth it.
My budgeting hasn’t stopped either, of course. At this point, we’re planning on living in our camper through at least the end of the summer, and I am constantly updating Excel spreadsheets and having discussions with Mark about what our goals are, what the camper needs, and how we’re feeling about money coming in and out. There will always be the small stuff: I ripped the crotch out of my only nice pair of leggings today, so I have to decide if I’m going to replace them or not.
There is always someone who has more than you and someone who has less.
Finally: Why the honesty? Talking about money makes me feel vulnerable. I’m opening myself up for judgment by attaching numbers to my choices — even from other young people who live on the road, maybe even especially. But talking about money in a public way is important to me because saving and staying out of debt is emotional and personal for me; I lost my childhood home in the Great Recession and will feel the squeeze of student loans for years. Many of my lifelong best friends have it much harder. I feel a responsibility to be open and honest about how I handle money because I’m attempting to pay forward even a sliver of the privilege I’ve had over the years in the form of financial knowledge from successful family members, lucky breaks, and being given the benefit of the doubt. One of the most valuable lessons my mother taught me is that there is always someone who has more than you and someone who has less.
Now I understand the power in harnessing what I have, and shaping my dreams into goals that I can financially reach for. So don’t be afraid to open your bank app. Don’t feel intimidated by the money other people save or make. It’s your life, and your cash flow, and an open road of possibilities is yawning out before you. Hit the gas, girl.