by Richard Kolkovich
I, Richard Kolkovich, being of sound mind and body do hereby state my intention to live the #vanlife. I have traded in my hail-destroyed 2016 Mazda CX-5 GT for a 2017 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 2500 (high roof, 144” WB). My apartment is a cross between moving-like chaos and a tornado-ravaged Amazon.com distribution center. My days are spent working, listing troves of unused possessions on eBay and Craigslist, and outfitting my new home on wheels.
Note: by the time I have edited this post sufficiently, I have actually been living in said van for almost three months. #vanlife does not guarantee extra time for blogging, apparently.
The path from zero to an idea has always fascinated me, especially within the confines of my own mind. I often bring up a topic in conversation, completely unrelated to the current conversation, only to backtrack the thought pattern leading me there (typically, to much hilarity).
Larger ideas, however, like the idea to live in a van are journeys likely spanning years of one’s life and experiences. I know when I first discovered the current iteration of the #vanlife movement - this past April. I am fairly certain this discovery came on the heels of research into various forms of financial hackery (namely, drastic reduction in spending). But to form the idea for myself, to come to the path which led me to make a financial commitment to this lifestyle? That is deeper than discovering a sub-culture on the Internet.
According to Pinboard, the first article I saved and tagged minimalism was in early 2010 from none other than Leo Babauta. This source and timeline are congruous with my inherently flawed memory, if maybe a bit late (not sure if I fully imported my del.icio.us links…) At that point in my life, I was living in Wichita, KS in an approximately 1200 ft² loft with my then-wife and two cats - nothing extravagant but far from minimal.
The concept of minimalism appealed to me at a very base level for reasons I do not fully recall. One factor was likely the disparate storage requirements of my wife and myself. She is a textile artist by training (and has talent and practices other disciplines as well), so one can imagine the sheer bulk which comes with that practice: sewing machines (yes, plural), fabric, tables, tools, notions, irons (yes, plural), ironing boards, fabric, more fabric, and some other fabric you forgot you had (please, go tour a quilter’s studio). We also owned two spinning wheels and a loom (and plenty of roving and thread). Whew!
I, on the other hand, am a software engineer. The physical space which my craft requires is basically my 15” Retina Macbook Pro and my (physical) notebook. At the time, however, I still ran a rather massive desktop powering dual 24” monitors (on articulating arms) along with a laptop for when I would travel and an IP-based phone. All this was on a rather spacious desk. Oh, and there was the matching cabinet with various office supplies. Huge, relative to where my workstation is today.
At some point, my ex-wife and I had a discussion about purging, minimizing, and living in a tiny home (note: this may be completely fictional, but I honestly cannot recall the exact manner in which this epiphany occurred to me). The mental exercise resulted in me realizing I could, with minimal sacrifice, trade my entire office in for a laptop. She, however, could not drastically reduce her studio without severe sacrifice in terms of productivity and utility. This seed, that I can easily make due with less, stuck with me, germinating over the years.
When my ex- and I split in early 2016, I was not at all concerned about my ability to fit “half” our 1700 ft² loft into my new place (just under 700 ft²), with a storage unit for various things which were to be listed on Craigslist. No problem, I said. And at midnight the day before we turned in the keys, I found myself supremely frustrated, rage-purging several items just to get the task behind me. My new apartment was full to the gills, and I had no room nor patience for the influx of crap.
And so I spent the next year purging steadily, getting rid of much which I did not need or use. I centralized most of the “to get rid of” stuff into one closet and considered myself fairly minimal. I decided to go on hiatus from homebrewing, selling my brewery, which allowed me to get rid of my storage unit. I had achieved a state of minimal-ish.
I spent two months living in Romania last winter out of my Minaal 2.0 in an AirBnB rental and came to know I was right about my ability to live with a truly minimal set of possessions. I came to the realization that what mattered in life were the experiences you had and the people you share them with.
And so, when I came to entertain the move to #vanlife, I began evaluating my possessions again. I found much in my closet I didn’t wear, many books I have never re-read, and many items in my kitchen which had not seen use in months or even years.
Minor tangent here: At some point, I reached “peak home chef” - I had a well-equipped kitchen and enjoyed cooking and preparing meals which were often unnecessarily complex and time consuming. I started coming down from that peak awhile ago and have been shedding baggage since, while maintaining or even increasing the deliciousness of the foods I prepare.
My mantra became one I have often read: Keep only that which you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful (paraphrased from William Morris). I knew I had nothing to lose in this pursuit, regardless of whether I eventually decided to live in a van, as I was only shedding excess baggage and weight. And so I have spent the past few months on the way to a truly minimal world.
As with most anything, minimalism can be taken too far. Creature comforts are not necessarily bad things, and I do not advocate shedding EVERYTHING you own to achieve some abstract ideal of minimalism. But I urge you to, as I do, constantly re-evaluate your possessions with utility and beauty in mind, shedding things which no longer serve you or adding things which could improve your life. As to myself, I could simply work on my laptop. Yet I choose a more complex setup for ergonomics, comfort, and efficiency. Most -isms can be seasoned to taste; do what works for your life, values, and priorities.
