Shaddai Ensley this summer spent $4,500 to buy and transform a 1987 Dodge Ram van into his home while he pursues his studies at the University of Florida.
Ensley, 22, of Broward County and a senior majoring in digital arts and sciences, said living the “van life” allows him to reduce his carbon footprint and spurs him to spend more time outside.
Van life is a fast-growing movement in which thousands of people – including several recent UF graduates – have converted cargo vans into mobile homes and eschew unneeded material things.
Ensley said he has a full ride to UF tuition-wise and gets a stipend for food and rent. With no rent due, he spends about $200 a month otherwise and saves $3,000 of his semesterly stipend.
“I’m living my best life, and I’m still under the poverty line,” Ensley said.
Within the van life community, there are three groups. The first never planned on starting the lifestyle. They moved into vans to stave off homelessness, having lost everything in the Great Recession and as portrayed in the Oscar-winning film, “Nomadland.”
The second are #vanlifers who blog their travels on social media sites like YouTube and Instagram. Some bloggers live in vans costing more than $100,000. The group has received national attention with the recent death of van lifer Gabrielle Petito.
Then there’s a lesser-known group: millennial and college-educated. They live much like those in “Nomadland,” but say they have chosen experience-rich lives instead of house-poor ones.
This group prefers to blend in more so than stand out. Some even go as far as beating in the sides of their vans to avoid having them look spectacular and or putting fake plumbing company logos on the side, said Brice Childers, 29, a software engineer who lives out of his car in Colorado.
Brice Childers, 29, sits in his 2005 Ford Econoline E350 in Denver. He says some living out of vans take special measures to keep their vehicles from drawing unwanted attention. (Photo courtesy of Brice Childers)
People under age 25 spend nearly 24% of their pre-tax income on housing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Millennial van lifers, however, spend zero.
Rock climbing and hiking are Childers’ passions, so after graduating from UF in 2015, he trekked the Appalachian Trail – a 2,193-mile hike across 14 states – with a 17-pound backpack.
Shortly after, the former Jacksonville resident moved to Denver to start work. Believing “a dollar saved is exponentially better than a dollar earned,” he curbed all of his non-essential spending – including an apartment. He also invested almost 90% of his income earned so far in stocks and real estate to generate passive income for retirement, which he hopes will start next year.
While Childers was solo-hiking the Appalachian, his college friends Michael Maxey, 30, of Texas, and Kiley Marvin, 27, of Orlando, were on road trip in a Honda Civic lasting two and a half years. By day, they climbed rocks and hiked. By night, they slept in the trunk of the car.
After their trip, Maxey, a chemical engineer, and Marvin, a mechanical engineer, also moved to Denver to join the corporate world. The couple spent their three-year stretch there working, climbing and rigorously saving while living in a 2003 Ford Econoline E350.
They said they retired this year and are on a road trip in a 60-square-foot van. It has a stove, fridge, bed and a sink, formerly a 3.5-inch metal salad bowl but now an 8-inch sink, and a hula hoop circling a shower curtain and shower head. A solar panel on the roof powers the appliances.
“The van is an excessive luxury compared to the Civic,” Maxey said.
The number of Americans living in vans has increased in recent years. Grant Wilson, 36, who owns FreedomVanGo in Jacksonville, attributes that to the movement’s eastward expansion.
“The trend is huge out west,” Wilson said. “Now, it’s moving to Florida.”
FreedomVanGo converts vans, sells parts online and does electrical, solar and other installations. The number of parts it has sold to people building vans themselves has increased in the past two years. Wilson started the company five years ago with just two employees working out of his garage. It now owns a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and will earn $5 million in 2021, he said.
Jimmy Hutfles, 23, of Jacksonville, joined the workforce soon after graduating from UF in 2020. It took him just months to realize the American Dream was not his dream. Hutfles was working at an engineering firm in St. Augustine and paying for an apartment he rarely used.
Perfect by society’s standards, the job paid well and he liked his coworkers. However, skydiving elsewhere on weekends is his passion. He was living for the weekend, not a career.
“Designing radar planes wasn’t what I thought of as the most fulfilling life,” Hutfles said.
In March 2020, he bought a 2017 Ford Transit van and spent a month converting it into his new home. These days, he parks it next to a small pond at the skydiving center he works at in New Jersey, which has a shower and bathroom that he can use.
Holly Finney, left, and a friend, share a moment in her 2008 Toyota HiAce Commuter van. She doesn’t own many material items, and most of what she does own she got second hand. (Photo courtesy of Holly Finney).
When Holly Finney, 23, graduated from UF in 2019, she never thought van life was in her future. Now, she is driving the entire Australian coast in her 2008 Toyota HiAce Commuter van.
A Maryland native with degrees in marketing and international business, Finney was inspired to van life after a road trip in a friend’s van. That was over a year ago.
Happiness is Finney’s number one priority. For her to be happy, she needs to have enough time to surf, meditate and enjoy nature. Everything else comes second. She doesn’t own many material items, and most of what she does own she got second hand.
“When you leave the U.S., you realize how twisted the American Dream is,” Finney said. “There’s so much more to life than working 40-hour weeks for a corporate company.”