A Week Living In A Converted Van On A $12,000 Salary

Welcome to Money Diaries, where we're tackling what might be the last taboo facing modern working women: money. We're asking women how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we're tracking every last dollar.

Today: a writer who makes $12,000 a year and spends some of her money this week on dinosaur stamps.
Editor's Note: This is a follow-up diary for the Money Diary entitled "A Week As A Nomad On $12,000 A Year" You'll want to read that first, here
Occupation: Writer
Industry: Publishing
Age: 38
Location: Nomadic
Salary: $12,000
Net Worth: $20,000 in a Roth IRA before COVID-19 it but I haven't looked since the market plummeted.
Debt: I've got about $2,000 on a credit card that I'll pay off before the payment is due.
Pronouns: She/her

Monthly Expenses
Rent: $0 (I own and live in a van and only have to pay for gas and repairs as needed)
Loans: $0
Planet Fitness: $20.05 (suspended until COVID-19 social distancing is over)
Verizon: $60
Health Insurance (in Taiwan): $20 (This comes directly out of my Taiwanese bank account where I left about $4,000 USD when I moved back to the States)
Car Insurance (annual): $270
Costco Membership (annual): $60

Day One

6:30 a.m. — After my first Money Diary, there were a lot of questions about how my van is set up and how (and why) I live the way I do. I'll try to answer some of those questions in this Money Diary. To start, I bought my van for $1,500 from a friend's dad. He gave me the “family” price because his daughter and I have been friends for 20 years. This van is a beast and keeps running with minimal maintenance. It has 250,000 miles on it. I originally got into vehicle living because two friends were coming from overseas and I wanted to show them around America (we ended up going to 10 national parks). I thought it would be nice to have the option to camp as we traveled. I liked the lifestyle so much that I just kept living this way after they went home. That was four years ago. Anyway, I wake up as the sun is rising and look out my window. There are towering red rock cliffs, juniper trees, and pale green sage brush all under a peach and gray sunrise sky. After taking a few pictures from bed, I fall asleep again.
8:30 a.m. — I wake up again, throw on some clothes, and go for a short hike with my dog. I haven't seen a single person since I came to this desert spot to quarantine. I haven't really looked in the mirror for three weeks. As women, from puberty on, we're socialized to be hyper-aware of how we look to others. Being truly alone allows me to focus on what I'm doing and experiencing rather than how I look while I'm doing it. I LOVE the solitude. I also love people and modern conveniences, so I feel really lucky that I get to spend so much time exploring outside and still get the benefits of technology and the modern supply chain. I feel like I get the best of both worlds and I'm not tied down to either side. I know it's not for everyone, but for me it's perfect.
9:30 a.m. — I pick Brigham's tea, desert greens, and these little purple flowers that have edible bulbs — I want to say they're called papagos but I'm not sure, I just know they're edible. The bulbs taste like potato and they're good raw or roasted. I've taken a couple of classes about wild edibles and done a lot of foraging, but mostly in the mountains and coastal areas — I'm not as familiar with what I can eat in the desert. Still, I'm glad to get a few things that can supplement my salads because I'm running low on fresh food.
11 a.m. — I return to the van, make a salad, and get started on a writing assignment about COVID-19 that will pay $120. I write at my standing desk which was custom-built for my van by a talented friend. The materials cost about $200 and he wouldn't take any money for the labor. My van is a high top and I'm short, so I can comfortably stand in it with about a foot of space above my head.
