Housing can be a major money suck. Take San Francisco, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $3,500 a month. Prices in my home base, New York City, are just as egregious: $3,300 for a one-bed.
A handful of professionals seem to have figured out a creative solution to this real estate conundrum: Rather than settling into overpriced apartments, they’re moving into vans, sailboats, and tiny homes. They seem to be onto something brilliant — besides saving up to 90% of their income, living tiny means a less cluttered (and more minimalist) lifestyle, an alluring prospect in today’s fast-paced world.
Of course, it looks brilliant on paper — from a safe distance — but I wanted to know what it’s really like to make a lifestyle change of this magnitude. So I moved into a van. Specifically, a taxi cab converted into a “rolling room,” which I found on Airbnb for $50 a night ($39 plus the cleaning and service fees).
I only spent two nights ‘living tiny’ before I happily moved back into my overpriced Manhattan apartment … but two nights was more than enough time to answer all of my questions.
Here’s how it went, and what I learned:
I knew that my level of preparation could make or break the experience, so I packed diligently ... yet still lightly. I made sure that each item I brought would serve a specific purpose. Among the things that made the cut were: work clothes, a few toiletries, two washcloths, an extra blanket, portable speakers, a laptop, a book, and Melatonin to help me sleep.
Two last-minute additions -- toilet paper and hand sanitizer -- were game-changers. We (I brought my roommate along) also bought two bottles of water on the way, which we figured we would use to brush our teeth and wash our faces.
We made the easy commute from Manhattan to Long Island City, Queens, where we found our home for the next two nights parked on this dead-end street.
The best part about leaving Manhattan is getting to see its flawless skyline. The view from the taxi was top-tier.
Our minimalist setup included a battery-powered fan, full-size mattress, and a few decorative touches.
We ordered Seamless and fired up Finding Nemo. It was dark out by the time our food arrived (directly to our window!), so we ate inside ... it was a mistake the lingering aroma of fried rice reminded us of all night. Not only is eating in close quarters tricky, but we had nowhere to preserve the copious leftovers and ended up wasting a lot of Chinese food.
Mistake number two surfaced soon after: We didn't charge our electronics. Luckily, we had enough juice on the laptop to see Nemo reunite with Marlin, but neither of our phones were charged. We ended up switching them to aeroplane mode so they would last overnight.
When it came time to sleep, I quickly realised it was going to be a long night. The bed was more than comfortable, but the combination of sleeping in a new and unfamiliar place, cars and trucks whizzing by, and temperature fluctuations (we went from sweating to shivering within a few hours), made for a lot of tossing and turning.
I was up as soon as the sun rose (around 5:15 AM) -- and the two or so hours of shut-eye in between were choppy.
I intended to go straight from the taxi to my office, but I felt the need to shower before heading to work. Many of the van dwellers I've spoken to use work facilities or their gym for showers and bathrooms -- I had the luxury of going back to my apartment for these amenities, but it still took up an extra hour or so and made me realise just how many moving parts you're dealing with when it comes to this lifestyle.
Headed into night two, I didn't make too many alterations besides fully charging my phone throughout the day.
The biggest difference between Monday and Tuesday was how we spent our time leading up to the evening. Our objective was to spend as little time as possible in the taxi -- and use it exclusively as a place to crash -- so we ate a leisurely meal after work and passed the time walking around Long Island City.
One piece of advice I was given by van dwellers Pete and Kara D'Andrea, who lived in an RV in the Google parking lot for two years, was to move slowly. 'You'll probably hit your head at some point,' they warned me. I don't do a good job of moving slowly ... and while I didn't hit my head, I did accidentally shatter a mirror (if you look closely, you can see the damage). Moving slower comes with the 'tiny lifestyle.' Not only is it more practical, but I started thinking about the mental benefits that could come from leading a slower-paced, more intentional and deliberate life.
Besides the mirror incident, Tuesday was an overwhelming success compared to Monday. I was up at sunrise again, but logged about five (less choppy) hours of sleep.
I only spent two nights in the taxi, but the biggest perk of van life (to date) are the views. Monday's sunset temporarily painted Manhattan pink.
Another unexpected perk: Wednesday morning's commute. When you're up with the sun, you have time for a more leisurely commute. On Wednesday, we decided to take the East River Ferry back to Manhattan. While not the most efficient -- or economical (in addition to the $4 boat trip, we had to hop on the subway after being dropped off downtown) -- commute, it was by far the coolest way to travel.
The space truly is tiny. I'm all for minimalism -- and have learned to live with less since moving to New York City, where space is a commodity -- but this lifestyle requires the absolute bare minimum.
I only 'lived tiny' for two nights (and I even had access to my apartment), so I didn't exactly miss my 'stuff' ... but I did think about everything I would have to let go if I was doing this full-time. Detaching from my shelves and shelves of books, trophies and keepsakes, and shoes, for instance, would be a major (and difficult) adjustment.
Sound sleep isn't a given, which gets exhausting. I slept no more than eight hours over the course of the two nights (despite the Melatonin!). None of those hours were sound, which made for long work days and general fatigue.
That being said, I did sleep much better the second night, which makes me think that if I were doing this permanently, I would eventually adjust to the space and get my typical seven hours.
Proper preparation takes more time and effort than I was ready for. Once again, I only did this for two days (not a tall task!), but was shocked with the level of preparation required even for just 48 hours.
I typically never worry about my phone battery, or stress about the availability of a bathroom, because outlets and restrooms are always at my fingertips. Living off the grid in a van forced me to think ahead at least 24 hours. I found myself asking questions I rarely ask on a day-to-day basis: Does my phone have enough battery to last the night? When is the next time I'll have access to a bathroom? How early should I set my alarm to have enough time to commute home and shower before work?
In addition to planning for these little things that are typically a given, you have to plan ways to fill time. After night one, I realised that in order for this lifestyle to work (at least, for me), I'd want to spend as little time as possible in the van, using it exclusively to sleep. My initial thought is that this would be easier said than done -- sure, it was easy to kill time for one night, but I imagine planning activities to fill each night would take quite a bit of time and effort.
Despite the sweet views, I probably won't be joining the van dwelling community anytime soon ... but major kudos to those who are making it work.