Ken Ilgunas spent two years living in his van at Duke University to get his graduate degree debt-free. You can read about Ken’s adventures on his website, www.kenilgunas.com, or buy his book, “Walden on Wheels.”
I’m surprised more people don’t think to live in their vans at college. College is an ideal place for vandwelling, not only because college is expensive and living in a van will make it more affordable, but also because a college campus offers so many free and convenient amenities (showers, electricity, Wi-Fi).
But making the switch from being a homesteader to a vandweller can be tough. So for those students who are thinking about it, or for those readers who are merely interested, here’s my step-by-step guide to living in a van on a college campus:
1. Look up you college’s parking policies.
Most likely, your college will not have a policy allowing or prohibiting living in a van. But there are surely a few that do prohibit it. Duke University, for instance, created a law after they found out about me (see photo above). If there is a law, this doesn’t mean that you can’t still live in your van. You’ll just have to do so stealthily.
2. Buy a cheap van.
If the sole purpose of your desire to live in a van is to save money, then you should buy a cheap van. Normally I’d recommend that you buy a trustworthy, and more costly vehicle, but college vandwellers are different from normal vandwellers. A normal vandweller often goes on long, countrywide road trips. A college vandweller, rather, does not have to use his or her van for long-distance transportation since everything he or she will need will be on their college campus. In other words, you don’t need a trusty vehicle; you just need something you can park in the lot for the semester. Needless to be said, the less you drive it, the less you’ll have to spend on gas, insurance, and maintenance.
I bought my 1994 Ford Econoline for $1,500 and, for my first semester, I had no maintenance costs to speak of because I drove it so rarely. The only other thing to consider when buying a van is to get something that doesn’t “stick out.” If you’re going to live in a van secretly, don’t get one that looks like someone’s probably living in there.
3. Get a campus parking permit
First of all, if you buy a vehicle in a state that isn’t the state of your permanent residency, you will have a couple of hurdles to jump. For one, to get license plates you will need to give the DMV your new address, which you probably don’t have. (And a PO box will not work.) Many states, though, will let you bypass this rule if you’re a student. All you need is to show them your student ID.
Once you have your plates, you need a campus parking permit. But before you do this, learn more about your college’s parking regulations. Can you park a vehicle in the parking lot overnight? Will you need an ID card to swipe to get into some parking lots? College campuses, especially big colleges, have plenty of lots, and are pretty relaxed about letting students keep their vehicles in parked lots after hours. If you have a parking permit, you should have nothing to fear.
A parking permit requires a college ID, a home address, and money. I had an ID, but I didn’t have a home address (or even a PO box at the time), so I simply looked on Google Maps, found a random home, and used their address. I don’t necessarily recommend this method—because you’ll be lying—but it’s a harmless lie, and it’s one that worked for me. My parking permit cost me $182 for a full year.
An alternative to a campus parking permit is to find a person or place nearby who’ll let park on his or her property. Craigslist is always helpful in these cases, but one should use discretion before placing their trust in a complete stranger.
4. Renovate your van.
When I moved into my van, I had lofty ambitions. I dreamed of solar panels, a hammock, even a submarine periscope so I could see all around me. But truthfully, all that stuff was too expensive and unnecessary. I would spend most of my day at the campus gym and library where I had all the comforts and conveniences of modern living that I could ask for. I looked upon my van as simply a place where I could cook my food, sleep, and store my few possessions. In other words, I didn’t need to do much to renovate it.
But when you do, you, first of all, want to outfit it with the stuff you already have. Luckily, I had a lot of decent camping equipment. I’d say the crucial items are: a good sleeping bag ($200), a good pair of thermal underwear ($50), a headlamp ($45), and a backpacking stove ($50). You could probably get some of these items cheaper, but I don’t skimp on quality when it matters.
My list of the stuff I brought with me:
The day I bought the van, I spent the afternoon renovating it. I had someone from Craigslist store my middle pilot chairs ($30) so I could have more room in the van, and so I could get the chairs back if I ever chose to sell the van. I spent $20 on a cheap plastic drawer-set for my food and miscellaneous items, $9 on black sheet to hang behind my front and passenger seats (so no one could see me through the windshield), and $11 on pots and pans and linens at The Salvation Army. All in all, I spent about $46 on renovation materials. (Thankfully my Econoline came with tinted windows, blinds, and the back seat converted into a bed at the push of a button, saving me other renovation costs.)
5. Keep it secret.
I lived in my van for two years, and few people, if any, knew I was living in the van that they’d drive or walk past every day. It helps that I don’t snore and am generally a pretty quiet person. The key is to make sure that you’re van isn’t one that people will automatically assume someone’s living in. And you should take pains to make sure that no one sees you leave the van or get into it. This was easy for me because I stay up late, so when I walked to the van at night, there was no one to see me go inside. Also, never run your van at night for heat or electricity. That’s too obvious.
6. What about the heat and cold
In North Carolina, my coldest night was 10˚F, which was tolerable when I wore my thermals and squirmed into my sleeping bag. Again, you won’t be in your van all day; just at night when you’re sleeping—so the elements aren’t that big of a deal. The late summer and late spring (in September and May) were far more difficult on those 90˚F days. I simply spent that time indoors as well, where it was air-conditioned. (And I worked out-of-state during the especially hot summer months.)
7. You will save a ton of money.
A van that rarely needs gas or repairs is a major money-saving tool. Over four years, a parked van, like my own, costs $1,500, and it always maintains some value, so you can expect a lot of that money back if you sell it. However, a dorm or an apartment over those four years could cost as much as $24,000 ($500/month X 48 months). Plus, cooking your own food will save you tons of money, too. The average college meal plan costs about $4,000 for an academic year. I ate for $4.34 a day, or $1,100 for an academic year.
8. Be resourceful.
What about mail, showers, obtaining cooking water? These, again, are all cheap or free. Here’s a few of my fees over the course of a year at school:
- Campus PO box: $41/year
- Campus gym membership: $68/year
- Parking permit: $182/year
- Iso-butane cooking fuel: $30/year
- Cell phone: $37/month
- Car insurance: $46 a month (which has since been reduced to about $35/month)
Here’s the link to my book on Amazon