My Life Living in a Van.

mountains

Somewhere in BC in the middle of February. “Vana White” proudly on guard.

As I approach the ripe old age of 30 I find myself reflecting – as I’m sure many people do – on how I spent my late teens and most of my 20’s. I know so much more now about the “real” world. I consider myself to be at least 500% more financially literate, I feel as “up to date” on current events, politics and other nonsensical things as I want to be. I’ve gone through many personal changes in attitude, confidence, and conquering fears. But, you know, I can’t help but think back constantly and analyze the past decade. Most of the time I find myself focusing on what I may feel is “lost time” or perhaps what you’d consider “wasted,” or “misguided” efforts.

You see, I spent many of those years swinging for the proverbial success fence. I was a musician, a song writer, and a band leader/manager. It’s all I ever thought about. I even studied Audio Engineering in college so that I could leverage that knowledge over into my band. I organized tours, designed merch, recorded demos and albums, successfully applied for and received financial backing through grants and industry programs. I rubbed elbows with industry fools while sporting the biggest, fakest smiles and delivery the sturdiest, most confident hand shakes I could muster. In the end, it didn’t succeed, and the band – myself included – burned out and fizzled away. But, after loosing too much sleep due to focusing on the negative sides of failure, it’s time to reflect on this experience in a different way.

Touring this HUGE country is not easy. There’s very few cities to play and vast distances to cover in between them. On top of that, the pay for an unknown hard rock/heavy metal band is basically peanuts. You become, more or less, a travelling clothing store. Your music is your advertisement for your custom designed shirts. It’s a little strange. So many financial odds are against you that it can take a special person to really succeed. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many many young bands fail because the members don’t take the time to understand how frugal you really have to be when chasing this lifestyle. If you are one of the lucky ones to realize this fact, then it automatically forces you to become the frugalest of bastards.

Me and my fellow bandmates effectively lived in our van. For upwards of 6 weeks at a time our 15 passenger tour van is what I called home. I miss those homes…there were two of them. Our first, a beat up old grey van we effectively named “GreyGore.” I can’t even remember the brand. When we upgraded we got lucky and found a relatively unused white Chevy Express, AKA “Vana White.” One of the best tour vans out there. Anyway, it’s occurred to me a few times since the band “retired” that living in a van is what I miss the most about those days. It’s such a strange way to be, so care free, and it really shows you that it is possible to disconnect from the expected Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, lifestyle that’s been served up to us. Let me try and explain.

First, if I had to find a way to associate it with a feeling you get from going through a regular work week, every day felt like that vibe you get on a Thursday or Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The feeling that work, and work life responsibilities, were so far away. That this would be THE long weekend that would last forever. Know what I mean? I was conscious of this, and I loved it. Days of the week would cease to matter. You woke, you travelled, you explored, you met new people, you went to bed. There was no reason to pay attention to the calendar.

The bench seats became beds. I had some marvellous sleeps on those bench seats. I remember lying there, most usually parked outside a Walmart or sometimes on the curb in the suburbs beside the house of the gracious fan who hosted an after party, sort of laughing and smiling to myself. This is the path we had chosen. Me and three close friends of mine were actively pursuing this sort of nomadic lifestyle, and in my eyes we were doing it with ease. I would generally wake up with this same sense of humour and accomplishment. Just like the sun rising, it would dawn on me again that here we are…living in a van…and as I’d zombie walk into the Walmart, or nearest Tim Hortons, for a coffee and public washroom cleaning/toothbrushing session I’d think to myself: “our day jobs are a thing of the past.” All of my problems, drama, and concerns were left behind in my apartment. I never took that feeling for granted. You see, as soon as you jumped in that van on the first day of tour it was sort of like all these ropes that were tethering you down were cut away, and you were free to just float along, taking in the world instead of trying to force it to work for you. There would sometimes be all kinds of worries before you actually left. Deciding what to bring. Do you have enough saved to pay for food? Are your bills covered? Is your relationship with that significant other strong enough to survive another tour? The list would go on. Once those doors closed though, and the tires hit the pavement, what’s done was done. There was no going back.

