The Money Diarist Who Chooses To Live In Their Car

Illustrated by: Richard Chance.
A search for #VanLife on Instagram yields nearly three million results. Most are high-def photos of vans on open roads or perched atop mountains with waterfalls cascading in the background. Sometimes, there's a backpack-toting person doing tree pose in the foreground. #VanLife is a lifestyle goal best described as a nomadic, free-spirited existence diametrically opposed to the workaholic brunch-centric urban fantasy.
This story, however, is not really about #VanLife the hashtag.
M.* is an engineer making $122,000 per year in the tech industry in Mountain View, CA. Their Money Diary (M. is agender, and uses gender neutral pronouns) was one of our most popular in recent months, providing a unique lens into the Silicon Valley tech lifestyle and tech workers who live in their vans. M. talked about their involvement in the ace community, sponsorship of a hen at an animal sanctuary, daily Duolingo sessions, love of vegan baked goods, and on-campus aerial silks class. But the aspect of their life that garnered the most attention from our readers was, by far, their decision to live out of their car.
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Ahead, an interview with M. about the many factors (financial, cultural, and professional) that contributed to this decision, and how it has impacted their life.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the diarist.
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"Part of living in my car is trying to create my own sense of home and place."

How long have you been living in your car, and why did you decide to do it?

"It's pretty much been a year now. Before I moved into my car, I was paying less than $1,000 per month in rent, which is pretty hard to find in the Bay Area, but doable if you live with four other people. And I felt like: What am I — someone who came to the Bay Area for a tech job and is paid a lot — doing in this home instead of someone else who actually can't afford to pay more than $1,000 a month in rent?"

Did you know any friends or coworkers who were living in their cars at that time?

"I have a friend who started living in their car a year before I did, so that kind of made it seem like a possibility. And then another friend of mine, after seeing my build, ended up doing a road trip living out of his car, which was pretty cool."

Who else do you see living in their cars in the Bay Area? And how much of car life is a Bay Area-specific thing?

"There is this weird dichotomy between people who choose to live out of their cars, and then people who actually need to live out of their cars out of economic necessity. People might not even think of this, but there are people who work in tech but are low-paid, like cafeteria workers and custodial staff, and a lot of them also live out of their cars because they just can't afford being in housing. Many of them are contract workers who don't get the benefits that full-time employees do. So that dichotomy is kind of mind-trippy.

"As far as whether it's a Bay Area/tech thing, I think this lifestyle is definitely more sustainable for tech workers like me who can rely on their workplace for necessities. A lot of tech campuses are structured to provide perks like food, gyms, laundry, etc. so that workers can work longer and not have to deal with those things outside of work. I just kind of take it to an extreme by actually living on campus. One joke idea that my friend and I used to throw around was to build tiny houses for tech workers in each parking space in order to solve the housing crisis in the Bay Area. Over time, it became less of a joke and more of a reason why I moved (more so to live my values than to 'solve' anything, though).

Would you live in your car if you lived in a different city?

"I know it can definitely be harder to find places to park and sleep in other cities and municipalities because many places have laws against sleeping in your car. Part of living in my car is trying to create my own sense of home and place, because it's like I'm trying to figure out my connection to the land – like what it means for me, an immigrant who came to the U.S. as a small child, to buy land that is already stolen. I don't know, I still have to work out my feelings around that."
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"I think after a few years of working, though, most of us are more jaded or burnt out now."

Do you find that you spend more time on campus, even when you're not at your desk working, than you would if you didn't live in your car?

"Yeah, for sure. My car is definitely more of my bedroom. Sometimes if I want private time and space I'll hang out there and read a book or watch Netflix or something, but otherwise, in terms of meals, I eat a lot on campus, because those meals are covered. And if I want to cook, I cook at friends' places. I also shower at the gym on campus. We have access to buildings 24/7, so that's where I use the bathroom, too."

How has living out of your car affected your work-life balance?