12 p.m. — I take a break from writing and do dishes. I do the preliminary washing outside, using a juniper branch to scrub the food off, then I rinse with water I collected last time it rained. Water is often the limiting factor in van life, so I do what I can to conserve. It takes a lot of water to rinse food out of a scrub brush or a cloth, so the juniper branch is a good substitute because I can just discard it when I'm done. Juniper also has mild anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. After getting big stuff off the dishes, I go inside and wash with hot water (heated in my kettle on my propane stove) and soap. I have a sink in my van.
1 p.m. — I notice that my solar panel has charged my house batteries to 100%, so now is a good time to charge my laptop and my handheld vacuum. My electrical system is composed of a 190-watt solar panel on my roof ($115, but I heard the price for panels has gone down), two “house” batteries ($100ish each), an inverter (donated by someone at the van build four years ago), and a charge controller from Renogy ($100 - it's a long story but I got a discount for mentioning it in a YouTube interview. I don't have an active channel myself but solo female van dwellers tend to get interviewed a lot). This system also runs my small freezer (a cheap model I bought off amazon for $140) where I keep frozen goods and ice packs. Twice a day, I transfer ice packs from my freezer to a bigger cooler I have for refrigerated goods.
3 p.m. — I end up going way over the word count on my writing assignment, as always, so I've got a lot of deleting to do. Sometimes walking helps me sort out my writing conundrums, so I go on another hike. After an hour or so, I find a sprawling livestock enclosure made of hand-hewn juniper posts and wire. Judging by the hardware (square nails) it may have been built sometime in the early 1900s. I Marco Polo a video of it to my dad and he says it was probably used to round up wild horses, or maybe to brand livestock. My dog and I explore the area, finding old bottles, animal skulls, and twisted hunks of metal. I love finding evidence of prior inhabitants out in the middle of the desert. I've also found a lot of pottery shards and petroglyphs when wandering in the middle of nowhere.
6 p.m. — I head back to my van and finish and send my writing assignment. I check my spreadsheet and realize I've got about $2,000 of writing assignments waiting for me — I've got to work more in the days to come.
7 p.m. — I catch up on my Marco Polo messages while making some toast, then I call D. Yes, we're still dating. If you read my last Money Diary, you know things were bad after my ectopic pregnancy. While recovering from surgery, it was basically me, the guy who knocked me up, and my strict religious mom hanging out in the living room every single evening for two months. If you can imagine a more awkward trio, please tell me, it might be cathartic. I love my mom. She was wonderful to take care of me, judgment-free, after my surgery. And D. did his best, but no man will ever understand what a miscarriage is like. We're still talking through it.
8 p.m. — D. and I hang up after discussing our plans. We haven't seen each other for nearly two months because I was in Costa Rica then I self-isolated for three weeks. He's a nurse, so I didn't want to risk infecting him and having him infect his patients. Now that I've quarantined for a few weeks with no symptoms, and there's significant community spread in America, I don't think I'm a danger to his patients anymore. He has a few patients who've been tested for COVID-19 but haven't gotten results back yet. I'm still trying to decide if D. and I should be in close proximity.
10 p.m. — I go on a short night hike. The moon is big and the crickets are singing. I got used to walking at night without a flashlight when I worked as a backcountry guide because we weren't allowed any modern conveniences. I think walking on uneven ground without light uses a neglected part of the brain. It's very satisfying. I return to my van and go to sleep.
Daily Total: $0

