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A Week As A Nomad On $12,000 A Year

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Welcome to Money Diaries, where we’re tackling what might be the last taboo facing modern working women: money. We’re asking women how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.

Today: a Writer/Outdoor Survival Instructor who makes $12,000 per year and spends some of her money this week on kombucha.

Occupation: Writer/Outdoor Survival Instructor
Industry: Publishing/Outdoor Survival
Age: 38
Location: Nomadic — mostly split my time between the Western US, Baja, and Taiwan
Salary: $12,000
Gender Identity: cis woman




Monthly Expenses
Rent: $0 (nomad, no traditional home)
Loans: $0 (I worked three jobs in college and graduated with minimal debt, which I paid off within a year or two)
Amazon Prime: $12.99 (will cancel after I finish binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal)
Planet Fitness: $20.05
Phone: $60
Netflix: I freeload off my friend’s family, but don’t use it much.





Day One

8 a.m. — I wake up, fumble for my new smart earbuds, and ask Alexa to ease me out of bed with some yoga. After a few moves, I get up, put the kettle on, and meditate while the water is boiling. Then I do some journaling, listen to getAbstract summaries (getAbstract is a service that summarizes books and long-form journalism — I get the service for free from my job and I love it.), and do other “wake up” activities. I like my mornings luxuriously slow.

10 a.m. — Trigger warning: I talk about miscarriage in this Money Diary. My mom and I take my dog for a walk. This is our last full day together — I’ve been living in her house for the last two and a half months while recovering from emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I recovered physically in about a week, but the sharp dip in hormones left me emotionally wrecked. Very grateful for my mom for being there and taking care of me. She’s a very strict Mormon, so it’s more of an ask than you might think. My mom lives in a pretty rural area with lots of space to walk my dog off-leash, a far cry from the bustle of the Bay Area where she raised me. We talk about my mom’s future — she’s decided to get an RV so she can travel during the winter.

11 a.m. — We return from the walk and I check my messages. My kind-of-ex-boyfriend/father-of-my-dead-unborn-children (let’s just call him D.) has texted from a Walmart parking lot in California. D. recently converted a shuttle bus into a tiny house and hit the road. Several people in my life have converted to vehicle dwelling, I’ve got to stop being so damn compelling. I answer his text and the rest of my Marco Polo/social messages while enjoying more tea.

12 p.m. — I give myself a home perm. I have fine hair and I want to give it more body, so I just apply the perm solution at the roots. It works like a charm, my otherwise virgin hair doesn’t look permed at all when I’m done, but it does appear to have a little more lift at the roots.

2 p.m. — I spend the late afternoon loading my van. I’m so excited to hit the road again! The original plan had been to visit my mom for a week, then visit my friend who just bought a house in Seattle, then head down the coast to Southern California and visit friends on the way. But then I found out I was pregnant and four days later I ended up in the emergency room with excruciating pain, and an ultrasound showed the pregnancy was ectopic. 0/10, do not recommend.

5 p.m. — My mom and I go on another walk with my dog, then call a dogsitter ($15) so we can go out to dinner (I know, it’s ridiculous, but my dog is old and gets anxious when we leave, so we pay a neighborhood kid to come sit with her). I pay for dinner as a thank you to my mom for taking care of me after my surgery, but I later find that she slipped money for her half of the meal into my wallet. Tricky lady! (Dinner was $39.06 and I got $20 from mom, so $19.06). $34.06

9 p.m. — My good friend (we’ll call him C.) and I talk on the phone for a couple of hours. When C. and I met in college, I was the head of a student research group and a research assistant to three of my professors, basically on the fast track to killer letters of recommendation, grad school, and a successful life. Now, I’m a van-dwelling bum. C.’s obsessed with money, success, and image, and I refuse to take a job that would require me to wear socks with any regularity. It’s like I reeled him into our friendship under false pretenses. After years of doing business in Asia, he’s now in an MBA program. He’s always trying to encourage me to do something more with my life, even offering to pay for me to go to grad school. I didn’t take him up on it because I can’t imagine taking that much money from a friend, and I can’t imagine giving up my freedom to pay him back. We finally hang up around midnight.

Daily Total: $34.06

Day Two

8 a.m. — Today is leaving day! I’m so excited but try not to show it too much since my mom is really bummed to be left behind. I have a nice breakfast with my mom then finish loading up the van. I have no idea when I’ll be back.

