Live in Your Van with Comfort and Convenience

Okay, some of these tips apply to vans only and some of them are general and could apply to those traveling in motor homes too.  Generally speaking though, I’m writing this post with the assumption that you don’t have very much money to be wasting on things like campgrounds and motor home parks and the like.

Your first task is before you leave.


This is kind of a no brainer, but you don’t really get it until you’ve been in the van a week or so and things are out of their boxes and being used. Then you really start getting ruthless about the clutter, and you fill up a trash can in the Walmart parking lot with all the junk that you THOUGHT you couldn’t live without.

For my part, I carried more than I would have liked, because of the toy business. I had a scroll saw, wood, and toys taking up a lot of space. If you have an internet job or another way to make money, you won’t be as cramped as I was.

I had a long full sized van, which, unfortunately for me, being six feet tall, did not have a higher ceiling height. I took out all the seats, except for the 2 front seats and one of the captains chairs in the second row (for my young son). And later on, in Florida, I took the front seat out as well.

I built a raised wooden bed, that was roughly twin sized. A mattress would have put us too close to the rough, so I used a thinner pad. The bed was raised for storage purposes. Behind the second row seat that I left in, I built a kitchen counter-ish area with a bowl built in for a sink. I bought a plastic set of drawers to store food and kitchen items. I also had several large rubbermaid containers filled with toys and stuff for making toys and clothing.

Once you are on the road…

Do Your Reconnaissance

This is one thing that I really regret not doing properly. Seeing as how you have no money for things other than food and gas, you need to take full advantage of public facilities. We found some cool places on our travels, but we could have found many more if I hadn’t been so shy.

You’ve gotta talk to people. Be discreet, don’t tell them you are living in your van (unless you want to), but ask them where stuff is. I spent several weeks in the town where I am living now without knowing that there is a lovely park tucked back away from one of the main roads…with a POOL! There is also a park in the next town over that has a concrete pad with fountains and spraying stuff for kids to play in. These things are HUGE when you have no place to live.

When you don’t have a home, you need way more things to do. You can play inside the van some, but not very much-it’s cramped, it’s hot, your mother gets very cranky when you crawl on her. You don’t have a yard, there’s precious little house work to do, you just need a place to hang out.

So ask where the cool stuff is around town and outside of town. The more people you talk to, the better stuff you’ll find. Don’t rely on your GPS. It’s great for finding Walmarts and McDonald’s, but lousy for parks and creeks and stuff that really matters.

In Florida, someone told me about these awesome springs that I never would have known about otherwise that were a half an hour or so away.

Buy a GPS

Huge. You may be adventurous enough to want to go without one. After all what does it matter? You have nowhere to be.

Trust me. It matters. Buy one. They have to be the best thing for nomadic living since the invention of the cart.

Don’t Drive if you Don’t Have Money to Fill the Tank

I don’t care where you are. If you are running out of gas, stop driving if you don’t have money to fill the tank. I ran out of gas twice, because I didn’t have any money, and I thought I had to get somewhere. Running out of gas is a big pain. Oh yeah, and if you can afford it, get triple A. If you can’t afford it, beg your concerned relatives to buy it for you. It would have been handy for me.

Be on the Lookout for Temporary Work

You need extra money. Trust me. The van will break down right when your business is at it’s slowest. I did farm work, and it was a great experience.

Well, I’m out of time for today, but that should give you a start. Before I went out into the world in my van, I scoured the internet for information on van living. It’s there, but I promised I would add my experiences when I took the plunge.


Van Living

I thought I’d do a post on van living, even though I sort of already did one. The thing is, while I’d never do it again permanently, I’ve been wishing I had a van again to use for vacations/extended trips south in the winter. When you find that you can live anywhere, the whole world opens up to you. Even if you don’t take the options that this realization opens up to you, it’s nice to know that they are there.

I made the jump to van living, because I was committed to raising my son…by myself, without the use of government sponsored daycare as an option. I read a quote one time saying that if you are rich enough you can do anything, and if you are poor enough you can do anything. Wealth gives you the ability to buy what you want. Poverty gives you the freedom to do what you want, because you have nothing to lose.

I wanted to reduce my expenses to the bare minimum. In part, I was inspired by one of my favorite books: Primal Parenting by Hygeia Halfmoon. Some may think the book extreme, but I loved the book, because it was extreme. I loved it. because she said what she believed, because she made no compromises. One of my favorite quotes from the book, which was actually quoting Richard Bach, reads, “The only thing that shatters dreams is compromise.”

Halfmoon herself had lived in her car for a while rather than compromise her belief that children belong with their parents. Then later on, she lived in a van traveling around Hawaii and then the states with a motor home with her three children.

Such a life and ideas are not for everyone, but they were for me. I have a strong libertarian principles that prevented me from accepting welfare, food stamps, even child support. I also have a strong love of freedom, and the idea that I could go anywhere and do anything was too much to resist.

Well, I didn’t really get into the day to day details of van living, but I must return to real life. There are breakfasts to make and dishes to wash and bathrooms to clean. There are wooden buses to be sanded and have wheels put on them.