Day Two

7 a.m. — When I wake up, my dog is pouncing at me, fake growling and snapping. She's almost 13, so I love every second of her goofy puppy mood. It lasts about five minutes each day, then she's back to her dignified, stoic self. She's my favorite.
8 a.m. — I stay in bed responding to Marco Polo messages (some of my friends are in Europe or Asia, so I tend to get a lot of messages overnight) and reading COVID-19 stuff on GetAbstract. I like their coverage because it summarizes reputable sources and keeps me from getting overwhelmed by all the clickbait on the internet.
9:30 a.m. — Some commenters expressed concern (okay, disgust) over my personal hygiene practices after my last Money Diary, so I'll describe those in a little more detail here. Every morning when in the wilderness, I dry brush my body with a soft boar bristle brush to get off any dead skin cells, which feels amazing and helps me keep a bit cleaner when water is scarce. Then, I use a baby wipe and hot water/witch hazel to clean the vital areas. There's a truism in the outdoor survival community that if you stop using harsh soaps, your body bacteria kind of settles and you don't produce as much BO. James Hamblin has also written about this in The Atlantic if you want further reading. I tend to think that most of the bacteria I pick up outdoors benefits my microbiome. I've never gotten sick in the wilderness. I love showering, but I also love being alone for weeks in the wilderness, and usually, that means I have to conserve water for drinking.
10 a.m. — I do use water to clean up after going to the bathroom, however. The years I spent living in Asia with bidets have convinced me that dry toilet paper just isn't enough.
11 a.m. — I go out to explore a rocky hillside I've had my eye on for a few days. I'm not on a trail and things get pretty intense. It's more along the lines of bouldering and rock-climbing than hiking. My dog is like a mountain goat — her climbing skills put mine to shame.
12 p.m. — I get back from the hike and make another salad and some sweet tea to reboot my kombucha culture. I've got a propane stove fueled by a 20-pound propane tank mounted outside my van and I've only refilled it twice in four years (which costs about $30). The stove is a little one-burner that was about $40. After making the tea, I text D. to see if his patients tested positive for COVID-19. They still haven't gotten results. I'll start driving his direction in the hopes that the tests come back negative.
2 p.m. — After hitting the highway I see a gas station ahead. Is that a mirage? $1.55 a gallon? Did I enter a time warp back to the 90s? I think it's so cheap because the gas station is on reservation land or something. I wear gloves to fill up. $23.69
3 p.m. — As I drive, I listen to an interview that's source material for my next writing assignment, which will pay $150. I use an app on my old phone to record my ideas while listening.
4 p.m. — I find a cool dispersed camping spot on national forest land with lots of pine trees. Unfortunately, people have left trash, so I spend an hour or so walking around with a garbage bag to clean up. I consider making a fire, but decide it's too windy to do so safely. I make dinner on my stove instead.
8 p.m. — I'm at a higher altitude and it's cold so I turn on my diesel heater, which was $114 on Amazon (I paid a friend $40 to install it in my van). On its highest setting, it can turn my van into a sauna in 10 minutes. On a really cold day, I burn through about a quarter of the tank heating my van all day, but usually, I only use it for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.
10 p.m. — D. lets me know that all of his patients' COVID-19 tests came back negative! Woo! We know his hospital will probably be affected soon, but I'm glad it's not there yet, and I'm glad I can see him. I also get an email about a job I applied for as a researcher/writer for a podcast. There were over 2,000 applicants and I made the first cut! I have my doubts that I'll make the next cut, but I still go to sleep happy. It would be amazing to do that part-time and continue with my current writing job.
Daily Total: $23.69

Day Three

7 a.m. — I wake up to text messages with bad news — one friend has been laid off, another is on furlough for two months, and another has to take a 20% pay cut for two months. Everything about this pandemic feels so surreal. I also get a text message from my boss for my outdoor survival job — he's letting me know that everything is up in the air for my instructor job this summer. I'm so sad, not just because of the money but because I really love that job.
11 a.m. — I listen to podcasts, write a bit, hike a bit, eat and epilate my armpits and legs. Overall a pleasant morning.
1 p.m. — I drive to where D. is and we have a nice reunion (this was before healthcare workers started quarantining themselves from their families). We find a beautiful BLM spot to park for the night and go on the most incredible hike. The moon's so bright we cast shadows and I take a bunch of photos of the night sky and trees reflected in a slow-moving river. We finally get back to our vans at around 10.
Daily Total: $0