10 a.m. — Before I go, I give my mom $500 for feeding and sheltering me over the last two and a half months. It’s not much, but at least it will help pay for the food and utilities (she has no mortgage payments). She argues but finally takes it. I get in my van and I’m on my way! $500

2 p.m. — I cannot overstate my joy being back on the open road, with no schedule or expectations or anyone observing me. I stop whenever I see pretty scenery, get out of the van and run around with my dog to stretch my legs. Finally, I stop for gas and am thrilled to see that the gas station stocks kombucha. Woop! $36.58

6 p.m. — I stop to get more gas at Costco. I wish I wasn’t dependent on fossil fuels. Originally, I bought a diesel school bus to travel in, with the intention of converting it to run on used vegetable oil, but the engine failed and I ran out of savings, so I ended up buying my current van, which has a gas engine. Now I’m waiting for Elon Musk’s battery-powered semi-trucks to become affordable so I can live in one of those. I have a feeling I’ll be waiting a while. And even then, lithium-ion batteries are shitty for human rights and the environment too (just read an article about how they’re about to start plundering the seabed for rare metals). Just can’t win. $35.03

6:20 p.m. — I come out of Costco with frozen berries, yogurt, kimchi, and seven superfood salad. These go into my fridge and freezer, which are powered by solar panels fixed to the top of my van. I also get eggs, avocados, sardines, and sweet potatoes. $70.30

8 p.m. — I go to a thrift store to pick up some sundresses because I know I’ll need them in the desert. No more winter clothes for me! I pretty much only buy used clothing because fast fashion is bad for people and the environment, but it’s also because I’m cheap as hell. $24

9 p.m. — I meet D. on some BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land where it’s free to camp. He’s been interviewing for travel nursing jobs in California a couple of hours to the west and came to hang with me for a while. It looks like he landed a job in a suboptimal city, but close enough to the mountains and ocean that it might be liveable. I absolutely hate van-dwelling in a city, but if I want to give this relationship a fighting chance, I’ll be spending some time there too.

10 p.m. — D. and I talk and cuddle, but things still feel weird between us. We started trying for a baby about a year ago. I got pregnant right away but lost the first pregnancy around week 10. Six months later, after an endometriosis diagnosis and his confession that he may not want children after all, I found out I was pregnant again (how the hell, seriously?) and didn’t tell him until we were rushing to the ER. We still haven’t talked about what it’s done to our relationship or whether we’re even planning on a future together. We fall asleep in each other’s arms.

Daily Total: $665.91

Day Three

8 a.m. — D. and I wake up, cook breakfast, and take my dog for a walk in the desert. I love exploring wild spaces, especially when I get to see new places every day.

10 a.m. — My friend S. shows up. She lives in a short bus. S. is kind of like my platonic life partner — she’s got nearly as much freedom with her work as I do, and we travel a lot and always have fun together. D. isn’t sure if he wants to go to the van build, so we leave him behind.

11 a.m. — S. and I arrive at the van build party and park in a great spot that some people saved for us. The van build is sort of like burning man with fewer drugs and more of a mission. People bring their tools out to the middle of the desert and donate time, labor, expertise and often money for van dwellers who need help making their vans liveable. There’s a carpentry camp, a welding camp, a solar install area, etc. Every day there are seminars about issues that might come up for people living on the road. It’s also a way for people to meet up in a lifestyle that can be very lonely. $75

12 p.m. — S. and I walk around greeting friends from previous years. There are lots of hugs and offers of food and drink. The nomad community is fascinating. You’ve got Trump-loving southerners, trans people, man-bun-wearing millennials, salty old blue-collar workers, toothless former meth addicts, and Youtube or Instagram-famous #vanlife influencers, and somehow, everyone seems to get along just fine. It’s beautiful and I think America needs more of this (gatherings of diverse people) to heal its open wounds.

11 p.m. — Day turned to night without me really noticing. I spend the evening listening to live music, singing, and dancing by bonfires. Such a good night. Around 11, I return to my van to sleep.