"I'll often work on weekends – usually it's just answering an email, but sometimes it's finishing up tasks I didn't complete during the week. I try to fill up my free time with things outside of work so that I don't work all the time. I'm usually doing things in East Bay or San Francisco on the weekends, so I'm physically away from campus, but I'll have some 'stay at home' weekends where I'm in the office doing a mix of non-work and work. I think work-life balance can be difficult (especially for engineers who need to be on-call), though the culture of each specific company definitely influences how difficult or easy it is.

"What I've found is that, for me and a lot of other friends who started working in the tech industry after college, we all put in a lot of late hours during our first couple years of working. Part of this (personally speaking), was being used to school taking up most of my life, so I let work take up most of my life. Other aspects were still getting used to living in a new place, not having other obligations like a spouse or children, and also feeling grateful for the job (on the heels of the recession, plus a dash of imposter syndrome) and the amount of money and perks I was getting and therefore wanting to 'prove' myself. I think after a few years of working, though, most of us are more jaded or burnt out now and are trying to take care of our bodies and sort out a better work-life balance."
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"It was kind of confusing, because I was like, 'wait, what am I doing with all this money?'"

In your Money Diary, you talked about the "money experiments" that you do each month. Do you allocate your money differently now that you don't have to pay rent?

"When I first started living in my car home, I wasn't really thinking about where the money that I would be paying towards rent would be going now. I was just always taught to save money. But then, once I started living in my car, and through different conversations with my partner and other folks — the question that kept coming up was: 'What are you saving for?' And I didn't really have a good answer for that.

"It was kind of confusing, because I was like, 'Wait, what am I doing with all this money?' So the money experiments are kind of a way to try out different ways to spend money each month and see how it feels and if I want to keep doing it. Kind of as a way to build up my spending muscles. So some of the experiments I've tried are paying rent for someone I care about, paying 100% tip on food (and asking who the tip goes to), and donating to podcasts/radio. I also tried giving money to anyone on the street who asked. People tell you not to give money to people who ask for it on the street. If that's what you've been taught or what makes you feel weird, why not try it for a month and then see how it actually feels?

"This article I read, The Dream Hoarders: How America's Top 20 Percent Perpetuates Inequality, made me think a lot more about my role in our country's wealth disparity. I also think Resource Generation (a group that organizes young people with wealth and class privilege) is a great resource for people who earn a lot and want to do more."

How has your decision to live in your car impacted your life socially?

"I feel like it hasn't changed very much, because I lived in different places in the Bay Area when I was living in an actual building, and those places were still kind of far out from friends. So it feels kind of the same. It's always been a trade off of living closer to work or living closer to where most of my friends are or where I volunteer at. When people visit me down in South Bay, I'll just take them to dinner on campus or something."
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"It took me about a month to build."

How much did it cost to move into your car and what did that process entail?

"It took me about a month to build, and I spent nearly all my free time on it. My workplace has a workshop that had a lot of tools that I was able to use, which definitely helped me cut down the cost. I think the car itself around $6,000-$7,000. And then the rest cost me $364."

For those who are interested, here's a cost breakdown of M.'s car modifications:

Building Supplies: $228
- $50: 4'x8' 3/4" maple plywood for the platform (Home Depot)
- $45: 1'x5' 1/2" Russian birch plywood for the cabinets (Craigslist)
- $80: 2x4s and various bits of hardware and hooks and things (Home Depot)
- $45: spray paint (Home Depot)
- $8: sandpaper (Home Depot)

Window Cover Supplies: $74
- $28: roll of reflectix (Amazon)
- $44: gaffer tape x 4 (Amazon)
- $2: electrical tape x 2 (Amazon)

Car Supplies: $62
- $16: backseat and visor organizers (Amazon)
- $11: cargo net (Amazon)
- $11: curtain (Amazon)
- $24: rechargeable dehumidifier x 2 (Amazon)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Have a story you'd like to share? Email us here.
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