I’ve reached the inevitable point in my cross-country trek in which my personal funds have fizzled out and I’m on pause to seek a paycheck. (This post could alternatively be named “Being broke and resourceful”)
I’ve been in the Bay Area for nearly two weeks now. Although I would much rather be exploring California’s wilder places and making plans for Oregon and Washington, I am content. I have some good friends here and a handful of personal pursuits to feed my mind.
I’m learning that it’s easy to be broke in a van and survive — even thrive. Here’s a breakdown of how I’m managing my basic needs, mostly for free.
The best and most obvious advantage is that I don’t have to pay rent. I only have to pay attention to parking restrictions. Thanks to the help of my friend in Berkeley, who also lives in a van, I’ve found an unrestricted, quiet, and safe street to park my van most of the time.
Luckily, Berkeley seems to be a relatively van-friendly city. I have yet to have a late-night knock on my window from a police officer, or to experience any sort of harassment. As you might have seen if you follow me on Snapchat, Berkeley has a large population of vans and RVs, plenty of which appear to have people living in them.
I’ve become very comfortable with sleeping in my van. It is a secure space that is all my own. I can stretch out fully, and everything I need is within arm’s reach (I’m planning on posting a virtual tour of my van-home, stay tuned). The Bay Area’s thermometer rarely climbs over 70 here, so I bundle up at night and sleep in as long as I like without overheating, and even come back throughout the day for naps.
Getting plugged in for free is one of the easiest items on the list to achieve. McDonald’s are constant and abundant, and I have been trolling McDonald’s since I left New York for free Wi-Fi, water, and bathrooms, and I have yet to be told to buy something or leave.
McDonald’s is inconsistent with outlets, though. I have gone into some restaurants that have outlets at every table, and others that have gone as far as covering up outlets, perhaps to discourage people like me.
Public libraries are much nicer than a McDonald’s. I recently spent a whole day in one of Berkeley’s public libraries job hunting, reading, and writing in sweet, sweet silence. I charged all of my gadgets, too, right at the desk I was working at.
Despite all of its awesomeness, my van, alas, does not have running water. This is where having a local friend comes in handy. I’m lucky to have people who let me shower at their place and take care of other basic needs.
I have yet to try it, but one could go to a gym, ask for a free trial under the guise of being interested in a membership, and take advantage of the showers. And they may not be as lovely as a hot shower, but bathroom sink “bird-baths” and washcloth scrubs do the trick, too. It’s easy to get into a bathroom. As I said, McDonald’s could care less if you buy something, and grocery stores usually don’t require a purchase.
Having water handy is important. I keep two one-gallon jugs in my van. I fill up whenever I can at my friends’ houses, restaurants with soda fountains, public drinking fountains, and bathroom faucets (they’re no different than kitchen faucets). I enjoy waking up in the morning, opening the side doors of my van, and brushing my teeth on my “front doorstep” while I ruminate on what I want to do today.
Food is an unavoidable expense, but there are ways to minimize that, too. Do some research and find the local organizations serving free meals. I think that sense of shame in asking for help is an attitude that American’s could do well to get rid of. I believe being human is the only quality you need to deserve food and water.
The first time I went to a soup kitchen was while I was still in Ithaca. It was finals week, I had little time to cook for myself, and I was saving my money for this trip. I thought everyone would be able to tell that I didn’t belong, but instead, I found people of all colors, ages, orientations, and abilities sitting down to eat a meal together without judgment. The shame I felt when I first showed up melted away into love and gratefulness. I spent the rest of my day trying not to cry, I was so touched by what I experienced.
Instead of fretting about whether or not you deserve free “handouts,” take some time to give back to the community that is looking out for you. Volunteer. Pick up trash. Be friendly.
I avoid eating out unless someone offers to pick up the tab, which I accept with many thanks. It is very helpful that I have my own stove to cook on. I may not be making Food Channel-worthy meals, but beans and rice are cheap and can take you a long way. (Oh, and vegan. Contrary to popular belief, eating vegan is cheap, especially in California, where fruits and vegetables are coming out of everyone’s ears).
Your most reliable source of free transportation is your own two feet. Now that the van is parked most of the time, I’m not using much gas (thankfully — fruit may be cheap in Cali, but gas is not), and I’m walking several miles a day, which I have the time for and I enjoy immensely. You can see and learn so much more when you slow down and walk instead of drive.
Today I went into San Francisco to apply for a job and see a friend. I took the BART, the Bay Area’s subway system, which saved me time and gas. It wasn’t free, but it was relatively cheap.
Lyft and Uber are also very popular in the Bay Area. During non-rush hours, opting to carpool with other passengers can get you pretty far for only a few bucks.
Using these strategies, I can get through a whole day or longer without ever opening my wallet. Although it has been done, it is very hard to live money-free. I am looking forward to having a steady job so I can focus on funding the next part of my adventure. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or tips and tricks of your own to add!