Daily Total: $75

Day Four

3 a.m. — I wake up. I feel totally awake so I may as well make some money. I pull out my laptop and start writing. I have never been a talented sleeper. When I worked or went to school 9 to 5, I staggered through half my life exhausted. Now I get to sleep whenever I’m tired and work whenever I want. I love my job. Around 5:30 am I finish a work assignment, get tired, and fall back to sleep.

9 a.m. — After living in Asia for the better part of a decade, I’m obsessed with high-quality loose leaf tea, so I start most mornings with a prolonged “tea time.” My friends who know this tend to show up in the morning for a taste. Today, a dear friend, J., comes by. We met in Baja this past winter, and it’s a lot of fun to catch up.

9:45 a.m. — Before leaving the van for the day, I do some hurried personal hygiene. I wet a baby wipe with witch hazel and do a quick sponge bath. I pass the sniff test and apply some Native deodorant. I briefly consider doing a skincare routine that would involve slathering Vitamin E, jojoba oil, and Vitamin C powder on my face then scrubbing it with a hot washcloth, but fuck it, I want to get out into this beautiful day. I braid my oily hair, throw a hat and a sundress on, and we’re good to go!

10:15 a.m. — The second day of the van build passes much like the first, in a swirl of greetings with old friends and meeting new friends.

4:30 p.m. — I find that I’m feeling a little socially overwhelmed, so I wander out into the desert with my dog, stopping every once in a while to examine cool desert plants and pretty rocks. The sun is going down and the whole world is lit up with that beautiful rosy golden light. I find a chunk of quartz crystal so clear, for a second I think it’s glass. I carry it back to camp, wondering if it’s legal to keep it.

6 p.m. — I’m starving! A guy at the camp across from me has made a community dinner and I haven’t eaten a thing all day so I eat then I head to D.’s bus. D. gives me a massage and we talk late into the night about everything but miscarriages.

Daily Total: $0

Day Five

7:30 a.m. — I wake up and leave D.’s bus, encountering M., a French Canadian woman I know from past van builds. She’s giggling at my walk of shame from another person’s rig, and I’m like, “M., this isn’t even exciting, I’ve been dating this guy for like two years.” Hookups are always a hot topic at van gatherings.

8 a.m. — I heard there was a free yoga class every morning, so I wander until I find a group of people in warrior pose, standing on everything from rugs to car mats to slabs of cardboard. I long ago donated my yoga mat to Goodwill, so I settle down and do my yoga right in the dirt, rocks digging into my palms and knees, which is unpleasant, but the teacher is amazing. We do 20 minutes of meditation then chit chat about the day’s upcoming activities.

10 a.m. — I promised myself I would get some work done today, but I’ve only gotten a couple of paragraphs written when the organizer of the van build event comes by. I tell him I would like to donate some money if he knows anyone who needs help. He tells me there’s a lady who needs an important van repair. A mechanic in the community has already offered to do the labor for free, but the lady doesn’t have money for the parts. Would I run into town and grab the parts? Sure! D. and I head to town and hit up the O’Reilly’s. $125

1 p.m. — While in town I also stop by a grocery store and grab some sushi (I know, grocery store sushi, yuck, but I’m hungry and I want to get back to camp). I also indulge my kombucha obsession by buying a few bottles. I brew kombucha in my van, but I tend to drink it faster than I can brew it. $19.77

5 p.m. — By the time we get back to camp, that guy camped across from me has made another community dinner. I ask him if he’s been doing this every night, and he says yes. I give him $10 to put toward future meals. I chat with the other diners and admire the incredible desert sunset. $10

6 p.m. — The evening is filled with campfires and live music. A band from Portland puts on a great audio-visual show. Watching the old Boomer van dwellers try to make sense of it is half the fun. “Why is she wearing Christmas lights? What are those things on the screen, mannequins or puppets?” A white-haired lady shouts to her hard-of-hearing husband, “I don’t know!” He shouts back. I’m utterly entertained. I get tired around 9. Walking through the desert to my van, I look up at the stars and have one of those moments where you feel incredibly small, but in a good way. I hop in my van, Waterpik my teeth, and go to sleep.

Daily Total: $154.77

Day Six

3 a.m. — Awake again! I break out my laptop and work on this diary, even though I really should be doing work. I’m not sure what time it is when I pass out again. Unfortunately, I don’t wake up again until 9, so I miss yoga. I do some stretches, drink some tea, then head to S.’s bus to hash out our travel plans. We’re planning to fly to Costa Rica in early spring, then I’m headed to Taiwan after that. I’m so excited. I love that my job allows me to work from anywhere, but I know it’s going to add friction to D. and I’s relationship.