Tomorrow I’ll post more on van living.

Moving in

So I got the house. I moved in immediately, of course, as I was living in the van. Plus I had orders backing up all over the place. It was October, and I had met my goal to be in a house before the Christmas rush.

I had all my tools with me, but no proper bed and no furniture, besides a folding table and a small wooden table that I had in the van as my “kitchen counter.”  Oh, and no water. There were cracked and broken pipes all over the place, and–at the time, as a new home owner–I had no idea how to do my own plumbing.

Well, I got right to work. I set up my tools in the living room after I had ripped out the nasty, disgusting-smelling carpet. I was at least a week behind on my woodworking. The electricity in the place was not up to par, and when I used the miter saw, the lights dimmed.

One of my brothers graciously agreed to come and help me get the place livable. I would also ride back home with him, and bring a moving van out with my stuff. While I was gone packing up, my new neighbor, who happened to be a jack-of-all-trades handyman, would revamp the electrical system.

Before I left with my brother, I moved the workshop into the basement. It’s still there, but those couple of weeks it was in the living room were very convenient. The apples did have to be washed, because they were covered with sawdust, but I didn’t have a problem keeping an eye on my son.

The House

While I did enjoy parts of living in my van–the freedom, the fact that we were outside most of the day, the living expenses, I am essentially a homebody. In fact, part of what I liked about the van, was that I took my home with me wherever I went. So if I forgot something, it was never far away. If all I wanted was to go home and take a nap, all I had to do was go outside. But on the other hand, living in a vehicle is essentially being homeless. There was no land that was my own. And to run the business I wanted to run, I needed space of my own.

And I found it. I went to, what I had determined to be, the cheapest place in the northeast. I had planned to rent a house, but I found one to buy. It was four thousand dollars. That it needed work hardly needs to be said here, but it was cleaned out; the roof didn’t leak; there was only a neighbor on one side of the house, none behind or on the other side. It was 1.5 miles from the post office, the library, the gym, and a small grocery store, so if I decided to go car-free, I could. It had a porch, and most importantly, it had a basement for my workshop.

The catch was that you had to pay cash. It was a foreclosure, owned by Freddie Mac (or Fannie Mae-always did get those 2 confused somehow), and I was essentially broke. So I took out a loan from the bank of Los Padres, and another loan from a friend to make the place livable. And I put in my bid. Unfortunately so did someone else. So we were told to make another bid. I was still nervous about the whole idea of the house, and I didn’t want to get into a bidding war over it (it wasn’t the sort of house you did that with). Plus I didn’t really have any more money, so I put in my bid at $4,100. At that, I didn’t really expect to get it. I was looking for other options, when I got the call that I got the house!

The Florida Months

Our months in Florida were lean ones. I had brought toys with me, but not all the ones that I could make. Plus those were early days in the business. Some months I made only $300. Living in a van kept my expenses quite low, but it was stressful.

One time we were at McDonald’s (internet, you know), and I was offering to buy Caleb something, but he wanted something else that was a little bit more expensive, and I just had no more money. So he started crying. We went over to a table, and some guy walked up to us, and gave me a hundred dollar bill.

We got stuck in Homestead, FL. Which had no beach, not much more than a park, for about a week waiting for money to move on. Finally though, I sold some toys, and we were able to move on to a beach town. Eventually though, I really needed another source of income.

Through a friend’s friend, I got in contact with a farmer in central Florida. I drove to town, and he gave me a job on his organic farm. So I picked kale and collards and pulled weeds, and was able to park at the old farm site. Best of all I had electricity, so I was able to plug in that scroll saw I’d be hauling around and do some work.

I worked at  the farm for more than a month, but then it was time to move on. I needed the rest of my tools, and I wanted to see my family. It was summer now, so I drove back up the coast to NJ. I split my time for a couple months between Ocean City in the van, and staying at my parents’ house.

But I was tired of living in the van, and Christmas was coming. I needed a place to work. I looked into everything to find a place to live or stay for a while. But I kept coming up empty. In my searches, it seemed that the northern West Virginia/Eastern Ohio area was one of the cheapest places in the country for real estate, so I drove the van out there for the month of August to look for a house to buy or rent.

And I found it…

Blog Giveaway

Help me kick off my new blog!

On September 30th, I will be giving away one free toy (of your choice!) to a random follower of my blog. You could win a free Little Kitchen, and all you have to do is subscribe to follow this blog. I will also be picking 5 lucky people that have left comments to give away one free toy of their choice under $15. The more comments you leave, the more chances you have to win.

This blog will feature everything you’ve ever wondered about me, toy making videos, recipes, pictures, reviews, and much more. I will be posting every day between now and the end of September, so check back often.

More about the history of Mama Made Them tomorrow…

The Adventures of the Traveling Toymaker

The first few days traveling down the coast were not good. My three year old was crying, I had to stop OFTEN, and I was still getting used to driving this huge van after my little Saturn. But once we got into Florida things started picking up at once.