Day Four

8:30 a.m. — I wake up to the sound of D. replacing my license plate lightbulb because he noticed it was out. He's handy like that. As he's working, I peel us some grapefruits. D. and I spend the rest of the morning just hanging around, doing van maintenance and catching up.
12 p.m. — My big project today is to set up my “hour-long shower” in my van. I bought the materials (I think they were about $160) about six months ago after seeing a YouTube video where a guy made a shower that reuses water by forcing it through a filter and recirculating it. I never set it up because it was easier to go to Planet Fitness, but now that Planet Fitness is closed, I'm going to give it a try. I have my doubts though — can a filter really clean the water well enough? Will it get clogged by soap? A long shower that only uses three or four gallons would be a game-changer.
1 p.m. — When I first converted my van, I had a small stainless steel tub installed (made by an amazing craftsman who owed my dad a favor). Sadly, I've mostly used it as storage over the last four years. I clean it out, then with D.'s help I hook up the pump, hose, filter, and shower nozzle. The pump will have to be hooked up to my electrical system, but I'll finish that next time.
4 p.m. — D. and I head to town and he does laundry at the laundromat. While D. is folding laundry and showering (he's got a shower in his van), I work on a longer writing assignment that will pay $350.
6:30 p.m. — We find another spot to sleep on nearby BLM land. It's raining so we don't hike. I set up a tarp on the back of my van to collect rainwater, which I'll use to wash dishes and such. D. and I make dinner (sweet potato, rice, and quinoa bowl — it sounds boring but with seasoning it was actually really good) then watch an episode of Arrested Development. We fall asleep around 10.
Daily Total: $0

Day Five

6:30 a.m. — I wake up and check my email. There's a message from one of my editors telling me I don't have to worry about job security and that he'll send me more work if I need it. I love my editors. They've always been super supportive, even when I was depressed and had trouble writing after my miscarriages.
7 a.m. — D. has gone to work, so I'll be hanging out alone today. I go out to check how much water I got from last night's rainstorm. The container is full, which makes me unreasonably happy. Then I explore the area with my dog.
7:30 a.m. — I go back to my van and get online to check if my taxes have been withdrawn from my bank account yet (I filed a few weeks ago). They haven't. I do pay taxes, but not much because my income is so low. I'd rather give money to charity than to taxes because then I know where the money is going, but as some people suggested in the comment section of my first Money Diary, Medicaid did pay for my surgery for the ectopic pregnancy. So now I have mixed feelings about paying so little in taxes. I assume that over all my years of working, I've still paid more into the system than I've taken out of it. I've never applied for unemployment benefits (though I've qualified) or received any government support besides the two months of Medicaid. I still have mixed feelings about being on the receiving end of our social safety net. If I worked harder and made more money, Medicaid wouldn't have covered my surgery — it's like the system punishes people for being middle class.
9 a.m. — I get up and do some maintenance stuff. I eat a couple of hardboiled eggs, check my kombucha brew (it's really coming along, already fizzy and getting a nice taste), water my sprouts (I usually have a batch of broccoli sprouts going and I eat them with my salads), and my plants (I have a peace lily, two aloe vera plants, and three other tiny house plants along with some pothos clippings I'm propagating) and feed and walk the dog.
12 p.m. — I take D. some avocado toast for his lunch break and he tells me he doesn't have to work in the afternoon. He hangs out in my van until I finally shoo him away. This is completely new for us, I almost never prioritize work when someone I love is around, but I'm really serious about making more money.
1 p.m. — I head back out to the BLM land and work on and off all afternoon. I finish a $150 assignment and work on the longer assignment that will pay $350.
6 p.m. — D. makes us a really good salad. We chat and make plans to go for a night hike when the sun goes down.
9 p.m. — After our hike, we get back to the vans, talk for a while then go to sleep.
Daily Total: $0