It was living like this that forced me to make some positive changes in my life. Living in close quarters with the same people for extended periods of time, while meeting swarms of new people on a daily basis and travelling to new areas over thousands of kilometres, means you’ll be face to face, and hand to hand, with lots of germs. There will be many handshakes and hugs with folks who may not be in the best of health. To be effective at touring, you need to be healthy.

I figured this out on our first outing and immediately started thinking about my diet in a very serious way. I’m sure every musician has caught a cold or flu while on tour and can relate to just how awful it becomes. It happened to me on the first one, and I was determined to do what I could to avoid it from there on out. This sort of analyzing of my diet may not have ever happened had I not spent a large amount of my time living in a van.

I use to weigh close to 300 pounds. I ate a lot of fast food, frozen pizzas, sandwiches upon sandwiches, and lots of other garbage. Sure, I always knew I was fat, overweight, and lowering my life expectancy, and I had tried to lose weight before, but it was really my love of touring that caused this paradigm shift. I decided to become vegetarian. It was the best way I could think of to force myself to stay away from fast food, deep fried goods, greasy pizzas and the like. I didn’t necessarily believe in all the political and moral reasons of becoming a vegetarian (I could rant about the reasons that I do agree with but not now) I was mainly in it for the health. And it worked. Though I’m no longer a vegetarian I cut my weight down from 300 to 208 pounds. I mean, ya, I exercise now, and I’ve learned a few other health related things, but if I had not spent time living in a van I may have never been sent down this path. I could very well still be 300 pounds, nearing 30, with busted ankles and knees. I’m so grateful that I am not.

Shedding my possessions was another realization. We’re all guilty of it. We collect things, we feel pride about our things, and we worry like hell that someone might steal and/or damage these things. They’re beautiful to us. They shine, shimmer, make noises, contain 1’s and 0’s, and bring some of us a great deal of satisfaction. So, I was a little surprised to find out that by living in a van for extended periods of time didn’t lead me to worry constantly about these things that were way back home, not under the guard of my watchful eye. Here I was, with a bookbag full of clothes, my laptop computer and my toiletry bag, and yet I didn’t feel a longing for my other collections and possessions. It was actually relieving to have them so far away. That was a big realization to me. I remember thinking, and vocalizing to some friends, that one of the best things about finally having hit the road for an extended tour was that I learned just exactly how little you really need to live, get by, AND be happy. I’d found this absolute bottom line and now I feel sort of insulated from ever being worried about ever “going without.” It seems difficult to explain, but if I could be so comfortable and stress free while living in a van, why would I ever need to stress out and worry about finding that “perfect apartment” ever again? Why waste time panicking about the layout of the living room, the size of the TV, the mismatched plates and bowls in the cupboards? All these things began to feel like massive luxuries.

These massive shifts in perception of how we have to live our lives are the true rewards of having the balls to get out there on the road and live like working musicians. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to live like that again, but given the right situation, I’d be all over it.

I think I’ll end this post with a song by the Canadian band “Belvedere” that seems to put these feelings into words pretty accurately.

“distractions from the ordinary
real life just not good enough
explanations hard to come by
living outside the institutions
waking in awkward situations
i wouldn’t have it any other way
i can’t recall a better time,
each day felt like the next would never come
i realize i couldn’t get enough
alternatives all felt like death
i wish i could safely say
all the right decisions were always made
ya we were young but we’re still here
happy to starve for another year
it seems so right for one to assume
that what we are is what we see
what we buy who we do
i would have ended up that way if not for those miles
those endless days
i know it’s not for everyone, empty halls,
empty stomachs, empty hopes
in retrospect we had it all
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more”
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Surviving, and Retiring, on Minimum Wage: Can You Do It?

