Photo by Jillian Wells. Bohdi Haugen smiles while sitting in his van.

Students find financial freedom in vanlife


by Jillian Wells

Amidst housing shortages and the increasing cost of everyday living in recent years, students are looking to an alternative way of living: vanlife. The term “vanlife” means exactly like what it sounds like, living in a van, but the term encompasses various mobile living options such as trailers, campers, motorhomes and RVs. 

For students seeking a more affordable lifestyle, vanlife is a compelling solution. According to Maddy Montiel, a senior environmental science major with five years of vanlife experience, this choice has allowed them to avoid the cost of traditional housing. Ultimately, Montiel hopes to never pay rent through college. On-campus housing, depending on the type and meal plan, can range from $5,000 to $15,000 per year. In contrast, by parking their motorhome on campus (with a general parking pass) Montiel saves about $500 on gas per month and their monthly living expenses can be as low as $300 for essentials, making it a financially sensible choice. 

“I’m choosing to do this instead of putting myself into an insane amount of debt in order to pay rent somewhere,” said Montiel. “I’ve always wanted to do it and can’t see myself living another way.”

Similarly, student van-lifer Steven Childs, a senior wildlife major, explained that while it may not be his preferred lifestyle, it aligns with his financial priorities.

“If you think about it, the whole point of me being here is to study and go to school and learn. At the end of the day, your room generally is a place for you to put your head and sleep,” said Childs.

Students are also being drawn to vanlife because of the freedom and independence it offers. When living on wheels, the world becomes your front porch.

“It’s definitely a pro to be able to wake up on the beach, and pretty much wherever you want to wake up”, said Bohdi Haugen, a freshman doing vanlife. 

Haugen also added some of the advantages that come with owning a van, including that it really feels like your own; a feeling you may not necessarily have when you’re renting someone else’s space. Jaikyn Russel, a freshman studying forestry, who shares a van with Sierra Cole and their dog Indy, believes vanlife is a lot more doable than people think it is. Cole added that one of the draws of vanlife is being able to travel and always have your home with you. 

Even with all of the benefits of vanlife, it doesn’t come without its challenges, notably not having a bathroom.

“I’ve grown pretty familiar with public restrooms nowadays,” said Haugen.

Montiel added that vanlife often gets glorified, and that there are some harsh realities that come along with it, including dealing with every aspect of your consumption because resources are limited. For instance, Montiel mentioned that they have to always have propane or else they won’t have a way to cook food, boil water or keep their appliances running. Montiel also noted the less-than-glamorous aspects of vanlife.

“You have to deal with your own shit – literally in every regard, you have to deal with your own shit,” said Montiel.

But despite this challenge, they believe it forces you to have a shift in mindset and become more sustainable. 

Students embracing this lifestyle feel that there is a sense of community among vanlifers. Haugen has met many other like-minded people who are in the same situation as him. Montiel further elaborated that they and other vanlifers have formed close-knit bonds, organizing events such as cookouts and beach bonfires together. These connections provide a support system for those navigating the challenges of this lifestyle.

While this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, it can be cost effective, rewarding, and freeing for those who do it. If you’re interested in embracing this lifestyle, Montiel noted that an alternative living club is underway. The club’s first meeting will be Friday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. in Library room 114. 

“We’re hoping to use that to create a space for students who live like this and students who are interested in living like this, to come and talk about it and learn about it and advocate for more resources,” said Montiel.

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