Day Six

6:30 a.m. — I wake up in time to see D. drive off to work. After cuddling the dog for a while, I work on some of my own (unpaid) writing.
12 p.m. —I walk the dog, I make tea, and I eat a grapefruit. I tidy the van and I answer messages from friends. I listen to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. Then I finally get myself going on a writing assignment that will pay $100.
1 p.m. — I take a break and go for a short walk with the dog. We climb a nearby hill, picking up trash along the way, and look out over the valley. It's a beautiful place.
2 p.m. — I finish and send the $100 writing assignment and decide it's time to go to town and get groceries for the first time in a long time. Besides some cabbage, that grapefruit was the last of my fresh food. I drive to town.
2:30 p.m. — I hit the grocery store and am surprised that I'm one of the only people with gloves and a mask on. I text D. to see if he needs anything and he asks me to get coffee. I ask what kind, but I guess he got busy nursing, because he doesn't answer. Never send an ex-Mormon to buy your coffee, friends. I end up just grabbing something at random. I grab a lot of my staples plus frozen fruits and veggies because I want stuff that will last. Hopefully, I won't have to return to the grocery store for another few weeks. $58.18
3 p.m. — I finish grocery shopping but keep my gloves on to fill my drinking water containers from the water dispenser outside the grocery store. It's 30 cents a gallon, which ends up costing $2.70 total. While I fill water, I listen to Anna Karenina. I'm trying to brush up on the classics and Tolstoy's pretty good. $2.70
4 p.m. — I work for a while and finally finish and send the $350 assignment, then head to the post office to mail a package to a friend and postcards to my grandma and mom. I also buy a sheet of dinosaur hologram stamps because who can resist that? $22.05
6 p.m. — I make pad Thai, which turns out amazing. I finish by the time D. gets off work. We eat, talk, cuddle, and make it an early night.
Daily Total: $82.93

Day Seven

10 a.m. — After a slow morning and a great hike, D. leaves so I can get some work done, but as hard as I try, I can't seem to focus. Even though I love my job, making myself work is often a struggle. Instead of writing, I make Tom Kha soup (SO. GOOD.) freezing the leftovers in mason jars. I often make big batches of soup, freeze it in mason jars, then put one in my cooler to defrost each day (which also keeps my cooler cold).
12 p.m. — After making the soup, I make spaghetti with zucchini noodles. My mom grows tomatoes in her garden then cans sauce each year. She gives me like four jars every time I go see her.
1 p.m. — I'm still struggling to focus on writing work. Instead, I hook the pump for my “hour shower” up to electricity. D. has taught me the basics but electrical work is still pretty new to me. I install a switch using wire caps then run wires from the water pump to my fuse panel, then connect the positive and ground wires, then install a fuse. Then I put the sump in a five-gallon bucket of water and flip the switch, half expecting to get electrocuted. But it actually works! I heat about three gallons of water and jump in the shower.
3 p.m. — I'll spare you the details of how well the “hour shower” concept of filtering and recirculating water actually works — let's just say soapy water still comes out cloudy after being forced through the filter. So my plan for future showers is to wash and rinse with a gallon of water, letting it go down the drain, then relax under a gallon and a half of recirculated water, then finally rinse with a gallon or so of clean (non-recirculated) water.
6 p.m. — I'm super happy after my long shower experiment. I finish and send a $120 writing assignment and cook asparagus and brown rice ramen noodles with vegetables and sauce. It's so nice to have more food again.
7:30 p.m. — D. gets off work, we eat, cuddle, and watch an episode of some 90s show D. used to watch when he was a kid. It's about a small dog that acts out parts of classic novels. I rarely watched TV as a kid so this is new to me, but D. is super nostalgic.
10 p.m. — We get in bed. Final thoughts/updates re: my miscarriage and having children — D. was very much on board when we started trying to conceive. When we found out I was pregnant, we started looking for apartments (running water is nice when you have a new baby), with an eye to going back to traveling after six months, then probably settling down around year five so kiddo could start kindergarten. D. would have been the primary breadwinner and I the primary caregiver, though I could write on his days off. I can see why $12,000 a year is alarming but it isn't exactly my maximum capacity for income. Thanks to those who made kind comments. Miscarriage sucks.
Daily Total: $0
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