Basically once we got to our first chilly Northern Florida beach, my son was happy. The beach was our savior. It gave us something to do all day, plus there were bathrooms and showers. Often there was a playground near by. I would take my unfinished toys to the beach and sand while Caleb dug and splashed and made friends with whatever kids happened to be around.

Another place we liked to hang out was the library. Books and internet and air conditioning: need I say more?

The other two places we spent time were Walmart and McDonald’s. Although Caleb had never been to a McDonald’s before this trip, he learned quickly why children all over the world clamor for it. We’re vegetarians, so basically we’d just go for dessert, and occasionally french fries. I hated going there, but they had free internet! And when you are running an internet business, that is kind of important.

Walmart was my go-to place to park. I couldn’t afford to stay in campgrounds or hotels, so I practiced what is known in the van living community as Stealth Parking. Walmart was best. There were often other campers around that I could park near, giving me a sense of legitimacy  and security; there were bathrooms handy; and there was a cheap source of food. All that not even counting the hour that you could kill wandering up and down the aisles and playing in the toy section.

So Walmart was the best, but it wasn’t always available. Sometimes there were signs prohibiting overnight parking, sometimes there wasn’t a Walmart where I needed to stop for the night, so I would improvise. Cracker Barrel has a reputation for allowing overnight parking, so I spent every other night there for the week I was stuck in Homestead. I occasionally parked at Kroger’s that were open 24 hours. Hotels were nice because I could usually pick up their wireless signal, but I was always worried about getting busted, so they weren’t that relaxing.

I was chased out only once in the months that I lived on the road, and that was when I pulled over one night at a 24 hour CVS near Miami, because I couldn’t find anywhere else and I was in desperate need of sleep. I never had any run-ins with the police, thank goodness. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if I had (according to other van dwellers), but if I had, I doubt I’d get another night’s sleep due to my extreme aversion to conflict.

Night sleeps were spotty anyway. Sleeping in the van made me jumpy. Plus it was imperative that I keep Caleb quiet, since I wasn’t keen on drawing attention to ourselves. Plus we had a small hard bed. Still, waking up early has it’s benefits. Those quiet misty mornings that we experienced, I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Next time more adventures of the traveling toymaker…

The Beginning

I never used to make things. My brothers made things: forts, bookshelves, swords, guns, tree houses, but not me. I preferred to wander through the woods pretending I was herding cows out west or being an Indian or a frontier girl. Or play with toys indoors. Don’t misunderstand, I was no girly-girl. I swam in muddy ponds, coated my whole body in mud, caught frogs, hated dresses and skirts, but I never really built anything. I went to a small Christian high school, so we didn’t even have a shop class. I went to college for journalism/creative writing, and never stepped foot in the art building (except for a strange intro to philosophy class).

After I graduated from college, I found myself pregnant (yeah, kinda like the virgin mother, or at least that’s what I told my mother). I was working in an office at the time, so I stayed there, and expecting to return to office work once I finished my maternity leave. Well, that didn’t happen. A couple weeks of holding that tiny baby, and I was a goner. There was no way I was handing him over to some second-rate daycare.

So what now? I searched my brain for small business ideas, etc, etc. But not being a crafty person, I came up empty. I ended up delivering newspapers from 3-6am every single morning–well, on Saturdays, I got up around 1am, and delivered until 6-7am (big paper, lots of sections to put together). That went well for a while, but the early mornings were killing me. I was tired all day. Plus I needed to move out of my parent’s house. I decided that I was going to move to West Virginia. I would find some super cheap land, building a cob house, and live happily ever after. 2 problems: I had no way to earn money in West Virginia, and I had no experience house building.

Well, to make a long story short, I quit the paper route, but I didn’t end up in West Virginia. I returned to NJ, and found a job living in Pennsylvania being a nanny. That lasted a few months until they ran out of money. I thought I had found the answer. Live-in nanny jobs were perfect for me. I moved back in with my parents, and looked for another nanny job.

This was around Christmas, and I was drooling over these beautiful wooden toys in Mothering magazine. I was pretty broke at the time, so I couldn’t afford to buy them. But I came across a post on the forums about making your own wood animals. The poster said it was as easy and safe as using a sewing machine, all you needed was a scroll saw. So I took my credit card to Lowes and bought a scroll saw. That year my son had cute little animals, gnomes and a wood treehouse for Christmas that he still plays with now, and I was hooked.

I heard about etsy and posted some toys on there, and I started doing craft shows. By the time the next fall rolled around, I had made very little money on etsy (less than $100), but I hadn’t done too badly at craft shows. But then Christmas came. My sales went through the roof (at least comparatively), and my business started to take off.

But I still had to move out of my parents’ house. Yup, I was still there. I had had a few nanny jobs, but no live-ins. I looked for houses and apartments around the area, but the south Jersey area is extremely expensive to live in. So under the influence of a few books and websites on van living (living in your van), I bought a conversion van, and made it into my home. It was winter at the time, so I stocked up on toys, packed my scroll saw, and headed for Florida.

Tune in next time for The Adventures of the Traveling Toymaker.