Another piece of the puzzle fell into place when I was doing basically the only thing I used my CX-5 for: driving to or from a trailhead. I honestly don’t mind driving too much (Dad drives a truck, so maybe it’s in my blood?), but at this point in time the whole concept seemed ludicrous: I drive out to the trail, ride/hike for a few hours, drive home.
Even worse than the weekend trips in my mind were the mid-week trips out to Golden or Lakewood. From my apartment in Captiol Hill, Denver it is a solid 20+ minutes to hiking or mountain biking trailheads. Tack on loading the car and the ever-present traffic, and you’re looking at an hour of transit time for a mid-week excursion.
And when winter rolls around, I can be found on the slopes. And that round trip is soul-crushing. Having access to a ski condo is a pretty decent workaround for that issue, but in a shared space, I’m still traveling back and forth from Denver every week (at least every week I ski).
So when I look at my ideal lifestyle of spending as much time outdoors as possible, #vanlife slid perfectly into place, allowing me to minimize transit and maximize enjoyment of nature. As an added benefit, I will gain the ability to do so without any anchorage, making more remote or distant (from Denver) options possible.
I wager no discussion of #vanlife comes up without finances making an appearance. And, truth be told, one could easily assume that everyone living the life is either a dirty, smelly hippy or a trustafarian, depending on their van.
I mentioned earlier that I discovered the movement while researching hackery to drastically reduce my living expenses. Namely, that of rent. My current “fixed” living expenses (rent, car, utilities) account for 60% of my budget. Yes, that includes a new car. Without the car, rent + utilities equate to 43% of my budget. Either way you slice it, these two categories are heavy hitters.
Yes, Denver is expensive. But I live in one of the cheapest neighborhoods in town (and with a good deal on rent, to boot). There is not much room for optimization within the area that I can find (Golden is generally MORE expensive - and for older, less-desirable places).
More interesting to me, however, is the long term. Where is the future point where “financial independence” is attainable? How can that point be brought significantly forward? For the past 15 years, I have needed to work. I maybe could have leaned on my parents some more in the beginning of my independent, adult life; but that, to me, is Plan Z. Plans A-Y are to make my own way, and that’s what I have done.
Had I been as smart as I thought I was, I’d be financially independent today. Look at Mr. Money Mustache for a case study. I am a software developer, and even in that industry I do well for myself. But, as is wont to happen when we are unwary, cocky, or both, I found myself on the hedonic treadmill. This treadmill is very hard to stop, especially when you add another person (i.e. - my ex-wife) to the mix. I’m certain the complexity of removing oneself (and family) from the hedonic treadmill is at least O(n^2) (increasing exponentially with the number of people involved). Now that it’s just me, I have an easier time (yet still VERY difficult) hopping off.
Capitalism thrives on consumerism. So companies make it their primary focus to get you to buy their products. But it’s not enough to sell you what you need - they have to make you want what you don’t need. And what you can’t afford. Or shouldn’t afford. Sure, you can afford that new iPhone X. But at what long-term cost? Humans are terrible at long-term thinking because the short-term win activates our reward center. Delayed gratification is learned, not natural.
And so most of us find ourselves on the hedonic treadmill, going for the short-term wins that jack us up with a hit of dopamine, sacrificing our tomorrow for today. I’ll not digress too much here, but suffice to say that I looked back at my younger self and thought, “How the hell did I live on a salary that was about 18% of what I make today?!”
#vanlife is appealing in this regard in two ways: one, it helps to reduce my monthly spend to something still greater than my 18-year-old self spent but much less than I make. By my (fairly extensive but assuredly inaccurate) calculations, I’ll save 18% overall and 30% on my “fixed” expenses.
And two, it brings true financial independence closer. How many people do you know who own their home? Truly own it. Very few, I wager. It took my parents a lot of my life to get to that stage, and only 30% of Americans do so, most of them being older (as one would expect).
Looking at the above study, one thing that stands out also ties my two points together: the lower the cost of the home, the easier it is to own outright. And a nicely-equipped, brand-new Sprinter is a helluva lot cheaper than a nicely-equipped house. And it is independent of the local real estate markets. All of which leads me to…
When I sprung this idea on my good friend, Bill, earlier this summer, he quipped that I was a lifestyle schemer. I prefer the term hacker over schemer, but I’ll take the quip as a compliment.
#vanlife promises to give me freedom from many things because, within five years, I will own my home free and clear. With such a reduction in my monthly spend, I could easily “retire” simply through investment, living off the dividends. All while traveling the country to spend time with my distributed friends and family, meet new friends, see new places, and shred new trails and slopes.
But freedom to me is more than that. It’s about being able to turn down a job because it’s not the right fit rather than having to take something because you need the income. It’s about being able to take a sabbatical to refresh my mind, body, and soul. It’s about being able to craft the narrative I want to live - not the one that has been shoved down my throat. It’s about shedding the cruft and finding my best self. And maybe losing myself. It’s about becoming a better son, brother, uncle, friend, colleague, and citizen of this wonderful world. It’s an adventure, and I’m glad to be on it.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.