A year and a half ago, 24-year-old Jason Roesslein headed from Illinois to the Bay Area to start work as an engineer for Tesla Motors.
He lived with a roommate for a few months, but found it frustrating shelling out $1,250 for rent each month. "That was supposed to be a temporary situation until I figured out where I really wanted to live," Roesslein tells Business Insider. "As I got further and further along in my thinking, I decided that I would try to live in a van, and I eventually pulled the trigger on it."
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He lived in his "studio on wheels" — a 2006 Dodge Sprinter van — from October 2014 through March 2015, using Tesla and his gym to shower and eat most of his meals. After five months of van life he reverted back to a more traditional lifestyle, with nearly $10,000 of extra savings, some of which he diverted towards paying off his student loans in full.
Here's what it was like:
Roesslein toyed with the idea of a buying a box truck and turning it into a tiny home. Ultimately, the idea of owning such a big truck was too daunting to proceed.
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"At the same time as I was developing those thoughts, I met a guy who works at Tesla, who at the time was living in his Subaru Forester," he says. "He'd been doing it for a year."
One night, that same coworker mentioned replacing his Subaru with a Sprinter van. "That planted the seed in my head," Roesslein explains. "It would be big enough so that you can stand up and have everything you need in there — but it's also not an atrociously large vehicle, and would be fairly maneuverable."
Roesslein thought about what he wanted out of a living situation — his own, affordable space where he could sleep and store his things — and where he wanted to be: close to work, the gym, and the social scene.
"My housing hunt had turned into the desire for a small mobile space to lay my head, cook and eat some food, store a few things, and hang out for a bit each day," he writes on Medium.
This manifested itself in a 2006 Dodge Sprinter, which he bought off eBay for $13,000 and picked up in Houston, Texas — it turned out that flying to Texas and driving the Sprinter back was cheaper than buying a used van in the notoriously pricey Bay Area.
He paid for the van upfront — $500 the night he bought it on eBay, and then the remaining $12,500 when he arrived in Houston — and spent another $1,000 turning the Sprinter into a livable place.
His two fixed costs during the van life were car insurance — about $100 a month — and his cell phone plan — about $75 a month.
He slept in a sleeping bag on top of a sleeping pad, and conditions were very comfortable, he says: "Some nights it would get fairly cold, but I had a small propane heater and a zero degree sleeping bag — and, it's nice to sleep in the cold."
As for food and showers, that's all on Tesla's campus. He ate breakfast and lunch at work, but made an effort to get out of the office for dinner.
"It was a lot of Chipotle or similar style restaurants if I wasn't hanging out with friends," he says. In fact, the one monthly expense that increased during his five months of van life was food: "I tracked how much I spent on food because I didn't do a lot of cooking, and I spent maybe an extra $150 a month just because I ate out more."
Roesslein had the option of using the company's gym (pictured above) for workouts and showers, but he was also a member of a separate gym. "Having another gym that had nicer showers than Tesla, and was another place to go and hang out, was convenient — and good for my sanity," he says.
Another perk: Late nights in the office — which there were many — meant crashing in the parking lot (pictured above), and an easy commute the next morning.
He didn't spend every night in Tesla's backyard: "Essentially, you just sleep wherever you end up, whether that's work, a coffee shop, the gym, or a mountain bike trail," he says.
"At first you kind of feel the stigma of living out of a vehicle — and before you do it, it seems like it's a big deal — but after doing it for five months, and especially looking back, it's not a big deal. The logic is sound, no one really cares, it's fun, it's a bit adventurous, a great way to simplify things, and allows you a lot of freedoms that having an apartment and paying rent get in the way of."
Weekends were spent exploring beautiful California.
"Weekends are typical, doin' life, wherever you please, because you can," he writes on Medium. "The city, the coast, the mountains, etc."
"It was interesting," he says of the van life. "I didn't have a 'going home for the day' place. Normally, you leave work, go home, make dinner, and you're home in your apartment with a lot of time to do stuff. Instead, it's 6 p.m. and you need to find something to do. There's no default of going home for the day. There's nothing else to kill your time with. You need to figure something out."
Roesslein spent most evenings hanging out with friends, working out, or at the local Starbucks.
He also spent more time working: "I worked a lot when I lived in the van, helping get Tesla Energy going from a mechanical design and production support engineering perspective, and spent a lot of time thinking about my game plan for the real world."
After five months, he called it quits.
"It's nice to have your own space — a quiet, consistent space — that you can make what you need it for, whether it be thinking, side projects, hobbies, or reading," he says. "The van, at least in the state I had it, wasn't really that. I didn't really feel comfortable going back to it just to hang out."
Plus, driving a big van around was not the most convenient of ways to travel, he says.
"I decided I would rather spend the money to have a personal home base type of thing, and then get an adventure mobile for going on little side trips," he says.
He sold "Dolly" for $16,000 on Craigslist — turning a $2,000 profit — and has since moved into a house with three coworkers, albeit in a room he and his roommates built in an unused corner of the garage for all of them to save on rent.
In addition to the extra $2,000 he picked up, he saved five months' worth of rent, which comes out to roughly $7,500, as rent would have cost him about $1,500 a month in the Bay Area, he explains.
He used the extra savings to finish paying off his $14,000 of student loans, and still has a generous savings account, thanks to the unique living situation, coupled with previous savings. "I've always been money conscious, but the money I saved with the van is special," he says. "Not only is it a considerable chunk, but it comes from creativity and a bit of inconvenience so that I can have the freedom to do the things I want. It's opened up so many possibilities."
He says he misses his cabin on wheels: "Having the van was a nice way to get away from everything else, and just focus on whatever you want to focus on, whether it's learning or reading, or your life."
"I am strongly considering getting back to it," he writes. "Stay tuned for van life part two."
Do you have a similar living situation, or do you know someone who does? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.