What It’s Like To Live The #VanLife As A Full-Time Student

They only spend $5 on utilities in two months.

If you fall down as many YouTube and Instagram holes as I do, then you definitely know about #vanlife.

If you don’t, it’s a “lifestyle movement” where beautiful people live in cars and get paid to post Instagrams of themselves wearing bikinis or hiking shoes or whatever. Recently though, I discovered something that genuinely astonished me. There are plenty of regular people (i.e. people who don’t call themselves “influencers”) doing this, and some of them are full-time students.

One of these regular person #vanlife channels belongs to Phil and Vanessa, a Californian couple who have lived in a van on three separate occasions. They first came to my attention with this video, in which Vanessa described how she managed to get by as a full-time student living in a Honda Element. I was skeptical – so I sent her an email, and we had a good chat about the nitty gritty of #studentvanlife.

How Do The Finances Work Out?

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More than anything else, I was fascinated by the idea of avoiding rent and bills in the city. Did it actually work out to be much of a saving when you take into account the upkeep of a vehicle? According to Vanessa, yes. “We had lived for 2 years in a house prior to moving into our [Honda] Element, so we had a good comparison between the two lifestyles. At some point, since we were often camping on the weekends and away in the evenings, we figured that the time we actually spent in the house was not worth the price we were paying.”

“we figured that the time we actually spent in the house was not worth the price we were paying.”

During their time in California, Vanessa and Phil completely avoided bills, including internet and cable TV. “We had no TV, and would stay in places with free Wi-Fi (such as big stores, but usually the school [uni] or Phil’s workplace).” Apart from petrol, their only “utility” was cooking gas, which cost them about $4USD ($5AUD) every two months. Bargain.

You’ve gotta make that $4 somehow though, so I asked Vanessa about how easy it would be to balance full-time study, van life and part-time work. She seemed to think it was easier than living in a house. “I actually tutored part-time, and it gave me a lot of flexibility in choosing when and where to do it.” For those of us who aren’t tutors, she stressed that a van could still make everything super convenient. The days of the two-hour commute are no more: why not just park outside of work the night before?

How Do You Do Everyday Stuff?

The only nice part of San Jose. #missionpeak

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Aside from how much money you’ll save, there are practical reasons that we haven’t all jumped into a van and started living on the streets. As Vanessa told me, these kinds of everyday necessities – like going to the bathroom and finding a place to park your new home – are the most difficult parts of van life, particularly in the city.

Vanessa and Phil got creative by befriending the security guards at Vanessa’s uni so they could easily park there overnight. They also figured out which stores had their bathrooms open early in the morning, late at night and on the weekends. They didn’t hesitate to take advantage of Vanessa’s student perks, either: “We also made much more use of the school facilities, such as staying late to study in the library, or using the cafeteria toaster oven to make our dinner.”

In regards to studying and getting to classes, #vanlife can be particularly advantageous: “Odd school hours were easier to work around, I had a place to take a nap in between classes, and forgetting things ‘at home’ wasn’t a big deal.”

So… Should We All Pack Up Our Lives And Get A Van?

Vanessa seems to think it’s possible for most people. I’m not so sure – I really love my bathtub. But for Phil and Vanessa, being closer to the centre of everything was better for their social life. “While we lived in the house, which was somewhat far away from the school, I felt like I missed out more on events … after moving into the [Honda] Element, we actually became more social, oftentimes because we were closer by, could avoid traffic, or we would offer to cook dinner at a friend’s place.”

If you’re a particularly adventurous person, the #vanlife makes regular travel a bigger part of your life. Phil and Vanessa are travelling full time in Europe at the moment, but when they were working and studying in San Jose, they would be able to drive out of the city on weekend camping trips without the need to pack up first.

Wish we had more time so we could climb #grandteton.

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Of course, on the other side of things, there are laws to think about (especially in bigger cities), it can get quite loud at night and you have to be a special kind of patient to not have a bathroom and shower available at all times.

Vanessa’s summary of the type of person who is able to live their life this way was pretty spot on, “In general, I suppose you have to be a bit adventurous, willing to put up with small inconveniences, and love being outside.”

(Lead image: Phil Chan / Instagram)