Dem loonies add up!

Dem loonies add up!

I have to say, I live in a pretty privileged state of existence these days. The lottery of life has been so unbelievably grateful towards me that sometimes I’m in aw of the opportunities that are just handed to me. I have to admit that this wasn’t always my point of view. Like so many of us who perhaps don’t quite understand our privileged place in this world, there was a great many years where I hummed and haw’d; bitched, moaned, and felt entitled. When I think back I guess I do feel like I realized that by being in Canada, and having a radically supportive family and group friends, meant that my life could never really become that awful. I guess that’s why this topic has always interested me, a little bit, and I have to admit that my opinions on it have changed as I’ve grown older. So, let’s take a look at what the hell I’m talking about!

I see lots of people who struggle to get by, and I’ve had, and still have, some friends, acquaintances and coworkers that always seem to have financial issues. I’m sure we all know people like this. Hell, YOU may be one of those people I’m talking about. What fancy’s me though is that sometimes they’re making twice my hourly wage.

Now, of course I know everyone’s situation is different. Perhaps I’m “lucky” that mine has shaped up the way it has, but I’ve worked and planned for it to be this way. Right now I work for minimum wage. Well, that’s a lie, I work for $10.15 an hour, 15 cents ABOVE minimum wage – with another 15 cent raise coming next month. YAY! (Rolling your eyes? That isn’t a sarcastic “yay.” A 30 cent raise over a couple months is a reason to celebrate and I’ll tell you why in a future post.)

Now, I have to admit, at my age I do sometimes find myself feeling pretty down about what I’m pulling in for paychecks. I have lots of friends who have stayed on the same career path for 5+ years and are now making “big boy” money. “Big boy” money generally comes with benefits and a savings plan/pension to boot. My career path has been abnormal, and so at this point I’m technically playing financial and career catch up.

You see, I elected to be a touring Musician for most of my 20’s. This meant that unless I hit it big quickly (which I knew was not likely to ever happen) I’d be bouncing around, having to start and quit many a jobs. Most of these jobs were of course minimum wage, and I’d purposefully find something I could easily quit and walk away from when it was time to hit the road for another tour.  Sometimes I was lucky and my Manager would actually give me the unpaid time off. Those were considered jackpots jobs, in touring musician land. Anyway, that “life of a musician” post is for another day.

Alright, so here I am, creeping up on the big THREE OH and I’m still working away at minimum wage. Well, you know what, my life has never been better! It’s true. My amount of free time is at an all time high. My happiness level is superb, and I actually dug myself out of a deep deep depression about 12 months ago when I started waking up to just how awesome I really have it.

Back to how privileged we all are. The fact that someone can lead such a rich, satisfying life while only pulling in $10.15/hour is fantastic. Let’s break it down, as I’m sure some people are looking for numbers. Let’s take my monthly, reoccurring bills first. NOTE: Me and Mrs. Bastard split most bills 50/50, besides our personal phone bills. The numbers here are purely what I’m responsible for.

Rent (heat+water+utilities are included in our rent bill): $345

Internet: $30.01

Grocery: $100 ($25/week, roughly. This probably fluctuates between $20 and $30/week)

Phone: $45.8

Home/Tenant Insurance: $7.48

That’s basically it. Adding everything together we get a monthly total of $528.29. Those are the essentials that I absolutely NEED to cover. Everything else is just frozen whip cream icing on top, that kind you find on a DQ Ice Cream Cake….god, so delicious….

Ok, now let’s break down these monthly bills by the week. This is how I prefer to pay my bills anyway. I divide every bill by four and transfer that amount off into a separate account as soon as the paycheck arrives. Since I always pay off my credit card balance I’ll even transfer these weekly amounts on to the CC, effectively overpaying it, so that when the pre-authorized payments come off the card they’ve already been paid for. This is the best way for me to keep track of my Income and Spending.**

So, let’s see what we end up with.

