Editor’s note: Two years ago, a Silicon Valley product designer named Kurt Varner saved a ton of money and learned a lot about life by living in his car for four months.
Varner wrote about his experiences on Quora in March 2013. Recently, he provided Business Insider with an introduction to that Quora post explaining what he’s been doing since he stopped calling his 2004 Honda Civic home.
Two years ago, I jumped head-first into the Silicon Valley tech world. Armed with little more than a dream, I drove to Palo Alto with a car, but nowhere to live. For four months, I lived from my car, relying on pragmatism, creativity and the kindness of the community. Today, I have my own version of the Silicon Valley dream — My wife and I reside in Mountain View (not in a car), and I have a job as a Senior Product Designer at the on demand shipping startup, Shyp.
Beyond the obvious cost savings, I gained perspective on what really matters, including compassion for others less fortunate and the focus to pursue his true passion of design. Wondering if extreme minimalism is right for you? Here is the story of how I spent a summer homeless, on a $US219 per month budget, to join the tech revolution.
I recently concluded a 4 month adventure of living from my car in Silicon Valley. Don’t listen to the naysayers. It can be done, and it will save you a ton of money. I did this out of choice, also while bootstrapping my startup.
Here’s what Inc. Magazine had to say about it: http://www.inc.com/magazine/2012…
My monthly costs were a grand total of $US219. $US100 for a 24/7 co-working membership, $US39 for a 24/7 gym membership, and $US80 at the grocery store. Here’s how the logistics of it all worked…
Car: If you don’t have a car, get one. It is key to making this lifestyle work. You don’t need to worry about a homeless shelter, and you can store all your possessions in it (all I had was a duffle bag, my laptop, sleeping stuff, and food). It’s the one consistent place you can depend on. You’ll be able to buy a cheap one for less than a month’s rent in the Bay Area. I had a 2004 Honda Civic.
Sleeping: Sleeping is obviously super important if you expect to be in good mental standing everyday. I made it work by folding down the rear seats and laying a 3″ foam mattress pad from the truck to the rear of the interior. I’m 6 feet tall and I could almost stretch out entirely while laying down. It’s not as comfortable as a bed, but surprisingly, it’s not as bad as you’d think. I slept fully through the nights.
Showering: I bought a 24 Hour Fitness membership to take care of my hygienic needs. Every morning I’d wake up and drive to the gym to take a shower. Then, like every other normal person, I’d head off to work. I found that having 24/7 access was really nice in case I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I’d always park within a few miles (and many times as close as the parking lot). If you’re looking for a less expensive option, there are some gyms that are as low as $US15/mo.
Working and free time: I signed up for a Hacker Dojo co-working membership. This is primarily where I spent all my time. They provide fast internet, a microwave, coffee, water, couches, community, etc. For only $US100/mo, it’s a no brainer. **Do not abuse their space. Don’t use it to sleep in or steal from. Just common sense.
Eating: I stored almost all my food in my car. The small amount of perishable food I did have, I used the Hacker Dojo refrigerators. These are communal, so I chose not to store much in them. However, I would use their microwave everyday to heat my meals. I wrote a short post about what I ate: http://blog.kurtvarner.com/post/…. Mainly, just get stuff that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. However, it is definitely a challenge to eat healthy, as high sodium is going to be prevalent in nearly all canned foods. Just be cautious.
Parking:Technically, Palo Alto is the only Bay Area city where it’s legal to live from a vehicle. That said, I parked more nights in Mountain View over the course of the 4 months. I was only slightly disturbed once when a police officer spotlighted my car. I sat up from my back seat, looked at him, and then he simply drove away.
When looking for locations to park, my focus was on being unnoticed. Anywhere with little foot traffic is best. Not sure where you’re located, but here are a few places that worked well for me:
https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?…. There are countless other places that will work well. I found these by taking an afternoon to just randomly drive around.Privacy
Tint your windows: If you want your privacy, tint your windows. This was one of the best decisions I made, as it really helped me to fly under the radar. I went with a 23% tint that cost about $US120 professionally installed. It wasn’t pitch black, but it was dark enough where you couldn’t see in during the night, and made you and your possessions not obvious during the day.
Sun shade: Get a $US5 sun shade to put in the windshield while you sleep.
Rear screen: Do the same with a mesh screen for the rear window.
Here are two videos of my set up. It may help the reality of the situation set in a bit.
Video of waking up in my car: I may regret posting this one, but here’s to transparency
Overall, this lifestyle begins to feel fairly normal. Admittedly, it’s nicer to be living in an apartment, but if you’re in desperate need to cut costs, a car will be your best friend.
On a side note, there’s another fantastic benefit that comes from living like this — embracing a minimalistic perspective on life. Before these 4 months, everyday I took for granted things like a warm bed, shower, home cooked meals, etc. It’s easy to lose sight of how privileged the majority of us are, but there are many, many people without these basic things. I realised that even the simple things in life could bring me more happiness than a world of possessions.
Since starting my journey, I’ve heard a lot of encouragement from the startup community, but also quite a bit of hatred. You have to take the negativity with a grain of salt. You know your situation better than anyone, so just trust yourself.
You are not alone. During my experience I saw many other people living from vehicles. It’s strange that most people are oblivious to it. There are even several other entrepreneurs I know that are taking to the streets to cut costs here in the Valley.
I’d be more than happy to offer any other advice to you. There’s so much more that could be said, but I’m sparing some details for the sake of time. Connect with me if you’d like to meet up or get on a call.
You can read more about my story at http://blog.kurtvarner.com.
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