11 a.m. — While S. and I plan, people keep popping in and out of her bus to chat. We decide to make leather hip pouches and invite whoever comes by to join. One of the women is a young mother of two. I ask her about life on the road with her kiddos. She tells me it’s wonderful and she wouldn’t want to raise them any other way. Her kids are awesome — they’re well-spoken, fun, and friendly. Part of me aches for what might have been if my pregnancies had worked out, but I’m also happy to see that this lifestyle can work so well for families with small children. It might still be in my future.

2 p.m. — I head to my van to journal a bit. I’m still trying to figure out if I should try to have a child, with or without D. If I do, I know I’ll need to stop being such a bum and work more, my editors will give me as much work as I can handle, but I struggle with motivation. I start brainstorming ways to make more money while maintaining my quality of life. I want to branch out and look for more writing opportunities. I’ve heard that some people do okay on Medium. I could also up my hours teaching outdoor survival. Or I could move back to Asia, where it’s pretty easy for me to make a good living. I love my life now, but if I want kids, I’ll have to make some changes.

6 p.m. — There’s karaoke then dance music at main camp. D. and I hit the floor. D. is an excessively silly dancer, and it’s fun to watch the effect he has on a crowd. People near D. stop trying to look sexy and start getting goofy, then it ripples outward until everyone on the dance floor is acting ridiculous. The goal with excessively silly dancing is to look as uncool as you possibly can. By the end, we’ve nominated an aerobics/interpretive dance instructor. The DJ is shouting encouragement. It’s a good night.

1 a.m. — D. and I start driving east to attend a gala the next day. I used to work for the non-profit that puts this gala on. It’s for a good cause and is a chance to see old friends. D. wants to come with, so we’ll take his bus and I’ll pay for gas. D. is a real night owl so we start driving toward the gala despite the late hour — it’s about four hours away. D. drives and I nod off, waking up only to buy gas ($69.29), kombucha, and Reese’s ($5.68). I don’t make good food choices when I’m tired. $74.97

4 a.m. — D. and I cuddle up in the back of his bus at a rest stop and sleep pretty well.

Daily Total: $74.97

Day Seven

10 a.m. — I wake up before D. and pull out my laptop and get a little work done. He wakes up around noon. We make breakfast and walk my dog, then start driving to my friend’s house around 2.

3:30 p.m. — We arrive at my friend’s house pretty late. I only have 10 minutes to shower, I’ll do some semblance of hair and makeup while we drive to the gala. As we drive, my friend (O.) confesses that she’s having a faith crisis. (We were both raised Mormon. I’m ex-Mormon now, and she’s still in). I try to mostly stay quiet and just listen. She then goes on to explain how much debt she and her husband are in. I won’t lie, I’ve been questioning my lifestyle lately and hearing about her money/work/marriage problems helps me remember why I don’t want a “normal” life.

6 p.m. — I volunteered to be an usher at the gala, so I go to my post at the door. People approach, I ask for their table number, and then I lead them to their seats. It’s weird, but I know who will be upfront in the expensive tables and who will be going to the cheaper seats in the back before I even ask for their table numbers. If I can tell how wealthy they are, can they tell that I live in a van? Probably not. I think I still give off a middle-class vibe, despite living in the van for three and a half years. How long will that last if I keep living the way I do? If I wanted to claw my way back to the middle class, how long would that take? Is it even possible? Would I ever want to go back to that life? I take my seat when dinner begins. The food is delicious and the performances are good. I donate $50. $50

8 p.m. — O. and I drive home, then hang out in her backyard with D. and O.’s husband. They have an outdoor pizza oven, pool, fire pit, and pergola with great lighting and flowy white curtains. It’s a nice place. We make s’mores, talk, and drink maté, then D. and I go to his bus to sleep because they don’t allow dogs in their house. Before falling asleep, I calculate how much money I’ve made this week, and how much I’ve spent. The two aren’t in balance, which means I’ll have to take on more writing assignments next week. Luckily my monthly expenses are so low that I have a lot of wiggle room and it’s usually easy enough to catch up.

Daily Total: $50

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