Rent: $86.25

Internet: $7.76

Grocery: $25

Phone: $11.45

Home/Tenant Insurance: $1.87

What does this tell me? It tells me that I need to work at least 14 hours a week*. That blows my mind. I’m sitting here in my roomy two bedroom apartment in the middle of one of the major cities out here on the East Coast. My fridge is full of fresh veggies, milk, eggs, sauces and other goodies. The freezer is full of chicken, tofu, frozen veggies and cookies. Over on my kitchen counter the brewery is fermenting away with an endless supply of Frugal Brew Cider. The radio is on, Mrs. Bastard is putting together one of her fabulous knitted creations, and our cat, aptly named “Mr. T” because of the fools he’s constantly pitying, is relaxing at her feet. This is all provided to me, worry free, while only working 14 hours a week at MINIMUM WAGE! Amazing right? Let’s keep going down the rabbit hole.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to be working full time – I am not, I average between 22 and 30 hours a week – then that means you have an extra 26 hours a week of pure, excess income. If you follow the advice of one of my favourite bloggers, Mr Money Mustache, then you could be socking away this extra $260 a week. Assuming you do this and you don’t give into the lifestyle inflation that is easily accessible when 65% of your paycheck is technically “excess” income, you could RETIRE in 10.5 years. Yup, did you read that right? Seems crazy eh? Trust me, I felt the same way. Think about that for a second…working minimum wage, retire in 10.5 years. This also assumes you don’t receive any raises, which you almost certainly will.

So, ask yourself, how many people do you know who are struggling to make ends meet, yet are making good money? Are you one of them? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to change! If the math works on minimum wage, then anything above should be an absolute breeze. Now I know everyone’s situation is different. I’m extremely lucky to have found another frugal minded person in Mrs. Bastard. Someone who shares my goals and ambitions, and doesn’t need to spend money frivolously to have fun. We’re also both lucky in the sense that we’ve been able to stay relatively financially commitment free for most of our lives. We’re lucky to have been able to avoid this even before becoming financially literate. No cars bought on credit, no mortgage, no revolving credit card/line of credit debt (sort of…maybe I’ll mention it later), minimal student loan situations, and no planned or unplanned children. This is not the case for a lot of people, and the recurring bills I described above could be a fraction of what some of you may need to cover. However, I really believe that a lot of these supersized bills may have more to do with reckless spending and the sense of entitlement that comes with our fantastic North American lifestyle.

Let’s take a step back and analyze what we’re all doing with our money. It all boils down to this: an hour of work equals an hour of your life. You’re very finite life. A life that is ending, right now, as you read this. What is your hourly wage? If you could whittle your expenses down to something similar to mine how long would you have to work before you could retire? I have a handful of friends that make $25 an hour (maybe more), and if they chose to live a similar life to mine, spending money wise, their savings rate would be north of 85 percent, meaning they could retire in three to four years. I fully admit that there’s lots to learn when it comes to how I got to those retirement numbers. I’ve spent lots of my free time learning about investing, but it’s completely worth it. And, really, in the end it’s not difficult at all. I mean, you’ve probably done the math right now and feel like the amount you’d have saved in my scenario – 65 percent savings rate on minimum wage – seems small, and maybe you’re in disbelief of the retirement math. The numbers have been written about so eloquently by many other better blog writers then myself that I’m not even going to attempt to regurgitate them. Below you’ll find some crucial reading that will help to explain it all. You’ll likely find yourself obsessed with these blogs as time goes by. Getting excited? I fucking hope so!


 

Mr Money Mustache – The Shockingly Simple Math b=Behind Early Retirement

Mr Money Mustache – How Much Do I Need for Retirement?

Early Retirement Extreme – The 21 Day Makeover

Early Retirement Extreme – How I Became Financially Independent in 5 Years


 

*Sure, these calculations are made pre-tax, but you guys are smart enough to realize that.

