'Tis the season for belated blog posts! Seriously though, I know my posting track record is terrible to begin with, but it's especially terrible November to January…which I understand is a non-negligible chunk of the year. If it's any consolation, most of that time goes to building gag websites of questionable utility as gifts for my friends and family, and traveling to and from the east coast to showcase said gifts. Anyway, I'm glad to be back, now let's get to the topic du jour: managing truck expenses.
In my experience, the most common reason people consider living in a vehicle is to save money. And I agree that it can be an attractive premise:
Cut out your largest expense with this one weird
Housing dominates the the average person's expense list, doubly so for those in high cost-of-living areas. I did a bit of lackadaisical "research", and it looks like the general agreement is that spending more than 25-30% of your income on rent is "excessive" or "financially unbalanced". But when the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is ~$3,500/month, you'd need to make $140,000 a year to only be spending 30% on rent. That's a far cry from the actual median of $77,734 a year.*
It's fair to say that if rent is eating 40%+ of your income, you stand to gain a lot from…well, moving into a car and not paying rent any more. But as a cost-cutting technique, there are certainly some caveats worth considering before making the leap.
Personally, I've lamented that it can be tricky to figure out just how much I'm saving. It's hard to know what costs of living I've avoided by not choosing a certain lifestyle. But the inverse is a bit easier to figure out: I know exactly how much it costs to live the lifestyle I did choose (and continue to choose every day).
The problem is that I'm not always 100% forthright with acknowledging all of those costs. I've certainly made best-effort attempts at tracking expenses down, and I know how much I spend on major repairs, home improvement projects, insurance, etc. Even still, I feel like I sweep certain costs under the rug. Costs that are a direct result of the way I live my life, that I ignore for one reason or another.
And that's what this post is for. I'm a big proponent of aligning my spending with my priorities, which only works if I'm honest with myself about what I'm spending my money on, and where my priorities are. Part of the whole "know thy enemy" thing, if you're aware of the costs of your lifestyle, you can work on fixing them.
So I'll spend the rest of this post talking about some of the expenses I've incurred as a direct result of my lifestyle choices, some obvious, others less so.
I put the vast majority of my purchases on two credit cards: one that gives me 2% cash back on everything, and one that has 5% cash back on categories that change every few months.** This has a few benefits: I get at least a 2% discount on everything I buy, and all of my expenses are available to be imported into finance management software like Mint or You Need a Budget. Personally, I use Mint, and I'll reference some of my Mint-derived financial figures in analyzing my expenses.
Every single month, without fail, I'm shocked at the balance I've managed to ring up on my two credit cards. Shocked to the point that I'll go through each expense, confirm I recognize it, and manually sum them all up, only to find (to my complete disbelief), that the balance is indeed correct. And without fail, the most common expense is food.
I think the reason it sneaks up on me every month is because I don't eat a lot of fancy food, and I don't even eat out during the week because I can grab meals at work. But it's death by a thousand bite-sized cuts, and eating out for all of my weekend meals adds up, especially because I eat enough to feed a small village. It may only be $15-20 each time, but three or four times a day, two times a week is ~$150/week. And sure enough, Mint independently claims that I spent $7,316 at restaurants in 2017, or ~$140/week.
Of course, not every meal on my credit card is for me and me alone. There are (hopefully at least a few) dates to account for, and large group dinners where I picked up the tab and everyone paid me back after, to make the server's life a little easier. But I'm sure the inverse has happened too, so Mint makes a fine first-order approximation here.
Also, I never configured reasonable budget limits in Mint, so the greenness of that "budget bar" is totally meaningless.
Again, it's hard to know what my life would be like if I didn't live in a truck, but it's not unreasonable to think I could stock a refrigerator-equipped apartment with a weekend's worth of similarly nutritious food for way less than $140/week.
And another thing: None of this is to say I'm happy with my food spending. To be honest I think that it's actually kind of ridiculous I've let it get so out of hand and it's extremely un-Mustachian too. I guess my problem is that I just brush off a lot of excessive expenses with, "well, it's cheaper than rent", which is fine to an extent, but it's one of those things that becomes less meaningful every time I say it. I'm very much one for experiences, and I agree that a meal out can be a great experience, but if I'm just looking to nourish myself before starting my day, or while I'm on the go, restauranting is far from the most efficient approach.
To that end, I've switched things up the past month or so. I may have a "No Food" policy for the truck (for good reason), and the truck may not be even remotely appropriate for storing food, but I've found that meal-replacement powders fill my weekend needs perfectly. Basically, I store the Not Conspicuously Sized Tub O' Powder™ in my desk, and portion out a weekend's worth of meals in airtight containers every Friday night. Then, when I go to the gym on Saturday/Sunday mornings, I bring a shaker bottle and a serving of powder. I keep the other servings in my backpack and prepare them throughout the day.
