I was hiking with my boyfriend Tom in the woods just north of the Golden Gate Bridge when he said something I’ll never forget.
“Why don’t we live up here for a year?”
At first, I didn’t understand. We were in the popular Mt. Tamalpais State Park, with trails that wound through old-growth redwoods and twisted their way down to Stinson Beach. It was tourist galore, and there was definitely no place to live. Live where? I thought, my head spinning.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Move out of our places, save money on rent. Camp up here for awhile. Imagine how much money we’d save?”
I thought he was crazy. There was no way I would move out of my plush Mill Valley studio apartment, which with utilities, came to a cool $1,800 per month. I worked full-time as a radio news reporter and figured I could afford it. What I couldn’t afford was taking care of my debt and building up a savings account, but like many young people, I figured that sort of thing could wait.
“Let’s see,” Tom said, doing a few calculations in his head. “If we camped for a year, you’d save over $20,000. Just think about what that would do for your financial situation.”
“No way,” I said, and we continued our hike.
But the idea lingered. $20,000 per year. It was an amazing amount to pay for rent, but us Bay-area dwellers were somewhat used to it. San Francisco is the most expensive housing market in the country, where a one-bedroom apartment costs over $3,300 per month.
Tom went for it first. He moved out of the room he rented and set up camp on Mt. Tam, where campsites cost $25 per night. I joined him up there nightly, relishing the campfires, the cozy tent, the beers, the music he strummed on his guitar as stars made a tapestry out of the sky.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought. Maybe I could do it. I loved camping. I loved adventure. Maybe this was just another thing to try.
So, a few weeks after Tom moved out, I gave my 30-days notice and started to prepare for my new somewhat homeless life.
I rented a storage container in Sausalito and started sorting through my stuff, giving most away. What I couldn’t bear to part with went into storage, my clothes were stuffed into suitcases, my shoes into a bag. I joined a nice gym near my work in San Francisco, where I could work out, shower and use the wifi. Tom also had a storage unit, which we converted into a jam space, him on guitar, me on drums. It would become our evening living room.
Sometimes we slept in the tent on Mt. Tam, sometimes in the back of his Toyota Prius, which had tinted windows, and seats that folded down in back. We put a mattress back there, cracked the windows, stayed in marinas and parking lots and rest stops. On weekends we traveled to Lassen National Park and Yosemite, backpacking, hiking, no chores or grocery shopping waiting for us at home. While we were confined in a tiny space when we slept, we also felt freedom and happiness. We were learning what we could live without. We were living with far less than the norm.
It wasn’t easy living in a car. It’s illegal in most cities, so we moved like undercover secret agents, trying hard not to be seen. It sucked using random bathrooms to brush my teeth and wash my face at night. I had to learn to sleep through the entire night, not getting up to go pee.
But I watched my $4,000 in debt eventually disappear and my savings go dramatically up. At 34-years-old, it was the first time in my adult life that I was cash positive. Financially free. It felt so good I can never imagine going back to being in debt.
I ended up living in the car and in the tent for four months, until I’d saved up a nice emergency fund. I found a room in a houseboat in Sausalito, where I lived for seven months until I was laid-off from my full-time job. And I was so very thankful that I’d sacrificed to pay off my debt and save.
With the loss of my job, it was time to downsize once again. I got rid of even more stuff and put the rest in my Mom’s garage. My clothes went into suitcases in the trunk of my car. And I moved onto Tom’s 41-foot sailboat.
We’ve lived on the boat together in the Bay Area for more than a year now, and it feels like a big upgrade compared to living in a car. We have a bathroom, a kitchen, a small living room and a real bed. The best thing about it is that we can change our backyard whenever we want and eventually, plan to explore the world with our moveable home.
I don’t think living in a car or a boat is for everyone, but I do think there are simple ways people can downsize, live more simply and get rid of debt. Maybe just a small sacrifice is all it takes to be forever financially free.
Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her downsizing journey began in 2015 when she made the radical decision to move out of her posh apartment and live full-time in a car and tent with her boyfriend. To read more about her amazing journey head over to her blog The Wayward Home .Head over and tell her how awesome she is!