**It’s worth noting that because there’s 52 weeks in a year, and only 12 months, there are a couple months a year where you get an “extra” paycheck. By transferring bills weekly (or bi-weekly, since that’s how most companies pay out) this effectively puts you a head of the game, and you’ll sort of always be ahead of your bills. This can skew the “expenses” on a monthly basis though, as you’ll see in my Income and Spending from July 2014.

MR T!!!

MR T!!!

July 2014 Income and Spending

I thought it would be curious to start posting my income and expenses, on a monthly basis, both as a point of reference for you readers and as a way for me to publicly keep my shit in line…as best I can. I have to admit, this is probably the weirdest month I could have started on. Me and the Mrs. Bastard just moved into a new place so we’re just getting use to some of the new bills. We also had to pay a doublewhammy in terms of our rent because the security deposit is equal to one full month, effectively making us feel like we paid rent twice. We get it back when we move out of course, but at this point it still feels like another expense…money that up and vanishes like a fart in the wind. Along with the rent situation we had to order “new” internet service, and I also haggled my phone carrier to drop my monthly bill from $55/month down to $40. WIN! I’ll be explaining my “bill paying” philosophy in a later post, so I won’t worry about that now.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the numbers.

INCOME

Paychecks: $1426.59
Tips: $7.35
Other: $235.91 (This includes the odd cash I get from music gigs, and from the Mrs. Bastard when she needs me to order her something with my Visa…it’s a little misleading.)
Interest/Dividends: $64.43

Total: $1734.28


 

EXPENSES

Food

Juice for Booze: $36.05 (this is the “Cider Fund” for our delicious Frugal Home Brew!)
Coffee/Snacks: $37.14
Groceries: $82.37
Booze: $67.86
Fast Food/Restaurants: $122.20

Bills

Cell Phone: $60.05
Rent: $1121.25
Tenant Insurance: $9.35
Internet: $69.88

Transportation

Taxi Rides: $24
Bike Maintenance: $65.12 (Purchased my first headlight for night time commutes to work! Excited for this thing to arrive!)
Public Transit: $2.75

Home Supplies and Maintenance

Laundry: $10
Kitchen/Bathroom supplies: $19.28

Miscellaneous

College Application Fees: $100
(Whoa! College you say?! YUP. More to come on that one later on.)

Total: $ 1827.30


 

INVESTMENTS

Questrade TFSA Deposits: $676.55


Alright, so there it is! Now, as I mentioned, this really is a weird month for bills. It looks like I spent more then I earned, but that’s actually not the case. The rent also seems CRAZY! high, but it really isn’t. In Mid-June, when we knew we were moving into this place, the Mrs had a little more disposable income then the Bastard here, so she slammed down $690 to cover the Security Deposit and to hold the place for us. I agreed to pay both of our share of rent for the month of July, to balance it all out. And again, like I mentioned above, I have a particular bill paying/transferring philosophy that I’ll be explaining later. Likely in the next post.

As I’m sure many of you know, moving is always a stressful time. So, some of those expenses were definitely move related! We also had some family down and visiting from Ontario, so we splurged abit on restaurants and alcohol. The Coffee/Snacks department was a little high in my opinion too. We brew up tasty coffee at home, and we can make a batch of delicious popcorn, so there’s no reason to spend that much on frivolous chips, candy, and Tim’s. I’ll blame this one on the buzzes we got from indulging abit too much in store bought alcohol this month! ha.

Even though it was a hectic month I’m still really excited to see that I was able to save and invest $676.55! That’s my favourite part of this whole game. Keeping tabs on what I’m able to save and invest. As soon as the money ends up in the Questrade account I end up picking up more ETF’s, courtesy of Vanguard Canada. So exciting!

Well, that’s it from your friend The Frugster today.

How do my income/expenses compare to yours? Any tips and tricks you care to share?