And for the few weekends I've tried this, it's worked out surprisingly well. I have enough confidence in the containers that I'm not worried about keeping them in the truck for a day or two, and it means I'm spending ~$20 a weekend on food instead of the ~$140 from above. On top of that, it's quicker and likely healthier. That's enough about food though, let's talk (more succinctly) about other truck expenses.
I've talked about Waste Management before, so I won't spend too much time rehashing it here. The general gist is this: taking things to a landfill is time-consuming, fuel-consuming, decidedly unpleasant, and on top of that, costs actual money. Throwing away mystery bags of garbage (apparently called "general rubbish") is actually fairly cheap, you could dump a truckload of hot, steamy trash for less than $50, but there are premium rates for certain things, like mattresses. So the less stuff you buy, the less stuff you have to throw away, the more money you save.
Repairs and Maintenance
Cars break, it happens. In my experience, they tend to break more when you live in them. Whether it's accidentally killing the battery by leaving the lights on, general wear and tear, preexisting damage made more noticeable because you live mere inches away from it, or random acts of wrathful intervention by the Automotive Gods, stuff is going to need fixin'. And if you can't live without it, you're going to have to foot the bill to fix it.
Between little "improvements" to the truck (insulation, a sunroof, desiccants, noise-reducing foam, a raised bed frame, etc), major upgrades/repairs, administrative fees (insurance, registration, parking tickets, my blasted aftermarket catalytic converter), and regular maintenance (flushing fluids, changing tires, replacing filters) I've spent ~$7,500 maintaining my (originally $10,000) truck. It all comes with the territory.
There's no way to spin it: that's a hefty chunk of change. Not to mention the fact that some of those costs are recurring, which can act as a real headwind against any financial goals you're trying to achieve. I've argued before that I'll probably see some sort of return on those repairs when I sell it, but there's no guarantee that'll be the case. The key takeaway here is that the cost of owning a vehicle is far more than the sticker price, doubly so if you live in it. Think carefully about what you need out of a vehicle, and do your research before you make the purchase to help keep this class of costs in check.
For example, since I knew I wanted an easy and secure way to get in and out of the truck, I could have initially purchased a box truck with an interior door, or swing-open doors instead of a roll-up door, which would have saved me money in the long run. Or, for example, if I had known that California only allows a short list of approved catalytic converters, I wouldn't have gotten a truck with a non-approved, aftermarket catalytic converter. These things are certainly easier to recognize in hindsight, but with a bit of proactive research, you can catch them earlier.
For most of us, time is the most valuable resource we have. And I'll say it outright: living in a vehicle can be an incredible time-sink. I'm quick to point out that living near work makes my commute basically non-existent, which is great, but there are tons of activities that get a bit slower because of the truck. Things like laundry and showering require more thought and energy than if I had those resources in my home with me.
Aside from normal every day activities that get a little slower, a lot of those maintenance-related activities I listed above are specific to living in a car. Even for the ones that aren't particularly monetarily expensive, they do require a bit of time.
I like to consider my Home Improvement projects to be great learning experiences, but they also occupy a lot of my time. Figuring out the logistics for getting a bed delivered, driving to a suitable place to set up new furniture, measuring/cutting wood and foam paneling for bike racks and insulation, it all takes time. For example, I worked on and off for months before I finished up my insulation project.
I legitimately enjoy working on this stuff, I treat it like an investment in myself. But for people who aren't interested in DIY projects, that could very easily feel like (and indeed, be) a waste of time.
Living can be an expensive hobby, but thoughtful tweaks can go a long way towards making some prices more palatable. The best advice I can give to someone living out of a car to save money, or out of necessity is this: plan ahead. Sometimes just sitting down for an hour and thinking about some of your biggest expenses is enough to help reign them in. Recognize what resources you can leverage, and then use them to your advantage whenever possible. To end things on a pithy and faux motivational note:
Live simply, live happily, and live with purpose.
*I'm doing a bit of sloppy math here, because that $3,500/month in rent is money that's already been taxed, whereas people generally talk about salary in untaxed terms. That means the picture is actually a bit grimmer than I painted it.
**I only use the 5% card for purchases in the currently active category. Neither card has a yearly fee, which is important to me because I'd feel incentivized to spend unnecessarily otherwise. I hope it goes without saying, but I pay the balances in full every month.
Side note: This post took longer to write than I'd generally like, and that's partly because I bit off a bit more scope than I care to chew. I'll shoot for shorter, more frequent posts as we venture into 2018.